How state anti-DEI laws are impacting LGBTQ+ students

In 2023, Texas passed a new state law, Senate Bill 17 (SB 17), which restricts how Texas’s public universities create more equitable pathways to higher education and how they support students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, SB 17 not only bans faculty diversity training and public universities from asking for or requiring DEI statements but also explicitly bars Texas public colleges from establishing and maintaining diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices and programs, or hiring contractors that perform the duties of those offices. Public colleges and employees are also prohibited from offering programs that specifically reference race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Related: Report highlights the mental health implications of colleges’ DEIB efforts >

SB 17 went into effect this January, prompting the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) to take steps to comply with the new law, such as closing its Multicultural Engagement Center and renaming its Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to the Division of Campus and Community Engagement. The university also changed the name of the Gender and Sexuality Center, relaunching it at the beginning of 2024 as the Women’s Community Center. Although the new center’s website says it will be “place for Longhorns of all genders,” advocates say change in name may isolate some students in the LGBTQ+ community who do not identify as women.

“If students don’t realize that a campus center serves them, will they miss out on its resources, staff support, and programs?,” the Chronicle asks. “And can a center truly support LGBTQ+ students without ever mentioning their identities?”

Related: Study: A culture of belonging can improve academic outcomes >

SB 17’s influence

Despite its small staff and limited resources, the Gender and Sexuality Center, which opened in 2004, offered weekly programming that created a sense of community among LGBTQ+ students across different backgrounds. The center also helped students like Adrienne Hunter change her name in university systems when transitioning from male to female as an undergraduate and guided her to resources such as counseling and health centers.

“There are so many little things about transitioning that are excruciatingly painful to endure, and I didn’t have family or financial support,” Hunter, who graduated in 2022, told the Chronicle. “The center was there for me.”

The new Women’s Community Center opened in the space that once housed the Gender and Sexuality Center and says its mission will remain the same as its predecessor. “In January of 2024, because of Senate Bill 17, the Gender and Sexuality Center became the Women’s Community Center, but the center’s commitment to making sure that all Longhorns feel like they belong at UT Austin is still in place,” the Women’s Community Center explains in a statement on its website. 

However, in accordance with SB 17, the new center is prohibited from hosting events, such as those the Gender and Sexuality Center once held for trans students and women of color, and others that are specific to the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. The new center will also no longer provide financial or logistical support for two tentpole events for LGBTQ+ students: the Bloq Party, a welcome event, and the Lavender Graduation ceremony.

Although student organizations are exempt from SB 17, advocates say that expecting students to fill that gap is a large task for students to shoulder on their own. Student groups organized around race, sexual orientation, and gender identity that once partnered and received funding from now-defunct DEI centers are struggling to finance these events and are disbanding as a result.

Wider impact of ant-DEI state laws

UT Austin isn’t the only institution renaming centers that specifically referenced race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The University of Houston announced last August that its “Center for Student Advocacy and Community” would replace its LGBTQ+ resource center. Texas A&M University announced last fall that its Pride Center would become the “Student Life Center,” and at Texas Tech University, the Black Cultural Center became the “Student Enrichment Center.” In Texas, Florida, and other states on the path to adopting similar anti-DEI state laws, colleges are closing, reworking, rebranding, and renaming centers that once explicitly supported LGBTQ+ students and others from marginalized communities.

Educators fear that, without services that make LGBTQ+ students feel seen and supported, those students will have a more difficult time establishing a sense of belonging and safety, which research shows is essential to students’ academic success. Sexual orientation is the second-most motivating bias for reported hate crimes on campus, says the National Center for Education Statistics, and in a 2019 survey, according to the Chronicle, nearly half of transgender students said they had experienced sexual harassment. UT Austin alumni who found refuge in the Gender and Sexuality Center worry that new students won’t find that level of support.

The Gender and Sexuality Center “was just a vibrant space where anyone could walk in and have immediate community, where we knew we’d be loved and accepted,” Issac James, a 2022 UT graduate and 2023 Rhodes scholar, told the Chronicle. “Even as a scared little freshman, it was a place I knew I could always feel safe.”

Topics in this story
, ,

Next Up

Scholarship fund supports military-connected students preparing for public sector careers

A recent $200,000 gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies will help eliminate tuition expenses for military-connected students at the McCourt School of Public Policy.