Perceptions of Campus Climate and Engagement for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community College Students

Director, Center for Academic Success, Los Angeles Pierce College

Over the last four years, a group of Senate leaders has worked to raise awareness about the special needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students in our colleges. This group has conducted breakout sessions at various conferences and formed the LGBT Caucus. The following article, which will be followed by another in the winter, is part of this effort. It describes a case study that was conducted in 2011 to explore community college campus climate as it relates to LGBT students. This article will provide an overview of the study and its findings, while the next one will explore the major findings in more detail.

Applying current research and theory on student engagement, campus climate, and LGBT student characteristics and experiences, the study explores the extent to which the campus climate at one community college engages and supports LGBT students. It focuses on community colleges as a unique destination for LGBT students, one which has the opportunity to provide a safe space where students can learn to engage, take risks, and thrive.

Student perceptions of campus climate have a significant impact on student engagement; engagement, in turn, is the single greatest predictor of college persistence and success (Kuh, 2001, 2003). Underrepresented groups, like people of color, women, and LGBT students, tend to express more negative views of campus climate than their majority counterparts (Rankin & Reason, 2005; Worthington, 2008). The literature that examines the role of campus climate on LGBT student engagement, persistence, and success in higher education demonstrates that LGBT students experience marginalization and discrimination at higher rates than their heterosexual peers and even other unrepresented groups. However, although structures that begin to address the unique needs and strengths for many underrepresented groups have been created, the voices and needs of LGBT students remain largely unrecognized on community college campuses (Rankin & Reason, 2005; Worthington, 2008).

There is substantial literature to support the fact that LGBT students experience discrimination and marginalization that puts them at risk for academic failure. In high school, these students are at higher risk for depression, suicide, truancy, and homelessness (D’Augelli, 2002; Espelage, Aragon, Birkett, & Koenig, 2008). They are about half as likely to have plans to go to college (Fisher, Matthews, & Selvidge, 2008). They are more likely to disengage from the educational process and fail coursework, are less socially integrated, and less likely to complete college-preparation course. Despite these added academic risk factors, in 2010, fewer than 7% of institutions of higher education offered institutional support for LGBT students, demonstrating a severe lack of systemic response to the needs of this underrepresented group (Rankin, Weber, Blumenfeld, & Frazer, 2010).

The framework for this study draws from two theories for understanding student success: student engagement and campus climate (Astin, 1999; Hurtado, 1992; Kuh, 2001). Student engagement is the extent to which students engage in educationally purposeful activities; evidence suggests that engagement in these activities is associated with academic persistence. Campus climate theory demonstrates that a supportive campus climate plays a substantial role in helping students feel valued and comfortable in an institution, which increases engagement and persistence. Campus climate literature suggests that an institution’s commitment to diversity can have a significant impact on underrepresented students’ perceptions of climate (Hurtado, 1992; Kuh, 2001). Using these theoretical models to provide a framework for understanding the LGBT community college experience, two research questions were explored:

  1. How do self-identified LGBT community college students describe their community college campus climate?
  2. What are the experiences of self-identified LGBT students who engage in college-related activities?

The site of this study was a large, urban community college. Primary data were collected through ten LGBT student and five faculty member interviews and one focus group comprised of nine students. The theoretical framework provided a lens through which these perceptions and experiences were examined and interpreted. These findings were triangulated with a document analysis. Data were analyzed for themes around climate and engagement.


The first theme that emerged was that there was a complex relationship between how students viewed the climate overall and the descriptions of the individual “microaggressions” students reported. Overall, students had positive perceptions of campus climate. Faculty and students agreed that the campus was a relatively safe, accepting, and inclusive place for LGBT students. On the other hand, students encountered multiple microaggressions on campus. Microaggressions are subtle, non-verbal, or even preconscious daily actions that marginalize members of underrepresented groups. As single events, these acts may go unnoticed or may be forgotten. However, over time, persistence of microaggressions contributes to a constant subtext of threat and stress for members of underrepresented groups. The pervasive presence of these behaviors belied an undercurrent at the college that was difficult to pinpoint, and therefore difficult to address. These actions were sometimes overt, like seemingly innocuous gay jokes told by instructors or students. Some were subtle or unconscious behaviors, like a barely perceptible glance or even a general sense or feeling of otherness.

The second theme that emerged was that classroom experiences can have a powerful impact, positive or negative, on how students engage with their learning environments. Faculty behaviors and attitudes about the LGBT community influenced classroom engagement for these LGBT students. Seemingly subtle behaviors, like making passing jokes or even lack of behaviors, like failing to intervene when microaggressions occur in the classroom, left these LGBT students feeling alienated from their learning environments. On the other hand, affirming behaviors, like intervening when micoraggressions occur in the classroom or incorporating LGBT topics into the curriculum, had a substantial positive impact. These small gestures of inclusion allowed these LGBT students to feel like they could engage more fully in the classroom.

These students derived a strong sense of belonging and identity through their affiliation with the LGBT club. The significance of this club supports literature that underscores the importance of social groups as predictors of college success. Peer association is particularly important for underrepresented students, who often perceive campus climate as more hostile or less inclusive. Similar to the sanctuaries or counterspaces that Grier-Reed (2010) described, this club provides a safe space for students to feel welcome and normal. The fact that students identified this club as their primary, and sometimes their only, social network underscores its importance. Students saw the club as an opportunity to learn about their community, teach others on campus about the community, and find vital peer support and acceptance.

This research supports three conclusions that make a significant contribution to our understanding of how LGBT students experience community college: (1) these students do not experience campus climate in the same way that heterosexual students do; (2) their social and classroom experiences had a major impact on their perceptions and levels of engagement; and (3) while this community college has made significant progress in helping them feel safe and respected on campus, the pervasiveness of microaggressions continues to leave them feeling stigmatized on campus.

We recommend providing ongoing, accessible, and comprehensive professional development for faculty, increasing campus dialogue across faculty, staff, and student constituencies, and fostering leadership around LGBT student engagement and support. By creating a culture of inclusivity and respect for all students, leaders can create an environment where students feel safe enough to take academic risks and engage in meaningful academic activities that lead to success.


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