When Reagan Gonzalez began applying to law schools, she didn’t anticipate having to research the laws of the states she was considering moving to. But this year’s wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and proposals — the American Civil Liberties Union is currently tracking 388 bills — affected her decision in a way she didn’t anticipate. Gonzalez, who is queer and usually wears traditionally masculine clothing, was excited to apply to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the University of Miami in Florida. Now, after every state has passed laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights, Gonzalez plans to cross them off his list.
“I didn’t think things would get so scary so quickly,” she said. “You don’t feel safe when you start seeing all these laws being passed that attack who you are.”
Gonzalez is one of a growing number of students who have been forced to change their college plans out of concern for her well-being.
Echo Bodell is next. Bodell, who is non-binary and wants to be a sound designer or voice actor, planned to apply to Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida.
“Many graduates are very successful; they work at Pixar and Disney,” they said. “But all the anti-LGBT laws that were being passed made me feel uncomfortable. I’ve heard all these horror stories about people being beaten for their identity.’
Daniel Santos, CEO of Prepory, a college consulting service, has seen how bills have shaped college searches recently.
“You’re seeing a lot of students outside of the southern region of the U.S. really reduce their interest in looking at colleges in red states, particularly the southeastern states,” he said. “You also see students who live in these southeastern states look more out of state in a way they haven’t seen before.”
Santos says he hasn’t seen a large number of students cross schools off the list because of the local political climate, but that many see that as a factor. According to Dr. Margaux Cowden, chief program officer at the Point Foundation, a nonprofit organization that awards scholarships to LGBTQ+ students, says the need to consider state policy is an unfair additional burden on LGBTQ+ students.
“Having to do the extra work of looking for a college adds quite a bit of stress. Not only do they worry about having the right extracurricular profile and enough community service and 4.2 [GPA], are also now worried about having to hide when they get to college. They fear that they will be harassed, bullied, physically assaulted by people on this campus, and that they will not be protected by the leaders of the community they have chosen to join,” she said.
Their selection is also more limited.
“Even if an LGBTQ student gets into the same 12 schools as their straight, cis peer, they can only choose between four of them as places where they can learn and grow successfully,” Cowden said.
Cowden also thought the bills could cause LGBTQ+ college enrollment to decline overall.
“We’re already seeing ways that anti-LGBTQ measures are creating bad experiences for elementary and middle school students,” Cowden said. “Students no longer wish to continue their education or their grades suffer. And that means if they’re applying to selective colleges and universities, they’re less competitive to get into those schools and get financial aid from those schools.”
And students from lower-income backgrounds have even less flexibility.
“Most of our at-risk students are students who can’t afford to go out of state,” said Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride, a national organization for LGBTQ+ student leaders and school groups. “They’re stuck in these places that attack LGBTQ+ people.”
For students studying in states that are proposing or enacting anti-LGBTQ+ laws, these measures may interfere with their school work.
“If someone’s safety is affected, their learning is affected,” Windmeyer said. “There is ample research to show that students do better on campuses where they feel welcome and included.”
Bodell is experiencing some stress. After deciding not to apply to Ringling, they matriculated at Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), reasoning that although Georgia is a red state, Savannah is a liberal city. However, Georgia has introduced several anti-LGBTQ+ proposals, and the state legislature recently passed a bill that would deny trans youth gender-affirming care.
“That worries me beyond comprehension,” Bodell said. “Having that dark knowledge on top of all the mountains of work I have to do would definitely affect my mental health.”
Although Bodell was happy at SCAD, he thinks it’s a shame that their choices were limited.
“It’s frustrating, but mostly unfair,” they said. “People from the LGBT community shouldn’t be afraid of being attacked when they apply to school. That shouldn’t be part of it.”
Gonzalez still hoped something could change.
“I’m kind of hoping for some miracle where they’re just like, ‘We’re taking this law away and you can come here,'” she said.
But even she resented the fact that her opportunity to find the best school for herself was limited.
“I feel anger, but I know that anger is a secondary emotion,” she said. “I know they are trying to protect me from pain.
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.