A few of my rising juniors this year love marine biology and take it very seriously, and they’re shocked when I blurt out the F-word in our meeting. It’s awkward and takes the students off guard, as I think they thought they’d never hear me say it. That’s right…. Florida.
This article was originally published on May 29, 2023 on LinkedIn.
A number of Florida schools have absolutely incredible marine biology programs, but they come with baggage (a generous term) for LGBTQ+ students. The top three questions I get about Florida universities:
Will my hair get frizzy? (Yes, but it’s okay.)
Are there gators? (Yes, but it’s okay.)
Will I be safe there? (Well, let’s talk about it.)
As a college consultant who specializes in helping LGBTQ+ students find safe, supportive, happy colleges, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about restrictive anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in states like Florida. I don’t actually want to impose politics onto their college search, and I think there’s a danger in any generalization. As I’m learning about colleges in states with restrictive policies, I always want to know the answer to this question: How will specific legislation put my students at risk of harm in a college environment?
Not all discriminatory laws are equally dangerous for college students, who are almost always adults. In a way, if my California students attend college in Florida, they may not be in direct harm from banned books in K-12 public schools or gender-affirming care bans for minors. It’s possible that as adults in the state, my students may even be in a position to speak out against those human rights violations. (Education and healthcare are both human rights.)
Let’s take a look at some specific types of restrictive legislation that directly put LGBTQ+ colleges students at risk of harm:
Transgender bathroom bills restrict access to an essential service, a bathroom aligning with a person’s gender identity where presumably they will feel safe from harm. These policies create an environment of fear and suggest that LGBTQ+ people in bathrooms are dangerous people. We can’t subject our trans students to this in any scenario, even at the airport, even once.
Higher Education DEI bans put the state government in a position to exercise authority over a public university in any number of ways, including removing LGBTQ+-related majors/minors and LGBTQ+ student resources. Indeed, it eliminates the entire center, if they have one. Any college can become a New College, any campus can become a dystopia… in weeks, not months.
Gender-affirming care bans for adults not only restrict a person’s right to make decisions about their own health, but they put doctors at personal risk for following their best medical judgment. I heard Bill Maher say a few months ago that he’s not anti-LGBTQ+, just anti-mutilation (paraphrasing). This is an ignorant position, and it reveals he hasn’t done any research about what actually goes into gender-affirming care. Gender-affirming care bans for adults create an extremely dangerous situation for trans students, not only because of the restricted access to essential healthcare but because of the clear subtext beneath the legislation: this society doesn’t want health for trans people, and it actually wants the complete opposite for them.
Drag bans restrict self-expression, and flag bans restrict expression of allyship. This is cultural – artistic and symbolic – which is why these are both incredibly effective ways to create a culture of fear, eventually leading to violence on campus. Art and symbols are powerful.
LGBTQ+ free speech bans, which create avenues for individuals to be sued for criticizing legislation (like above) and government officials effectively silence any student who intends to use their voice. Aren’t college campuses places to practice exercising your first amendment rights?
Of course, it’s a different experience to attend a private college vs a public one. The text of many bills applies to government buildings and public spaces. However, students often must travel through public spaces like airports in order to get to even a private university campus.
The largest challenge of helping LGBTQ+ students decide what states they’ll feel safe in is having to look four years (three legislative cycles) ahead. I always default to safety for my students, but I educate families so they can make informed decisions about their options.
It’s possible that cisgender students may feel comfortable enrolling at universities in states with anti-trans policies, as they can hopefully become an ally for their trans peers on campus. However, there will inevitably be a culture of fear for all LGBTQ+ students to grapple with there, and they should be ready for that.
In my conversation with students, I find that allies will sometimes consider states like Florida, but as states get more and more aggressive with not just writing but passing restrictive legislation, LGBTQ+ students are unwilling or unable to consider going there. It’s the loss of those states and those campuses – not my students’ loss.
But, we will continue to watch the slates of hate pass us by, year over year, waiting for an opening to consider schools like the University of Florida again.
Until then, here is my message of solidarity to all the marine biology students wondering “when”: Do you know that Cal State Long Beach has a Shark Lab?
Robert Powers is the founder of College Torch and a college consultant who specializes in helping LGBTQ+ students discover and apply to safe, happy, supportive colleges. If you're the parent of an LGBTQ+ teen or college student, you can join College Torch's Parents of LGBTQ+ College-Bound Students community on Facebook.
By the way, skipping LGBTQ+ considerations during the college search can lead to an uncomfortable or unsafe college experience for your teen. Download my completely free resource, 10 College Campus Red Flags for LGBTQ+ Students, to know what to look out for on your teen's college visits: