For Cynthia Bruce, attending Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. has provided a welcoming safe space for her as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Bruce is in her fifth year at Winthrop and was one of eight volunteer interns at Campus Pride over the summer. 

“As a transwoman, I have experienced pretty positive experiences on my campus,” she told Qnotes in an email. “I am able to use the restroom I identify with. Nearly every class and student org I’ve been to does introductions with pronouns.” 

She’s only been purposefully misgendered by another student one time and says that she’s never experienced that from the Winthrop faculty. Winthrop’s Safe Zones program is designed to increase understanding of LGBTQ+ issues and provide identified safe zones for everyone. Part of the program stresses the importance of pronouns. 

According to the school’s website, “To use someone’s pronouns correctly shows them that you respect their identity and have made an effort to make them feel welcome.” 

Last spring, Winthrop held its first Transgender Week of Visibility. Small trans flags were placed along the school’s Scholars Walk and the Sexuality and Gender Equality (SAGE) club hosted a table from March 28 to April 1 with different topics about the transgender experience. 

According to Bruce, the university even provides a service where trans students can room with other trans students. “In terms of the LGBTQ+ community seeming visible on campus, I would say emphatically yes. While I may have a bias in who I hang out with, I consider it to be the ‘gay college’ of South Carolina,” she said. 

The close-knit relationships that queer students form not only create groups on campus like SAGE, but also spur other student-run groups and clubs around common interests, like the DnD (Dungeons and Dragons) club, an anime club, an improv group, and a social justice organization. According to Bruce, they are all led by LGBTQ+ students. 

1 in 4 Students Identify as LGBTQ+

The National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE) reports from both North Carolina and South Carolina that Qnotes was able to find online revealed that about 1 in 4 students self-identified as LGBTQ+ in 2022. 

On some North Carolina campuses like Appalachian State University, 26% said they were LGBTQ+, compared to only 17% in 2018. At North Carolina Central University, 20% of students identified as LGBTQ+ (3% did not respond), a jump of 8% since 2018. Looking at previous surveys, questions about sexual orientation and gender identity were not included a decade ago. 

The NSSE collects information from first-year and senior students about the characteristics and quality of their undergraduate experience. Earlier studies also showed that queer students were more likely to attend their top choice for college in comparison to their peers who identified as straight. 

At Charlotte’s Queens University, Dr. Kira McEntire says she’s not really surprised by the numbers. “Students these days have the language to describe their experiences more than ever before and access to online communities to learn more about different identities.” According to Queens University, 21-24% of students identify as LGBTQ+ and up to 7% of students might identify as gender non-conforming. 

For 2023, NSSE is again updating options for students to self-identify. According to the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University School of Education, who administer the survey, “the gender identity and sexual orientation items are now in ‘select all that apply’ format and have new response options.”


“College is often the first place students have their own space to start exploring these parts of their identity,” says McEntire. “Many college age students are thinking about who they are and who they want to be.” 

But despite this visible progress on college campuses, legislators in North and South Carolina continue to push anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and for many in the community, it feels like there’s a growing intensity in discrimination and violence.

Last month, the GOP-led General Assembly in North Carolina overrode Governor Cooper’s veto on three different bills. While most of the legislation targets people under the age of 18, they have an effect on others in the community. As reported in Qnotes, Senate Bill 49, also known as the “Parents Bill of Rights,” prohibits instruction related to gender identity and sexuality in grades K through 4 and will notify parents when students want to change their names or pronouns. 

Student groups offer some additional support and McEntire says that queer faculty at Queens University hope to create more mentor opportunities for LGBTQ+ students. “Being social and showing students in the Queer University Queer Union (QUQU) that there is a community of support fosters a special bond,” she recently stated on the university’s website. McEntire is in the final stages of creating Queer and Questioning, an employee resource group for faculty and staff, and hopes to engage in community outreach, engagement and advocacy opportunities. 

For Bruce, she and other students at Winthrop make sure that organizations on campus prioritize being a safe and welcoming space. “Whether it’s for all students or even just our friends going through a hard time, we try to offer a helping hand, or an empathetic ear,” she says. 

Her circle of friends has also found themselves helping students navigate life as LGBTQ+ people. This includes helping transgender students find clothes that match their gender identity or finding healthcare and therapy options. 

“We are there for each other, both physically and emotionally, and I think that really helps strengthen the community,” says Bruce. 

Shane Windmeyer, executive director at Campus Pride, believes that there needs to be a new call for activism in our community. His organization has seen dramatic increased visibility, particularly through media and social media, giving students access to queer voices, queer stories, and queer lives over the last two decades. It’s one reason he points out that politicians are targeting us with anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that attempts to silence or erase our history. 

Statistics on college students might offer a glimmer of hope for our future, but only time will tell if those numbers start to decline based on this cultural and political backlash. 

According to Windmeyer, “no other generation has had the strong visibility of all queer people the way we do today.” This includes access to resources and services, but he stresses “we must save ourselves, our community” from the attacks. This includes the importance of voting and a call to re-energize activism in our community. 

“Be loud, be proud and advocate and fight like we did back in the 60s and through the 90s – when we were largely in the closet, being beaten in bars, dying from AIDS and being silenced in our jobs and families,” he says. “Queer young people are engaged but we all need to dig deeper.” 

His advice for how we can help lift voices of LGBTQ+ students – “Never underestimate the power of individuals sharing their stories, building meaningful relationships with others to change hearts and minds.” 

Bruce says it’s important to stand firm and stand together with other LGBTQ+ college students. “A big tent community is one that can withstand the onslaught they may be facing,” she says.

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