Essay: Finding community as an LGBTQ student is worth the extra effort

When I first moved to the District, I had an opportunity to get away from home and become part of D.C.’s bustling and diverse atmosphere. As a queer student, I was thrilled. Not only was I leaving the confines of home, I was moving to the city with the highest concentration of LGBTQ individuals in the nation.

I grew up in a small town where I was one of the few “out” kids – less than 4 percent of the population in my home state of Connecticut self-identify as LGBTQ compared to nearly 10 percent in D.C. I arrived on campus ready to finally meet LGBTQ people and experience the community’s culture in a way I could not at home. But I soon realized that finding community as a queer person is emotionally and mentally taxing. Even in an inclusive city, the perfect community does not just come together.

I needed to work much harder than my non-LGBTQ peers to find a community where I felt safe, but my struggle was worth it.

While the work to find community is more difficult than it is for my straight and cisgender peers, I found that the extra effort is necessary. Nearly 40 percent of LGBTQ people face familial rejection, so finding our chosen family – a group of close friends and mentors considered family for LGBTQ people – helps shape our social circle.

At GW, I realized that an urban campus with limited social space does not lend itself to creating community, which can inhibit anyone trying to meet new people. The campus set-up made finding other LGBTQ students even more difficult because there are few safe spaces where LGBTQ people can go to be themselves and hopefully, meet others.

The University luckily has several organizations on campus that tailor to the LGBTQ community, but they do not always meet the needs of all individuals. As a non-binary person, I do not feel welcome in groups like Purple Circle – one of GW’s newer student organizations specifically geared toward queer men. I sought out the Association of Queer Women and Allies, but that group came under fire last year for a racist Facebook post that led to the resignation of many leaders. There are other groups like Queer Radicals specifically inclusive for transgender and gender non-conforming people, but the organization was not active or large enough for me to build my chosen family. On the other hand, larger groups like Allied in Pride felt overcrowded, making my search for individual connections challenging. After a semester exploring different student organizations, I had met only a few other LGBTQ people – even fewer who I would consider close friends.

I soon turned to the city to meet other LGBTQ people. D.C. is known for having a large LGBTQ population, but the community itself is not racial, socioeconomically or gender diverse. Many LGBTQ residents are white, male college graduates and working professionals – not college students. Most LGBTQ social spaces within the city are centered around bars and clubs, which are typically age-restricted and can feel uncomfortable for LGBTQ people. Even in these so-called safe spaces, it was hard for me to find LGBTQ people who were similar to me in age or stage of life.

I didn’t give up there. I turned to dating apps like Tinder and Grindr. While these apps are known to be hook-up oriented, I found them to be powerful tools to connect with LGBTQ individuals, especially for people who identify as transgender and gender non-conforming. I also became a frequent visitor to places like the D.C. Center for the LGBT community and Whitman-Walker Health, which both provide services and social events for LGBTQ people living in D.C., including a transgender support group and a creative writing showcase.

Taking initiative to attend these off-campus events, even the awkward meet-and-greets, helped me establish connections with other LGBTQ people in D.C. beyond my on-campus connections. With a thorough skim of dating apps and a social group at Whitman-Walker Health, I met tons of queer and transgender folks who soon became my closest friends.

As exciting as it can be to come to an inclusive city like D.C., it can be even more daunting to move away from your established social circles at home to start college. I know this from personal experience. But I also know that the hard work I went through to find my people was more than worth it.

It might feel awkward to stand in the corner of a crowded mixer and pretend to send a text, but the potential friendships and community you might find is rewarding in the end. It will not always be easy or fair, but it is worth the time to find your people. College is not just about essays and exams, it is about learning who we are and where we belong.

Jack Murphy, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, is a columnist.

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