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On the street and on campus: A comparison of life course trajectories among homeless and college lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer young adults

Rachel M Schmitz, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This study examines the life course experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) homeless young adults and LGBTQ college students. Though both of these groups have in common their age (i.e. young adults) and LGBTQ identity, college students generally have more resources and are expected to fare better into later life compared to homeless young adults. Despite these disparities, all LGBTQ young people are likely at greater risk for negative health outcomes and social issues due to their status as sexual and/or gender minorities. Little research, however, has simultaneously examined these two groups, and how their life course experiences uniquely differ based on social environments (i.e. college vs. homeless). Using in-depth, face-to-face interviews with 46 LGBTQ young adults between 19 and 26 years of age, I examine how homeless young people and college students navigate their sexual and gender identities, social contexts and relationships. Findings reveal the importance of social context in identity development, such that college students largely found the college context to be conducive to identity growth, while homeless young adults viewed homelessness as a hindrance to addressing identity-related issues, as they needed to focus on survival. Furthermore, all LGBTQ young adults strategically managed their identities in distinctive ways depending on the social context and relationship, with college students’ tactics being tied to maintaining their reputations, while homeless young adults’ motivations were linked to ensuring their physical safety on the streets. Finally, the majority of LGBTQ young adults conceptualized their identity-related challenges as making them stronger and more resilient by enhancing their social relationships and imbuing them with confidence and empathy. Homeless young adults viewed their challenges in homelessness as more transformative compared to their experiences with sexuality and gender-related prejudice and discrimination. These findings alert service providers and policymakers to the fact that programs need to be tailored to LGBTQ young adults based on their life course experiences. This study also highlights the importance of understanding LGBTQ young adults not as a monolithic social group, but one that is rich with both similarities and distinctions across social context, including the homeless and college environments.

Subject Area

Social psychology|GLBT Studies|Public health|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Schmitz, Rachel M, "On the street and on campus: A comparison of life course trajectories among homeless and college lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer young adults" (2016). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI10100901.