In rural Siskiyou County, where California meets Oregon, the local community college is hiding its LGBTQ+ center behind closed doors. Queer students are scared for their safety. 

“We are a very conservative county, and we have many students that are out at school but not at home,” said Ty Speck, who goes by “Mama Ty” among students and serves as the advisor to the LGBTQ+ club at the College of the Siskiyous. Instead, she said, the three students in the group wanted to meet in a rotating set of undisclosed locations.

All across California, but especially in rural areas and small cities scattered across the Central Coast, the Central Valley, and the Far North, community college leaders push back at the notion that California is an easy place to be queer. 

In a report from last year obtained by CalMatters, college administrators across the state expressed their support for LGBTQ+ students but said that setbacks persist. 

The report came as a follow up to a 2021 state grant of $10 million — the first of its kind geared specifically towards LGBTQ+ students in community colleges.  But colleges consistently said that the money, less than $100,000 per college on average over five years, was not enough to hire staff positions or to set up a LGBTQ+ center on campus, even in places where many students want it. 

Only 30 of California’s 115 brick-and-mortar community colleges had a designated LGBTQ+ space on campus at the time of the report. Eighteen colleges said they would use the state funds to help develop an LGBTQ+ center.  The remaining 67 schools, including the students and faculty at the College of the Siskiyous, chose to invest the state’s dollars in training for staff, special graduation ceremonies or mental health support for LGBTQ+ students, who are significantly more likely to commit suicide than their peers.

Culture wars put LGBTQ students on edge

Allie Harrison, 25, knows what it’s like to live on the margins. A self-described witch who grew up kissing girls and boys in rural Lassen County, more than two hours north of Lake Tahoe, she is now one of the three members of Lassen Community College’s LGBTQ+ student group. 

“Everybody assumes that it’s like the rest of California and it’s not,” she said. 

When Harrison attended Lassen High School a decade ago, she said the church would co-opt the school cafeteria after hours to run events. When that same church found out about her sexuality, the pastor told her mother that she was a “bad influence” and couldn’t attend the youth group anymore, Harrison says. 

Later, she says her mother kicked her out of the house in part because of her sexuality, and Harrison moved to San Jose with her dad, where she embraced the more open-minded culture at the high schools she attended. 

Now, back in Lassen for college, Harrison says the culture is more accepting than it was just 10 years ago. There’s a Facebook group for LGBTQ+ people in Lassen County that counted Harrison as its 100th member, and the group regularly meets at a local bar. 

But the culture wars that have swept the country have come to Lassen County. In April, residents came to a “showdown” over an effort to remove LGBTQ+ books from the children’s section of the public library. Weeks later, someone stole a pride flag from a local organization and spray-painted allegations about pedophilia on its walls.

The College of the Siskiyous took down its pride flag temporarily in 2019 after someone claimed it was illegal to fly it. The college’s new leadership has since purchased additional flag poles and made a point to fly the flag every May, when the school observes its annual pride month (most students are gone in June). 

On the coast, similar challenges pervade, according to the report issued by colleges last year. 

“Although California is known for its liberal acceptance and support of diverse communities, the small cities within the Central Coast of California are heavily conservative and do not host a large population of LGBTQ community members,” wrote an administrator at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, just south of Pismo Beach. 

In Watsonville, between Santa Cruz and Monterey, community college administrators reported that the pride flag has been stolen or defamed multiple times and that the “vibe” on campus is not welcoming to LGBTQ+ students.

Many LGBTQ+ students never make it to community college at all, wrote an administrator at Golden West College in Huntington Beach: “The most at-risk LGBTQ students often find themselves homeless during high school and struggle to make it to college.” 

Small in number, rural LGBTQ students see gains 

Outside of major cities, attendance and participation in LGBTQ+ groups can be sparse. 

“We are a small rural college and often do not have a large enough population of any one group to have a center specifically for that group,” administrators at Lassen Community College wrote to the chancellor’s office. 

With the state funds, the college initially proposed hosting a “dinner banquet” with a keynote speaker, but with just three students in the LGBTQ+ student group,  college director Jennifer Tupper decided to take them out to a nice dinner instead. Each student got a “very nice classic pen,” she said. The college also hosted a “Diversity Summit” that included representatives from various communities on campus.

Cecil Dexter, a member of the Lavender Initiative at Bakersfield College, stands at the entrance of the Campus Center on June 14, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

While rural communities across the state have smaller queer populations, support in general has increased over the years. 

In Bakersfield, home to Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the LGBTQ+ community has grown and services have become increasingly available in recent years, said Bakersfield College student Cecil Dexter, who identifies as transgender.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dexter used to drive more than  two hours every month in order to meet with a doctor who could prescribe testosterone. Today, he can see medical providers in Bakersfield or in his hometown of Tehachapi, which has nearly  13,000 people.

The Bakersfield College campus lacks a physical space to meet, and the LGBTQ+ student group only began last fall. However, recent pop-up events such as the lavender prom — a dance for the LGBTQ+ community — attracted nearly  200 people, and even smaller events get “a pretty huge turnout,” Dexter said. 

Growing the coffers for LGBTQ centers

The 2021 state grant — $10 million spread across the community college system — was never supposed to fund LGBTQ+ centers, said Jacob Fraker, a consultant for the Legislative  LGBTQ+ caucus. Instead, the money was meant to help with small projects, such as hiring queer-friendly mental health professionals or supporting the events that Dexter hosts in Bakersfield. 

Setting up a safe space on every campus where LGBTQ+ students can gather is urgent, he said, especially in the case of rural community colleges and certain California State University  campuses that are known to be less welcoming. He pointed to the case of CSU Maritime, where female, transgender and nonbinary students reported “widespread sexual misconduct, racism, and hostility.

But he said local community college districts, not the state, should be the ones to pay for it. 

This year, the proposed state budget from the Legislature includes another $10 million over three years for LGBTQ+ services to be divided among the state’s 115 community colleges. CalBright College, which is entirely online, did not receive funding. Fraker said the governor has signaled to the caucus that he’ll approve it.

In the first allotment of funding from 2021, the $10 million was divided up based on how many students each district had and what percentage of students were considered low-income. 

College of the Siskiyous got a little more than $10,000 a year, for five years, starting in 2021. It was not enough to even hire a part-time staff member or set up a center, the college wrote in its report. 

The state also made it so that no district could receive more than $500,000, which meant that large urban districts with multiple colleges received fewer dollars per student. 

This year, Los Angeles Community College District lobbied to get the state to raise the maximum to $900,000, according to the district’s spokesperson, Juliet Hidalgo. 

“SF, Los Angeles, San Diego — they eat up all that money and there’s never enough for the rural colleges. They (rural colleges) want to do stuff, but they don’t have the population,” said Fraker. He said the new funding will also include provisions that ensure rural schools get a fair share. 

Except the math doesn’t work. 

If Los Angeles and other large districts get more funding in this year’s budget, some smaller community college districts will inevitably see less. Neither Fraker nor the Community College Chancellor’s Office could identify who the losers might be. Determining final funding allocations for each college can take months, Fraker said. 

In an interview with CalMatters, administrators at the College of the Siskiyous were surprised to learn about the new grant in this year’s state budget: In the governor’s earlier proposal, there was a typo that said only Los Angeles would receive money for LGBTQ+ students. 

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.