BERKELEY, Calif. – Alyn Libman won a $15,000-a-year scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley (search) with a resume that showed more than just Libman's athletic achievement and academic potential.
It also showed years of ridicule, beatings and threats, along with Libman's decision to become a boy in 11th grade.
"It felt amazing to actually be embraced by someone who didn't just dismiss me for being different," said Libman, a 19-year-old aspiring civil rights lawyer and the first transgendered person to win a scholarship from The Point Foundation (search), a Chicago nonprofit organization that has awarded more than $1 million to college-bound gays since 2002.
For those seeking financial aid to attend college, it doesn't necessarily hurt to be gay or transgender. An increasing number of charities, professional groups and universities offer scholarships on the basis of sexual orientation.
More than 50 such scholarships are available nationwide — from the $1,000 scholarships that Zami (search), an advocacy group in Atlanta, is giving to 21 black gays this year, the $2,000 awards the United Church of Christ distributed to gay seminarians, and the $3,000 fellowships George Washington University administers so gays can spend a semester studying politics in the nation's capital.
Many of these organizations recognize that youngsters who come out of closet are sometimes cut off by their families and suffer financially because of it.
Some groups, such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (search), also make financial aid available to children of gay parents or to straight students who have worked to reduce homophobia in their communities.
"We want to be a beacon for some kid who is out there and feeling really lost and ashamed because society says they are nothing and nobody," said Zami executive director Mary Anne Adams, who launched her group's Audre Lorde scholarship program, named for the late lesbian poet, in 1997.
Sexual orientation alone usually is not enough to get these scholarships. Success against the odds, scholastic aptitude, extracurricular activities and leadership also are needed to qualify — the same qualities philanthropists have always sought to celebrate by endowing college scholarships.
But the essays these students write in their applications are something different — they tend to include tales of confusion and rejection. Many of the recipients are estranged from their families or were tormented in high school.
"The ability to take individuals who have had enormous disadvantage and to give them the ability to succeed in life is what's important to society," said Point Foundation creator Bruce Lindstrom, 59, who made a fortune as a membership warehouse executive. He was abandoned by his own family when he revealed he was gay in his mid-20s.
So far, the foundation has handed out multiyear scholarships covering tuition, housing and books to 27 undergraduate and graduate students.
"We try very hard to balance the issue of need versus the issue of leadership ability," he said. "We are trying to identify those who have the capacity to make change in the world, to increase tolerance, and it's a hard thing to balance those two things."
Julie Schell, 30, a doctoral student at Columbia University's Teachers College, came out as a lesbian 10 years ago while she was an undergraduate at the University of Nevada-Reno. The disclosure alienated her from her family and college roommates. One day she found "dyke" scrawled on her car.
Now in her second year as a Point Foundation scholar, Schell said the money has allowed her to continue her studies, but the emotional support is what enables her to succeed. The foundation pairs students with openly gay professional mentors. Schell's is the president of Roosevelt University in Chicago.
"I had someone to call and say, `I got three A-pluses at one of the world's greatest educational institutions,' and have that be validated by people who aren't saying, `'Well, you got three A-pluses, but you're gay so it doesn't count," Schell said.