When Jo* pictured what college would be like, the California native imagined spending a lot of time at the school’s campus pride center. The first time Jo, who prefers they/them pronouns, visited the space on a tour, they noticed large rainbow flags draped around the building. “Oh my gosh, this is a symbol representing me and my people,” they thought at the time. Jo imagined they'd meet all kinds of supportive, LGBTQ+ mentors, and friends who'd understand and accepted their identity as a lesbian, asexual, and nonbinary person.
But then the pandemic arrived. Soon, Jo found out that they'd be taking their fall 2020 semester courses online, which meant continuing to live at home. For Jo, quarantining with family also meant staying in the closet.
“If I came out, I would be deprived of my education,” they say now. “They wouldn’t pay tuition… My dad has once tried to prohibit me from filling out the FAFSA, so even if I was offered community college for free, it wouldn’t happen.” Their parents have made it clear, both covertly and overtly, that they don’t want Jo living out their identity. During an interview with Refinery29, Jo even had to talk in code, replacing any LGBTQ+ references with the word “lavender,” and explaining some things over chat, in order to stay safe and not be heard by their mom.
Jo is not alone. As LGBTQ+ spaces on and off campuses shut down or move online, some queer people are struggling, especially if being home with their parents isn’t safe, explains Tia Dole, PhD, the chief clinical operations officer for The Trevor Project.
A recent Trevor Project poll found that COVID-19 has made the living situations of LGBTQ+ youth more stressful, limiting their ability to contact their support systems and to be out. Of the 1,200 young people ages of 13 and 24 who were surveyed, more than 40 percent of LGBTQ+ youth respondents said the novel coronavirus impacted their ability to express their identity. That number was higher for transgender and nonbinary people. The poll found that 61% of those who returned home from college amidst the pandemic were not out to everyone they lived with, as is the case with Jo. This cohort is also 60% more likely to report feeling unsafe in their home, the poll found.
“When you’re living with an identity that’s invisible, sometimes it’s harder to find community,” says Danny Mathews, the director of the Carleton College Gender and Sexuality Center. “Having access to physical spaces [of acceptance] can mitigate those difficulties.” And when LGBTQ+ youth were pulled away from those spaces this spring, it had a real impact.
For example, Ananya* moved back in with her parents in mid-March, after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided New York universities should go fully virtual. “I pretty much can’t be ‘out’ out,” she shares. “I enjoy spending time with my family. I just don’t enjoy being reminded of their homophobia.”
An example: “One of my parents said it’s unnatural for two men to be together to me, and that’s when it felt more real,” Ananya says. "I don’t blame them for the homophobia they have, because they grew up in a time and society where it was normal. It was taught to them… It’s way more complicated than people think. Living with homophobic family is like perpetually walking on a minefield, so as not to trigger them or yourself.”
LGBTQ+ organizations have done their best to create online spaces where kids can feel accepted during the pandemic. For example, Campus Pride — a nonprofit that works to make colleges around America safer and more inclusive for LGBTQ+ students — held a digital “camp pride” this summer that included workshops and speakers. They have young people lead Instagram takeovers frequently, in which they do makeup tutorials and offer advice to help queer youth learn to build accepting spaces for themselves in their homes, says Tom Elliott, the chair of the board of directors for Campus Pride. “Having digital spaces means you can potentially bring more people in than you would in person,” Elliott notes. “It allows shyer students to open up more and be more comfortable.”
Still, some youths have had a hard time accessing these online spaces. “We saw a significant drop in engagement in the spring,” Mathews says. There were two main reasons for this: Some students were living with parents who wouldn’t accept them, and they worried they’d eavesdrop if they called the G&S Center to talk about what they were going through. Others just had Zoom fatigue. Because of this, some students felt isolated, Mathews says. “Historically there’s been a shared [reality] among queer people of feeling that you’re alone,” Mathews adds. “This is something that we need to talk about, especially in this era of social distancing, which can really feel more like isolation. Especially when you’re navigating how much of who you are you can share with others.”
Now, many Carleton students are back on campus, and Mathews says there’s been a real upswing in engagement. The G&S Center is working hard to let students on site know that they can come as they are. They’re also reaching out to those who are studying remotely this semester to help answer questions about gender and identity, and offer them an accepting lifeline. “We’re helping them navigate what it will mean and what it could look like once they get to campus eventually," Mathews says. "[And] trying to help them just survive existing in the space they’re in now, that doesn’t necessarily feel as supportive.”
But Dole points out that there’s also a group of young people who had to quit school due to COVID-19, and who may no longer have access to campus resources. “There tends to be the assumption that people are going back to college, but a lot of families are saying, I’m not paying for you to be remote,” Dole says. “A large portion of people are not back in school, only a small group whose parents have money.”
There are also kids who had nowhere to go when colleges shut down in March. Those whose parents had already kicked them out, or who’d aged out of the foster care system. “There’s a lot of LGBTQ+ young people who actually ended up in a shelter or on someone's couch [when schools went online],” Dole says.
The through line is that all these young people are feeling displaced, and like they can’t fully share and explore who they are.
“It’s a natural thing as a young person to step away from your family to figure out who you are and engage in identity development,” Dole explains. “And when you suspect as a young person that you have an LGBTQ+ identity, not being able to express yourself is kind of devastating, right? It feels like you’re in the closet and you’re literally being oppressed because you can’t be who you are. But if you are who you are, it may put your life at risk.”
Feeling like you can’t be yourself isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you as a LGBTQ+ young person, Dole acknowledges. The Trevor Project has a Coming Out Handbook, and one of the things it addresses is how to come out safely. “Coming out for some of our young people creates unstable living situations,” Dole says. This is especially true for transgender people. A disproportionate number of trans youth have parents who kick them out, Dole notes.
“They end up living on the streets or living in a homeless shelter,” she says. “From my perspective, the first question to ask yourself is, if you came out, what would happen? Will you be injured? Will you suddenly become unhoused… Will your parents engage in what I call conversion efforts?” It’s not lost on LGBTQ+ youth that a pandemic is not a good time to suddenly find yourself without a roof over your head.
“Coming out isn’t everything,” Jo says. “As much as people would want to say otherwise — of course, you want to be open and be honest about your identity — but not to the point that your safety is compromised.”
Although pandemic times have created unique challenges for LGBTQ+ youth, they’re still finding ways to survive. They’re creating their own spaces where they can be themselves, even if they have to hide who they are at the dinner table each night. Sometimes that means going online. Jo says they’ve found people to chat with and confide in on Instagram, and in chat rooms. They've also been able to join the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at their college remotely, as well as get involved virtually with organizations such as Campus Pride, GLAAD, and Satrang, a South Asian LGBTQ+ organization.
Jo also has physical reminders of their identity hidden in plain sight in their bedroom. For example, the walls are painted lavender, a historically queer color, associated with LGBTQ+ liberation. Jo shows me a notebook over Zoom with a holographic rainbow on it. They hold up hand-cut rainbow hearts made of recycled paper in front of their computer's camera. Jo says these are homemade reminders of the friends they’ve made and the people who’ve accepted them. They serve as a kind of talisman, and a reminder of who Jo truly is.
Elliott, of Campus Pride, is glad to hear that students are creating spaces where they can be themselves, both online and physically. However, Elliott notes that the pandemic has highlighted the inequalities queer people still face. “There’s still a lot of cultural barriers and a lot of harmful stereotypes and negative prejudice against LGBTQ+ people,” Elliott says. “As much as we make progress, this pandemic just shows that we still have a long way to go for our community to ensure that people feel safe being their true, genuine selves, in all spaces. Ideally we get to a place where we don’t need these spaces because LGBTQ+ people are welcome in all spaces. The reason we have to create these spaces in the first place is because we are not always welcome."
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of sources.
If you are an LGBTQ person thinking about suicide, please call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.