In February of 2020, Brown Medical School reported a declining rate of suicide among queer youth over the past two decades in Massachussets. While this study was limited to one state, it offered a look at a promising future where national queer youth suicide rates do not outpace their heterosexual peers. This hope was short-lived. Following the onset of COVID-19 and the mass closure of universities across the United States, queer mental health crumbled. The Trevor project reports that rates of suicidal ideation at least doubled for queer youth during the pandemic. Preliminary studies suggest a climb in suicide rates as well. The forcing of students out of their universities and networks resulted in a regression of the progress made in recent decades for the health of queer youth. Quarantine measures and the stress of COVID-19 is not an easy lifestyle to navigate for any individual, but it poses unique challenges to queer individuals, especially young adults who were forced to return home following school closures. As we begin to re-open various sectors of the economy and the nation, it is important to prioritize the re-opening of services that will help alleviate the on-going crisis faced by queer youth.
The collegiate atmosphere can be critically important to queer students. This significance is connected to an idea known as the “gay commute.” Sociologist Graeme Sylvestre coined this term in 2019 while analyzing the movement of queer folk in the Detroit area between 1945-1980. In this survey, Sylvestre found that queer individuals will physically commute to and congregate in more accepting environments. A 2019 US News & World report, which offered a detailed guide on how to determine the LGBT-friendliness of a university, serves as evidence that queer students engage in the “gay commute” through their own university decisions.
To better understand the “gay commute,” imagine a young, queer individual, who spent their life submerged in the strictly heterosexual culture of America’s evangelical, rural, working-class lifestyle. From the moment this individual developed cognizance of their own queerness, they were dominated by a nuclear heterosexual family structure, media portrayal of negative queer stereotypes, condemnation from the pulpit, and violence (verbal, physical, or structural) experienced for traits associated with queerness. The person feels utterly isolated.
Vox writer Katelyn Burns showcases how for some students, a solution appears in an acceptance letter to a queer-friendly university in a largely queer-friendly city. Here, in a less violently heteronormative culture, queer people flock in large numbers. Finding refuge in collegiate spaces is the story of Emma, one of Burns’s student profiles. Emma found refuge in Carleton College’s LGBT center during a campus tour. She describes that her interactions with other queer folks were, “very important to me. They ended up selling me on the school.” These new resources helped her develop a plan to come out as transgender and to adopt pronouns and clothing that suited her. Emma’s experience is a testament to the importance of university spaces for queer youth interaction.
In collegiate atmospheres, queer youth like Emma can interact with eachother more freely, forming a culture where positive, affirming, queer action becomes the norm. These campus spaces allow those escaping repressive cultures to experience true social inclusion and connectedness for the first time as they invest themselves in their collegiate atmosphere and the wider queer community.
Universities have historically been a haven for young learners, but they have often struggled to provide full protections for students of marginalized identities. Over the past decade, queer students have advocated for the expansion of Title IX laws to include queer individuals. Activists have called for more inclusive curriculum, as well as intersectional protections for undocumented queer students and those from marginalized backgrounds. These efforts have all helped to craft ever more affirming micro-societies on college campuses across the country. The restrictions in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have completely uprooted connection to these spaces for students across the United States.
Emma reported that following her parents’ complete denial of her transgender identity over Thanksgiving Break in 2019, she was forced back into the closet. As COVID-19 hit, online classes and quarantine measures restricted her to her non-accepting childhood home. She could not freely engage with online versions of the queer resources offered by her university. She did not have a space where she felt safe enough to engage with queer content, afraid her parents would stumble in on her. Katelyn Burns provides additional interviews that showcase the prevalence of this experience among queer youth. Max, a non-binary grad student, reported that most of the members of his on-campus support group have been unable to participate in online meetings because of an inability to safely engage with queer topics in their new living environment. The New York Times reports that across the nation, students are resorting to closets and other private spaces for a few moments of shared virtual solace with fellow queer individuals. Quite literally, COVID-19 has forced college students back into the closet.
In an August 2020 survey, The Trevor Project reported that 64 percent of LGBTQ students who were forced home during the pandemic returned to environments where they felt limited in the expression of their queerness. Fifty-four percent of respondents reported feelings of loneliness since the national shutdown in March 2020, while half reported symptoms of depression. This limited self-expression has disturbing mental health implications, considering the fact that 25 percent of queer respondents reported an inability to access desired mental health resources.
Queer folks with affirming parents and families are less affected but not exempt from the negative effects of withdrawal from queer spaces. The affirming mother of a transgender youth reported to the New York Times: “He began [during lockdown] to feel depressed and was withdrawn. He is doing much better now that he is back in treatment and staying connected to the community [online]. Social distancing and taking precautions is necessary, but for the LGBTQ+ community, even those who have supportive parents, losing the ability to have that in-person social support with other LGBTQ+ youth can have a significant impact.” Clinical psychologist Sarah Gundle confirms that in-person interaction in queer spaces is not replaceable with online media, even for youth in affirming circumstances.
Quarantine measures are dangerous for queer youth because they limit engagement in spaces that would produce social solidarity and help decrease feelings of alienation. There are possible solutions: provide safe, in-person measures for the interaction of queer youth. This is a mission universities and local, state, and federal governments alike need to commit to. Many universities provide on-campus housing for some (not all) queer-youth with difficult home situations; but they continue to ban on-campus queer programming, despite the fact that bars, indoor-dining, and retail shopping across the country operate at near pre-quarantine levels. If these are deemed essential services, so should interactions that can occur masked and socially distanced which will prevent increased rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide within an already vulnerable community.
If you or someone you know is suffering as a result of the details depicted above, please contact the Trevor Project Hotline at 1-866-488-7386. If you are not comfortable chatting on the phone, text services are offered both at the number listed above and online at thetrevorproject.org.
Image: The Lake, by Raphael Perez. Source: Flickr.
Joseph Scariano (he/him) is from the Imperial Valley in Southern California. He is currently a sophomore at Georgetown University, where he is double majoring in Government and English. His main interest is finding ways to re-imagine democracy so all people are equitably and equally included.