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Emma thought that going off to Carleton College would be the beginning of a new life. The 18-year-old trans girl had struggled to come out in high school after repeated outings to her strict Italian Catholic parents in New Jersey.
“Those were difficult,” she told Vox. “I like to say that I negotiated my way back into the closet” to finish high school.
She thought college would become her salvation and chose the liberal arts school of about 2,000 students in Northfield, Minnesota, because of a visit, during one of her tours, to the on-campus LGBTQ center.
While Emma’s dad accompanied her on the tour, he decided to spend a little time alone in town, at which point the admissions officer offered to bring her to the center.
“Meeting some very happy, very out, very successful and well-situated trans people was very important to me,” she said. “[That] ended up really selling me on the school.”
Once there, the center helped her explore and figure out a plan for coming out more broadly, and connect with other queer and transgender students. Things moved quickly for Emma, who said it only took her about a month to start asking people to refer to her with her new name and she/her pronouns. Her parents accused her of getting taken in by a cult and threatened to stop paying her tuition.
During an extended Thanksgiving break, Emma’s parents dangled her tuition in front of her like a “carrot on a string,” so she lied and agreed to go back to school as a male student — an agreement she quickly went back on once she had returned to school.
However, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into her plan once Carleton decided to move to online classes on March 18. The college freshman is now back home — and back in the closet — because of Covid-19, cut off from the school LGBTQ center where she had met many of her friends and received emotional support.
Having a space where LGBTQ people can simply exist in their own skin and experience, without judgment or pressure to hide for the benefit of cisgender, heterosexual people, can be enormously beneficial.
But in recent months, queer and trans people have been feeling the loss of affirming LGBTQ spaces since cities and states began shutting down nonessential public spaces in mid-March.
Queer bars, LGBTQ centers, and affirming sexual and specialized health clinics are closed because of the pandemic. Pride celebrations all over the country, and the world, have been canceled, often replaced by virtual online events. At the moment, the safest physical place to be — at least in terms of avoiding contracting the virus — is at home, which for some queer folks is not a safe space at all, and for others serves as a callback to a previous time when LGBTQ people could not safely reveal themselves to be queer in public.
Like Emma, Max Meyer, a 25-year-old nonbinary grad student, has watched the trans support group they ran at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Campus Union for Trans Equality and Support (CUTES), shut down. In response, Meyer helped the group set up a Discord server to facilitate voice and text communications. But like Emma, many of the group’s students don’t have a safe home environment in which to discuss their queer identity over a computer.
As a result, only about five people regularly participate in the group’s Discord meetings, a contrast to the up to 30 who would attend in-person meetings. The pandemic “raises barriers for being able to reach out and get any kind of trans support,” Meyer said. It’s “further isolating an already marginalized group away from resources, support, and people with similar experiences.”
Before the pandemic shut down the school, Meyer had been lobbying the university to allow preferred names on diplomas, but now those plans have been scuttled. Meyer is also scared for next year’s crop of incoming trans students who may not be able to access the group’s resources. Not having the CUTES physical space “really increases how much effort it takes for somebody who might be unsure or questioning to reach out and get any kind of help,” they said.
With universities planning how to handle the start of this year’s fall semester, there’s a growing concern over how best to support trans students like Emma and Max. But the concern also applies to other critical areas of the LGBTQ community, from queer bars to sexual health spaces. This pattern of queer people getting cut off from critical and affirming resources is being repeated all over the country due to the pandemic.
Queer sobriety is difficult to manage during the pandemic
Damian Jack is a 40-year-old cis gay black man living in New York City. He’s also 20 months sober and in recovery. He’s been attending regular Tuesday night sobriety support meetings at the Center, an LGBTQ community center in Manhattan’s West Village since October 2018.
Jack said that before he started working toward recovery, he pushed everyone who loved him out of his life and felt utterly alone. But through the support meetings at the Center, which he says are typically 99 percent attended by queer people, he’s been able to build a core group of friends and people he can lean on.
That support has been critical for his recovery. “My journey toward recovery, it has been long in getting here,” he told Vox. “The community itself is really what helped me a lot. And that was something that I looked everywhere else to find.”
According to 2015 data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people were twice as likely (39.1 percent to 17.1 percent) as heterosexual adults to have used illicit drugs within the past year. Additionally, a 2013 US Census Bureau survey found that a higher percentage of LGBTQ adults between 18 and 64 reported past-year binge drinking, which was defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting, than heterosexual adults.
But the Center closed its doors on March 13. The loss of that critical queer recovery space, Jack said, has pushed quite a few people off the wagon again. “There are a lot of people who are suffering because of the lack of connection,” he said.
In response to the pandemic, Jack’s support group moved to regular Zoom meetings, which he said is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, participation in meetings has expanded thanks to connections to people outside the city through LGBTQ sobriety Facebook groups like “Gay and Sober.” Where once there were usually 20 to 100 people at the in-person meetings depending on which day of the week it was held, Jack said there are about 60 people who show up on Zoom thanks to attendance from people who live too far away to attend Manhattan-based meetings.
It’s also allowed Jack some freedom to work later on Tuesday nights, because if he misses the New York meeting, he can now hop on Zoom to attend a Los Angeles-based meeting held later in the evening.
But without that personal connection, Jack said, it’s difficult for those who may be early in their recovery journeys. “If I were to be getting sober now, it would probably be the hardest thing for me because of the fact that I needed the community around me. That was something that I searched for my entire life, and I needed that,” Jack said.
Jack said going to an LGBTQ recovery group was important for his journey to sobriety because he felt like he could be more vulnerable and authentic there compared to a cis het space. “I didn’t have much of a problem interacting with straight people when I was sober, just because I could always put on my, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m a silly gay man’ [persona],” he said.
But the group taught him how to interact with other gay people without constantly having a drink in his hand. “I was never around any gay people while I was sober; this was my first time doing that. I didn’t really have the necessary tools to communicate because I didn’t know how to communicate with anyone in a community that I was so ashamed of.”
So Jack said he tries to take newbies on socially distanced walks in the city as often as possible. “A lot of people are relapsing,” he said, thinking of one person from his group in particular. “He’s like, ‘I don’t feel connected.’”
“SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the only pathogen that we need to be mindful of right now”
For their own health, it’s recommended that queer cis men and trans women, especially, get tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In the 1980s, as it is now, it was important to have sexual health providers who would treat LGBTQ people without harassment, in order to contain a different deadly virus without a treatment or vaccine — HIV/AIDS.
Many of the testing protocols now being deployed to fight Covid-19 were first developed to fight the spread of HIV. But while everyone is rightly focused on the disease caused by the novel coronavirus now, New York City-based sexual health advocate Jeremiah Johnson, HIV project director at the Treatment Action Group, said it’s important that queer people not lose sight of their own sexual health needs.
“When it comes to addressing sexual health services for marginalized communities, it’s always such a stigmatized topic, and we experience so much judgment and marginalization from health care systems that do not fully respect queer people,” said Johnson. “Frequently, the way that we access those services is to go to specific clinics and community-oriented clinics where we know that we’re going to get compassionate care that is reflective of our communities and fully accepting of our whole selves.”
That has become more difficult, Johnson said, because of Covid-19. “In this crisis scenario, underrepresented and historically marginalized communities have even greater dangers of being pushed to the margins and not having their needs addressed,” he told Vox.
While many sexual health clinics are still open for emergency services, like prescriptions for post-exposure prophylactics, which helps prevent transmission of HIV after contact with an infected person, and Plan B contraceptives, routine STI screenings are not considered emergency services.
“Particularly, within all of this disruption we’re seeing now, it’s difficult to get a picture of just how impacted queer communities have been in terms of accessing the unique health care services that we depend on to take care of our emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, and health care,” Johnson said.
Further complicating matters, he said, it’s hard to tell at this point how people are behaving sexually while under stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures. Additionally, most of the nation’s 2,200 contact tracers have shifted their focus away from STD tracking to focus on Covid-19. That could be a recipe for an STD outbreak that won’t be caught until regular testing can resume.
“We’ve seen a substantive decline in the number of new diagnoses for sexually transmitted infections in New York City, which is probably more likely a product of a lack of testing, rather than an actual reduction in the number of those infections,” said Johnson.
Johnson worries that once the Covid-19 pandemic is over and regular testing begins again, we could see a surge in the number of new STIs. “SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the only pathogen that we need to be mindful of right now,” he said.
Gay bars have been central to the LGBTQ community since Stonewall. The pandemic has ripped that connection away.
My favorite queer space, a queer women’s bar called A League of Her Own, nestled in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC, has been closed since the city shut down all its bars and restaurants on March 30. The bar, affectionately known by its acronym “ALOHO,” was the place where my friends and I met and hung out semi-regularly, providing a welcoming home amid political attacks on LGBTQ people from the somewhat nearby White House.
The staff at ALOHO have experienced a sense of loss of the community that found itself in the basement of its gay male sibling bar, Pitchers. “I definitely, personally have had [some] struggle days,” said bar manager Jo McDaniel, who has tried to stay connected to her regulars through a weekly Instagram Live broadcast every Wednesday, which she films on site at ALOHO. “Just being in the space makes me nostalgic and sad and all over the place. There’s a huge amount of loss.”
Queer women’s bars were already closing at an alarming rate over the past decade. ALOHO is one of only two lesbian bars in DC. NBC News estimated in early May that there are just 16 queer women’s bars in all of the US, down from a peak of 200 in the 1980s. Though ALOHO is financially safe for now — the bar’s owner has applied for a PPP loan — McDaniel thinks that several of the small handful of queer women’s bars may not survive the pandemic.
In fact, two DC gay bars catering to men, DC Eagles and Secrets, have already announced they will not reopen once the city does. In San Francisco, the city’s oldest gay bar, the Stud, which has been open for 55 years, announced this week that it will permanently close because of Covid-19.
DC recently extended its order keeping bars closed through June 8, but McDaniel hopes the bar’s regular patrons know that the staff are still around for support. “People would come in and sort of share their problems with their bartenders, like slide into the DMs,” she said. “We’re all very public in terms of social media and we’re all still here.”
For now, the Instagram Live posts offer a brief chance for the bar’s community to reconnect. “What’s really cool is watching people who are viewing the Live chat with each other in the comments,” she said. “That’s been the thing that’s really been awesome for me is to see people essentially see each other virtually.”
As queer and trans people continue to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, those who can are trying to help others stay connected. Meanwhile, there are a lot of queer and trans people who have been put in unhealthy and potentially dangerous situations just to have a roof over their heads. Losing queer spaces exacerbates the stresses many were already facing before this.
For now, Emma is staying in the closet while living at home with her parents, but she can’t help but pine for the escape she once thought she had at school. “I had this lifeline at Carleton, where things were going to be better and I was going to go there and be myself and it was going to be really good,” she said, thinking about her current situation. “[There’s] definitely despair. I’m just awash in it.”
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