By Kate Selig
When Stanford announced it would send students home due to the coronavirus last winter, students’ hearts sank across campus. And for queer students closeted at home, the announcement marked an especially heartbreaking change in fortunes. Students finally able to be out with their identities on campus were sent back into the closet.
Now, almost a full year after the announcement, none of them deny that the pandemic has been tough, really tough. But behind physical isolation and separation from peers, queer students closeted at home have strengthened friendships, built up queer student organization programming and learned how to access queer resources on campus.
The pandemic has exacerbated the trauma of being closeted, but also highlighted many queer students’ resilience and hope for a better future.
Back in the closet
All 10 students interviewed said that coming to Stanford, a safer place where most are accepting of queer people, was something they looked forward to. And once there, students were able to find queer community, or at the very least, friends they could talk to about their identities. The names of most students have been changed out of respect for the privacy of students who remain closeted.
“Stanford was an escape, where I was able to surround myself with people who would call myself by my preferred name, use my pronouns and otherwise understand who I really was and accept me for that,” said Bea, a nonbinary rising sophomore on leave.
Returning home — and returning to the closet — marked the loss of in-person queer community for students, as well as the ability to explore their identity and express themselves fully.
“One of the many survival strategies of being queer is being able to effortlessly switch your persona based on what is expedient in your living situation,” Bea said. To avoid outing themselves to their parents, Bea has had to resort to tactics they relied on in high school, like using their dead name strategically and being more strict about what they wear and how they act to appear more traditionally masculine.
Keeping their identities under wraps while talking with friends or other members of the queer community has also required students to become more stealthy. They mentioned going on walks while speaking with friends or needing to switch from calls to text whenever queerness was brought up. Cameron, a nonbinary sophomore who lived on campus with their partner during the fall, said they had to take down their pride flag whenever they Facetimed their parents, putting it back up again as soon as the call was done.
For Amina, a queer senior living at home, calls with understanding friends, having her septum piercing in and listening to music by queer artists are some of the ways she’s getting through the pandemic. But if her parents knock on her door, she’ll change the subject of conversation from queerness, remove her piercing and shut off the music.
“In a sense, it’s almost kind of funny,” she said. “But at the heart of it, it’s not.”
There are small victories. She’s figured out how to “toe the line” in the way she dresses, allowing her to express her queerness without creating too many red flags for her parents: “I don’t want to forget who I am and force myself into a box.”
Other social identities like race and religion may influence how parents approach the subject of queerness — and how some queer students themselves approach internalized homophobia and transphobia.
Stella, a pansexual sophomore also exploring her gender identity, thinks her parents’ reaction to having a queer child would be influenced by their background as Asian immigrants. She said her parents have fought hard to achieve the American dream, and they wouldn’t want their child to face setbacks for being queer.
“If you consider the stereotypical American family, you have like one man, one woman and some kids, and maybe a dog or something,” she said. “That’s not going to be my life. I don’t even like dogs.”
For frosh closeted at home, losing the chance to come to campus has been particularly hard. While students could apply for on-campus housing if they had “special circumstances,” which included unsafe or unwelcoming home environments, many said they did not apply to avoid taking a spot from students who might need it more.
Alex, a genderqueer frosh, is disappointed they didn’t get to experience the physical presence of the queer community during the fall, as well as the opportunity to put some distance between themself and their less-than-accepting family. While they’ve been able to make some friends who are also queer, Zoom conversations feel less personal than the impromptu, late-night dorm discussions they were looking forward to having in college.
Alex looks forward to coming to campus when conditions permit: “When you’re at school, you can have a foot in two worlds and step into the school world a bit more if things are uncomfortable at home,” they said.
Not all students live in homes where they can’t bring up queerness. For those whose parents have indicated more openness but still have hostility toward queerness, the pandemic has been a chance for students to push back on their parents’ beliefs and have conversations that would have otherwise been delayed. Stella has been using humor, like joking about what would happen if she dated a girl, to try to introduce and normalize queerness with her parents.
And for some students, the decision to not be out with their families is just a matter of mental bandwidth, of which there is very little during this pandemic. Dhruv, a gay junior, said he has “full faith” his parents will eventually accept his identity but he doesn’t have the mental capacity to start that conversation right now.
He said he feels he can still express himself at home, making coming out seem less urgent. “They even know I’m a Zumba instructor,” he joked. “My dad thinks it’s amazing.”
One silver lining for many students is that the pandemic has afforded more mental space to come to terms with and understand their identity. For Sofia, a sophomore, it took stepping away from the rush of frosh year to realize she was queer. Now, she’s working through how to navigate this identity with a parent who is not accepting.
“It’s funny — at Stanford, there’s no time to reflect,” she said. “And I needed to take a step back to think about everything and stop being in denial.”
And instead of being shunted back in the closet, Emily Snell ’23, who identifies as lesbian, came out to her family during the pandemic. Her hometown in Bellville, Ohio, is blatantly homophobic, she said. In November, members of her town hosted a Trump rally that evolved into an anti-gay rights and anti-women’s rights rally.
In response, she organized an LGBTQ+ rights rally — marking her coming out to her hometown.
“It was a really beautiful experience,” she said. She’s looking forward to getting involved with the activist community when she returns to Stanford, as well as building out a club for queer students who are Christian.
Another silver lining exists in the friendships and community students made on campus and have maintained through the pandemic. In a sense, thanks to these friendships, living at home is less isolating than it was before college for many queer students.
Bea, the nonbinary student who talked about survival strategies, said having people to confide in and talk to has made a big difference, even if their support system is stretched across thousands of miles, and even if connection is just through a text.
And when they return to campus next year? “I’ll hold my queer friends a lot closer,” they said.
Dhruv, the student able to express their queerness at home, encouraged queer students feeling alone to try getting involved with queer student groups on campus. He is involved with Queer and Questioning Asians and Pacific Islanders (Q&A) on campus, which is continuing to put on programming throughout the pandemic.
“You’re not alone, and even if you don’t see it, your experience is shared,” he said, speaking to students who aren’t out in their home communities.
Student government mental health and wellness co-director Robyn Radecki ’21 also emphasized that there are resources on campus for queer students, including student groups and mental health resources. Radecki has also previously worked with the Weiland Health Initiative, which provides mental health and wellness support to queer students, and Queer Student Resources (QSR).
“Each situation comes with its own unique challenges, but regardless, the pure fact of not being out in some capacity is very restrictive and can lead to a lot of mental health issues,” she said.
Queer youth have been found to be at greater risk for mental illnesses like depression and anxiety and are at a higher risk for attempting suicide. Supportive families help, with one study finding that transgender children whose families affirmed their identity were as psychologically healthy as their non-transgender peers, but youth with the least accepting families were far more likely to experience mental health problems.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) and Weiland offer a range of services to students, including individual therapy and hormone replacement therapy consultations for students in California. Weiland and Queer Student Resources also offer community-building programming and educational resources for students, like the First Aid Kit that queer students can use to help navigate being at home.
“Knowing that there will continue to be uncertainty around the pandemic, campus life and your own life, there are still things that can be done to protect yourself and nurture your spirit,” said Weiland program manager Marissa Floro. She encouraged students to take steps like cultivating support networks, utilizing available resources and seeking therapy as needed to navigate the pandemic.
Feelings of isolation and depression are understandable and even expected during this time, Floro said, but “the pandemic, and all things, are temporary.”
“Campus life will eventually go back to ‘normal,’ we will once again be able to be with each other in community, holding each other up and celebrating our authentic selves,” she added.
Noah, a queer rising sophomore, said addressing his mental health needs with Stanford resources has been important to him during the pandemic. He encouraged students in similar situations to reach out to people they trust and consider professional counseling or calling the CAPS hotline — and understand that the current situation is temporary.
“Freshman year almost feels like a dream sometimes when I look back, but when we return, it will be nice to realize that it did in fact happen,” he said.
Author’s note: If you or someone you know is in a similar situation, there are available resources both on and beyond campus. The following is not an exhaustive list and is compiled from a response from Weiland Health Initiative director Inge Hansen, CAPS director Bina Patel, CAPS clinical director Amy Wilkinson and Weiland program manager Marissa Floro.
CAPS and Weiland offer a range of services, including individual therapy and hormone replacement therapy consultations for students in California. For students outside of California they can also offer support for real-time needs and care management consultations to help arrange for local support if needed. CAPS also has a 24-7 support line for urgent needs: 650-723-3785. The CAPS FAQs has more information on its services during the pandemic.
Weiland also provides one-time Weiland Connects sessions for anyone, regardless of location for people to consult, vent or ask about resources. Students can learn more about these services through this flier. Weiland’s website also offers introductory handouts to help explain concepts like gender, pronouns and attractions and a First Aid Kit for Queer Family Holidays for resources around different pathways to agency. In partnership with QSR, Weiland also helps facilitate the QT Fund, which can be used for help with mental health fees, changing legal and name markers, gender affirmative care and more.
Queer Student Resources continues to provides resources to connect students, including Trans& meetings, affinity groups, student staff and professional staff. Students can also join the listservs of various queer student groups like La Familia, BlaQs and Queer & Asian, as well as the the Vaden Flourishing Alliance listserv to be notified of events, new programming, and opportunities to connect.
The Institutional Equity & Access also has a website dedicated to supports and resources for trans and gender non-conforming students.
Contact Kate Selig at kselig2023 ‘at’ gmail.com.