For some queer college students, online learning amid COVID-19 means more than just awkward Zoom classes. It means hiding their sexuality or gender identity.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

One of the first things Luke did, when he learned he would have to leave his college campus due to the coronavirus, was take off his dark purple nail polish. Then he carefully wrapped his makeup palettes and brushes in bedsheets and hid them in his luggage. He canceled a manicure appointment he’d made with a friend as a small end-of-spring-break treat. Now, he was ready to return to his dad’s house.

Luke, a gay gender-fluid college freshman, has always had to hide his sexuality from his dad, as well as his newly discovered gender identity. So when he found out that he and his classmates at the University of Vermont would be remote learning for the rest of spring semester, he was overwhelmed. He only had two days to pack up his things and head home to Virginia, where he was already dreading splitting time between his divorced parents’ homes.

Luke had to carefully plan what he would unpack and where. He had one week at his dad’s house before he went to live with his mom, who knows he’s gay and is supportive of his gender expression. During his first week home, Luke kept his makeup and nail polishes hidden. He embroidered to pass the time, which attracted some jabs from his dad, who joked that it was too “girly.” At one point, Luke accidentally had some makeup brushes shipped to his dad’s house instead of his mom’s. He had to quickly wrap the box and pretend it was a present for his sister.

“It feels like I lost a part of myself that I had just found,” Luke said. “It’s a lot harder to try to figure out who you are when you really can’t experiment with anything.”

“It’s just tiring,” he added, “especially when you’re trying to put on this schtick that you’re someone completely different than who you are.”

“It feels like I lost a part of myself that I had just found.”

- Luke

As welcoming and diverse as many college campuses can be for students, home is often the opposite. For Luke and other queer students who aren’t out to their families or fully accepted by them, a sudden shift to remote learning didn’t just mean awkward Zoom classes, missing out on seeing friends and graduating virtually from the couch. It meant going back into the closet. For some, this also means living in a constant state of fear.

Many queer students are feeling isolated while stuck at home, without the freedom and privacy they had at school. This can affect their mental health and financial stability, and sometimes it can mean no more access to therapy or gender-affirming medical services.

And there’s no telling how long this may go on. With the coronavirus still spreading, many schools are unsure if they’ll resume in-person classes in August, and queer college students are struggling to find ways to cope.

Emily, a gay first-year student at James Madison University, was initially only able to correspond with HuffPost via email because she was afraid her mother would hear the conversation. While her family knows about her identity, they refuse to acknowledge it.

“I think it took me a few weeks to understand that this would be my new reality,” Emily said. “After being at home, it helped me realize the support I had at school, especially being LGBTQ. Being a college kid in quarantine feels like high school again ― no freedom or privacy.”

Online Just Isn’t The Same

Not all the learning that takes place in college is academic. As young people navigate interpersonal relationships inside and outside the classroom, they often discover who they are as people, what they want to pursue in life and what type of leader they want to be. For LGBTQ students, college can provide a space to be their authentic selves for the first time in their lives. It can be the first place they meet fellow queer people, and it can provide coursework to learn about the history of gender and sexuality.

Some of that can still happen online, but it’s not the same.

“How is this going to impact student life? There’s academic life, which is the classroom ― the classroom can be delivered through online learning to some extent,” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a national nonprofit working to create a safer college environment for LGBTQ students. “But the part that college really provides is this opportunity for student life, for engagement, for human interaction.”

Being at home can also be painful or downright dangerous if parents and family members don’t accept queer students for who they are. That rejection can take any number of forms, from microaggressions (referring to a student with the wrong pronouns, assuming someone of the wrong gender is their romantic partner) to life-threatening acts (kicking a student out on the street during a pandemic).

“It’s not like we see on some of these Netflix shows where kids say, ‘Oh I can just come out and they might reject me, but they’ll eventually accept me,’” said Tia Dole, chief clinical operations officer at the Trevor Project, a national nonprofit providing crisis intervention to queer young people. “Actually, you could end up being placed in a really dangerous physical situation if you get caught.”

The Pain Of Hiding

Some queer college students are also dealing with the trauma of sexual assault, adding a layer of difficulty to their strained relationships at home. Luke and Jordan, a third-year student in the Boston area, both say they were sexually assaulted at school but can’t be open about it with their respective parents. Jordan, a trans student who uses they/them pronouns, said they decided not to tell their parents because they don’t think their parents would believe them. Luke said his father ignores the issue because he doesn’t believe men can be sexually assaulted.

“My dad didn’t really get how [sexual assault] could happen to a boy,” Luke said. “Because of that, I don’t really like being touched or hugged, but my dad doesn’t really understand that. That’s probably the hardest part ― I’m going through that and I’m not able to fully be myself. It’s frustrating and upsetting.”

Jordan’s parents live in a Maryland suburb where, they said, “performative liberalism abounds.” “My parents have been supportive of their friends’ kids’ transgender identities, but have not extended that support to their own child,” Jordan said.

For several reasons, not least that Jordan’s parents are not accepting of their gender identity, Jordan decided not to return home and is instead living in an off-campus apartment. “Several friends have asked how my parents haven’t figured out that I’m transgender, but I think they’re just projecting their mental image of their ideal daughter onto me, no matter how inaccurate it is,” they said.

Right before remote learning began for their school, Jordan started hormone therapy. They knew they wouldn’t be able to receive testosterone shots if they were home under their parents’ watchful eyes. “If I had come home with a box of needles and syringes for my testosterone injections, they would probably be terrified that someone would think I was doing drugs,” Jordan said.

Although Jordan is relieved to be living independently right now, they’re still fearful. Their abuser, who Jordan said has talked about buying a gun, lives nearby.

“Remaining [near] campus feels extremely unsafe, but somehow it’s better for me than the alternative of moving back in with my parents,” Jordan said.

Fearing For The Future

The secrecy has an emotional toll. Heather Mann, a junior at Auburn University who identifies as queer, is the president of her school’s LGBTQ club, Spectrum, but is not out to her family, who lives about three hours away from her college. Now that she’s back home, it was initially very hard to oversee weekly Spectrum meetings, because she was afraid her parents or grandparents would walk in on a Zoom call.

She’s able to conduct the meetings from her bedroom, which is away from most other rooms in the house. But keeping parts of her life from her family, when she’s around them full-time, can be exhausting.

“It’s very scary not knowing when I’m going back. It feels like my life is on hold.”

- Emily

For one thing, Mann has to be careful what she shares with her family about her friends at school. “If I’m talking about one of my friends, I can’t mention the fact that she’s dating a nonbinary person, because that would bring up a whole conversation that my parents probably wouldn’t understand or agree with,” Mann said.

“You would think that being president and community outreach for one [LGBTQ] club and then also a community outreach for a second [LGBTQ] club would be a large amount of work to do,” she said. “But it’s been so much more work trying to not talk about certain things.”

With the COVID-19 outbreak seemingly nowhere near its end, many students worry remote learning will extend to the fall semester. Now that opportunities to be their authentic selves have been shrunk to the length of surreptitious Zoom calls, or wrapped up in bedsheets and hidden away in luggage, many wonder what the future looks like and if they’ll ever get to be out and proud again in their college careers.

“It’s very scary not knowing when I’m going back. It feels like my life is on hold,” Emily said. “I know everyone feels that way. I think it’s only harder for LGBTQ students because they often have a taste of freedom at college, while it’s the exact opposite at home.”

Several of the students who spoke to HuffPost for this story asked to be identified by pseudonyms because of possible repercussions in their family lives if they were identified. These individuals are introduced with only one name.

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