COVID-19, College, and the Closet

Two closeted students share their experiences with friends and family during the 2020 pandemic

by Julianna Peres (she/her)

Peeking out of the closet can be extremely dangerous. Living with parental dismissal, manipulation, disapproval, or outright abuse is also extremely dangerous. Now, imagine that these two factors were combined. This is the reality that many young LGBTQ people face on a daily basis even in normal times. But in 2020, with so many students forced to study from home, these challenges were compounded for those young people not yet able to be fully out at home.

In any normal semester, some closeted LGBTQ young people find safe spaces, friends, and community on campus, even when they continue to keep family members in the dark about their identities. During quarantine, many of those opportunities for safe and inclusive welcome disappeared for students. With winter break on the horizon, those lucky enough to have gone back to campus are facing the prospect of returning home for break, and facing more family drama and trauma.

I spoke to two students for this article. Because they’re not fully out, I’m not sharing their names or other easily and personally identifiable information, but these are stories that deserve to be told.

Student A

This student’s preferred pronouns are either he/him or xe/xem. He identifies as polyamorous, panromantic, asexual, and bigender. When asked how his family would react to him coming out as these multiple LGBT+ identities, he said that his brother and sister would be just fine, but his father would be overwhelmed with the information and refuse to accept him for who he is. He was adamant that, despite the quarantine and other COVID-19 restrictions, he has not been in contact with his family as much as he could have been over the course of this year. As a Sophomore in college, he does not see his academic or personal journey bringing him any closer to his family members. Recently, he has been living with his partner, but has not made his partner known to his family. Unfortunately, he has not been able to maintain a strong relationship with the greater LGBTQ community during COVID-19. This, in turn, has made him feel less connected with his own LGBTQ identities. He is, however, extremely thankful for his live-in partner. Not only has this partner been a thread connecting him to the heart of the LGBTQ community which has been so lacking since the start of COVID-19, but his partner has also been instrumental in helping him adjust to new mental health medications.

Although he is able to wear gender-confirming clothes at home, he feels pressured by work to wear clothes that are stereotypical of men. This is not only emotionally stifling, but physically restricting as well. He maintains that these constraints have made him unable to express his personality as much as he would like to. For the holidays, he does not interact directly with family. Instead, he is able to give and receive holiday gifts that reflect all of their individual interests. Since Biden has won the 2020 election, he is in a better mental state. Unfortunately, he is still unable to discuss political issues with his family members. When asked whether his presence at home would make his father more or less prone to an understanding mindset, he replied that his father is too stuck in his ways to do so.

Finally, he said that the one thing he would want to tell fellow closeted college students during COVID would be: “there is space for you. You are not alone, as much as you may feel that way. It won’t always be like this. You deserve affirmation.”

Student B

This student’s preferred pronouns are they/them and they identify as queer. The only person in their family to whom they have come out is their cousin. When asked why they were hesitant to discuss their LGBTQ identities with their parents, they replied that they believe that their parents would be split. While their father is homophobic, their mother tries to be respectful. Their proximity to graduation has not at all affected the negative aspects of their relationship with their parents. Instead, the closer graduation gets, the more intense the feelings of emotional control and manipulation have become.

“Living with my parents is terrible,” they said. “Aside from being closeted, I was also having allergy attacks every day and the friends I made on campus didn’t really communicate with me and my boyfriend, and I struggled to maintain our relationship. It’s really isolating.”

Fortunately, they have not had any difficulty with finding a partner during COVID-19 because they have been with their boyfriend since last August and are still together now. This doesn’t mean that their relationship is without struggle. They admitted that it is difficult to date when they can’t meet up in person. They said that some things don’t translate well over text and there are constant interruptions to “online” dates. For example, they said that whenever they were doing anything on the internet like streaming games or chatting over Discord, they were never able to spend the time that they had planned together because their parents were always cutting it short.

When asked if it’s more difficult to maintain a relationship without being able to see them face-to-face, they interestingly replied: “debatable.” They agreed that, yes, it is easier to maintain a relationship face-to-face in the sense that reliable internet connection is not a factor. However, they explained that it’s sometimes more difficult to express themselves. For instance, they said that there have been times when they are stressed and their boyfriend is upset as well and so they are left feeling as if there isn’t much that they can do for one another.

For them, like for many students, quarantine has led to a lot of stress and uncertainty. They shared that the first three months of social distancing were extremely hard for them. They said that they were a mess because no one would respond to them and they felt as if their boyfriend would make time for his friends instead of them. They didn’t understand why their boyfriend was willing to risk seeing those friends in person but not willing to risk seeing them. They said that life has become easier since their support group as grown. Since the confusion with quarantine in conflation with spring semester finals has ended, they feel much more collected and connected with their boyfriend and themself.

They said that they have been able to maintain strong ties with the LGBTQ community since COVID-19 started, but that their idea of the community is really just their friend group which is made up of them, their boyfriend, their other LGBTQ friends, and just three straight male friends. Thanks to the fact that they were not coming to terms with their LGBTQ identities during COVID-19, they feel as connected to these identities now as they did before the pandemic.

As for their gender-confirming attire, they said that they often wear baggy clothes because it makes them feel more gender neutral. However, they shared that their parents hate seeing them in sweatpants and hoodies and frequently tell them to change into “something nicer.”

In terms of the upcoming winter holidays, they said that things are more complicated than ever. They said that the gifts they are given and the support that they feel isn’t unconditional. They know that the moment they tell their parents that they’re not their baby girl — that they’re actually queer — is the moment that the love will become conditional.

They have made a point of it not to discuss politics with their dad, but both they and their mom were relieved that Biden won. Unfortunately, without knowing who their father voted for this year, they do know that he voted for Trump in 2016.

They would like to leave readers with this thought: “As much as it sucks that you can’t be honest with your immediate family, once you find your group of friends who are also under the acronym, you’ll feel a lot better. There’s a lot of relief in being able to crack jokes or share stories that you can’t share with your family because it would out you.”

Did you know? The Charlotte Pride Scholarship is awarded every spring to LGBTQ college students — and is open to all LGBTQ students regardless of how “out” they are. You can generally learn more about the scholarship here, and be sure to bookmark that page and stay tuned for more details when 2021-2022 scholarship applications open in the spring.