When we made the rapid transition to remote instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were resolute in our efforts to reconfigure our administrative and academic infrastructure and operations in a manner that was as inclusive as possible. We provided emergency housing and food to students in need, organized a fund to support our most vulnerable students, and offered refunds for tuition, housing and dining, among many other efforts to help minimize the devastating impact of the pandemic.
What has been particularly interesting about our university’s transition process is how it has helped to reveal the deeply layered and complex identities of our faculty, staff and students. The transition has illuminated the depth and breadth of our community’s diversity. And, above all, it has affirmed the value of transformative inclusion and equity and the need for us to sustain its presence in physical and social spaces.
For many LGBTQIA+ people, especially students, the move to remote learning and work has been a rather fraught one.
While resources have been afforded to most students in support of their transition to remote learning—a place to live, access to computing, access to the internet and WIFI—for many LGBTQIA+ students, access to resources has not been a given, and, for others in this community, it has come at an incredibly, sometimes untenably high price.
For many LGBTQIA+ students, housing insecurity is a real phenomenon, due to their return to homes or living situations that are unsafe or not queer friendly or supportive.
Perhaps the most obvious of these conditions is the student who has not ‘come out’ to their family about their gender and/or sexuality. The student now faces the difficult challenge of whether to climb back into the closet and deny the core essence of who they are, or reveal their truest self and face untold circumstances that may risk their emotional, physical, and psychological health and safety.
This return to the closet can be quite difficult and even dangerous. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report notes that often LGBTQ youth face family rejection: 67% of youth reported that their family makes negative comments about LGBTQ people. The Trevor Project’s recent research report on the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ youth indicates that isolation removes social interactions that can protect youth from suicidality.
Even students whose parents have accepted their gender and/or sexuality will experience a return to the closet to some degree. While on campus, with friends and faculty and staff who affirmatively encouraged their gender expression, students can explore ways to interact and be authentic without undue restriction. “Home” might be a place where they feel compelled to erase the fullness of their authentic selves in response to others’ discomfort and the potential of negative, derogatory and even violent feedback to their self-expression.
Being homebound during COVID-19 can both increase exposure to negative social interactions and decrease access to positive social interactions. VCU provides a vibrant queer space in which so many members of the LGBTQIA+ community find home, community, solace and support. VCU’s queer community provides a deep sense of belonging and a safety net for people to explore and learn their gender and sexuality, no matter how they identify.
Being on campus allows members of the queer community to engage in their own process of self-identification; to develop and maintain formal and informal support systems; to learn diverse means of resilience and thrivance; and to create authentic ways of being in the world.
The rapid shift to remote instruction means a sudden loss of those structures and having to find new ways to create and foster communities through social media and online programs.
All of these impacts are further exacerbated for our LGBTQ students of color, first generation and Pell-grant eligible students. For them, VCU’s queer spaces are often lifelines, literally and figuratively. These spaces provide safer living spaces and opportunities for employment and access to vital resources that address the intersectional realities of LGBTQIA+ communities. Through LGBTQIA+ affirming spaces at VCU, students who have multiple marginalized identities are able to access resources to help them navigate their complex and complicated questions in ways that address issues through a gender/sexuality affirming lens.
This struggle for affirming and empowering spaces also exists among our employees. Our employees are also now having to re-configure their closets. For many LGBTQ+ adults, our homes are often our safest spaces, where we exist without the burden of mitigating others’ responses to our gender and sexuality. These are the spaces in which we build and sustain queer families. These realities are ones that we don’t necessarily share with all of our co-workers. Now, with our home spaces serving as our work spaces, the loss of privacy can lead to a sense of exposure and “outing”. We are challenged to be certain that our LGBTQIA+ employees and their families can be their authentic selves without there being a risk to the employee’s professional success.
This rapidly changed environment affirms and makes more urgent VCU’s forward movement toward LGBTQIA+ inclusion. It has shown us the value and worth of VCU’s decisions to soon launch the Call Me By My Name initiative, incorporating name of use, gender/gender identity and pronouns into our identification systems; fund and develop the Q Collective; develop an LGBTQ+ and queer studies minor; plan and facilitate an LGBTQ Studies Summer Intensive for undergraduate students; and create an LGBTQ scholar database. We may not be in the same physical spaces right now, but we are finding that belonging to VCU goes well beyond our building and walls. We are more grateful than ever for ongoing LGBTQ advocacy at VCU through Equality VCU, the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Department, OMSA, and so many others.
Please check out Q Collective, GSWS, OMSA and all the incredible resources available to us virtually:
Archana A. Pathak, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies. She currently serves as special assistant to the Vice President of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Equity and Success. She is also the interim director of the Q Collective, VCU's new LGBTQIA+ research and advocacy center.