Uni’s a place for LGBTQ+ students to thrive, but this year many haven’t had the chance
‘My life’s a controlled version of what it was’
When Emily first came to uni, she could finally be herself in a way she wasn’t at home. She describes this as a release, saying “it was the same feeling as like when you take your really tight bra off at the end of a really heavy day”. At uni, she was able to go on her “first ever gay night out”, and could wear a flannel shirt instead of jeans and a nice top (or, god forbid, an Oh Polly dress). She could kiss girls in front of her friends without fear or embarrassment. “I was just a lot freer”, she says. “My whole uni experience was just so gay”.
Like thousands of other students, Emily found uni to be a place where she could embrace and explore her sexuality. But for many, a year of lockdown has drastically changed that.
Some have moved back home and been forced back into the closet, with huge impacts on their mental health. Others only discovered their sexuality during lockdown, so haven’t yet been able to properly explore it. Some are lucky to have other LGBTQ+ housemates whom they can embrace queer culture with, but Pride being cancelled and gay clubs shut means many simply cannot connect with members of their community unless it’s online, which have seen a rise in homophobic “Zoom bombings”.
This is what it’s like to be an LGBTQ+ uni student in the midst of a pandemic:
‘At home, my life’s a controlled version of what it was’
Emily first came out when she was a teenager, but her parents disapproved, forcing her back into the closet at home. Her extended family still don’t know about her sexuality. She’s been living at home for the past few months.
Like many students, Emily has been living at home for the past few months – away from her friends, and the queer culture she surrounds herself with. Being at home and not able to be out has made her feel like she’s portraying a controlled version of herself and what her life used to be.
“Coming back is weird,” Emily says, “because it’s like a part of my life I just have to dance around. I feel like I’m the best behaviour version of me.”
Tara* told The Tab she cannot come out to her family, as she is a practicing Muslim. She says South Asian culture has stigmas around sexuality, and it is forbidden in Islam, which “make me too scared to ever say anything”. She says it’s hard to adjust to coming home and not being able to be out.
Similarly, Derby student Grey said coming home has had a massive impact on their mental health. They say have to try to fit the person their parents want them to be, and they “hardly socialise” with their friends.
‘Lockdown has made it harder to experiment’
Like Emily, Bristol student Tom* couldn’t come out to his family when he returned home for lockdown last March. He thinks they’d be supportive, but says they don’t have the kind of relationship where they talk about personal things – “it’s much nicer to have that environment at uni.”
Tom says he suppressed any gay feelings until about halfway through his time at uni – just a couple of months before lockdown last year. He was in a bad relationship with a girl, which thankfully ended, and then began to think about sleeping with guys. Using dating apps, he started occasionally having guys at his house.
He was able to speak openly about it with his housemates, and says they were incredibly supportive. Tom says it was “amazing”, he and his housemates hadn’t been massively close before but sharing his feelings with brought them together.
He went back to Bristol at the start of term and was able to carry on seeing guys, although Covid made it hard to date. He met one guy in a gay club before lockdown, but now the only way of meeting people is through dating apps – and choosing to break Covid rules. Tom says lockdown made it “harder to experiment and meet people”, but still thinks uni was a good environment for him to be able to explore his sexuality in.
Beth is also missing being able to connect with other members of the LGBTQ+ community. They say moving to uni “felt like a breath of fresh air”. They were able to explore more of gay culture, and says at uni there’s a “very inclusive atmosphere.”
They felt “a huge loss” when Pride events got cancelled last year, saying being in lockdown away from the community is “so isolating”.
‘I wouldn’t have come out without lockdown’
Before lockdown, Sussex student Georgia had kissed one girl but says she then convinced herself and her mates she was just drunk. This was the only gay experience she had at uni before lockdown, unlike what Emily describes.
Before they closed for lockdown, Georgia went to gay clubs a handful of times, but she wasn’t out. She describes always feeling upset the next day, after seeing how happy the other LGBTQ+ in there were. “I thought I’d never left myself feel that,” she says.
Feelings of guilt and shame for being gay are shared by many, and Georgia says she used to think she “didn’t deserve” to feel like the queer people she saw in clubs did.
Like most other uni students, Georgia went home for the first lockdown. This gave her time to start considering her feelings, and thinking about who she wanted to be after lockdown. She changed her dating app preferences and began to confront her internalised homophobia.
“There is no way I’d have come out without all three of the national lockdowns,” Georgia says. She doesn’t think she would have accepted herself as quickly as she did, and says although 2020 was “a year from hell”, she’s grateful it happened. Now she’s out, and for the first time feels truly optimistic about her future. “I’m ready to leave lockdown knowing I’m a better and happier person having gone though it,” she says.
Although Georgia hasn’t been able to live her “best gay life” during lockdown, she says she’s experienced an overwhelming amount of love and support. “I’m happy that when I come out of lockdown, all my mates will treat me the same and I’ll have gotten closer to so many more people.”
Coming out during a pandemic means Georgia hasn’t been able to have any of the gay university experience many are able to thrive on. Her uni’s LGBTQ+ society has hosted events like Zoom watch parties of It’s A Sin, but she says online events don’t appeal to her and there hasn’t been anything that has involved her “actively meeting queer people”.
‘I’ve lost faith in how safe it can be over the Internet’
With multiple lockdowns meaning gay clubs are shut, the only way for queer students to meet other LGBTQ+ people is online – through dating apps, like Tom, or online socials like Georgia describes.
But these spaces are increasingly becoming more and more unsafe. There have been incidents of “Zoom bombing” at unis, including an Edinburgh ACS LGBTQ+ event, Sussex DragSoc event, and a Durham college’s LGBTQ+ event. In these, anonymous attackers join the Zoom calls and shout homophobic and racist slurs.
The Tab spoke to president of MMU’s LGBTQ+ society, Becca. The society’s event for LGBTQ+ History Month was interrupted by homophobic “trolls”, who shouted “some really nasty comments” at those in attendance. The society has signposted its members towards help and resources, and are working on how they can make events safer in the future.
Becca says it’s important to have a safe space where people can work on different parts of their identity, but says she thinks it’s a “a very limited space for people”, especially during a pandemic. “I’ve lost faith in how safe it can be over the Internet,” Becca says, but she is adamant to ensure her space is as safe as possible. “People’s hatred can’t stop us being who we are. We are proud of who we are.”
Becca says in some ways, online events are more accessible. People who aren’t out can attend with their cameras off; and you can choose to put your preferred name and pronouns as your Zoom name.
The Internet works well in so many ways, but it also means people can hide behind a screen, as in the case of Zoom bombings. “The fact that it’s so easy to hide who you are is a scary thing,” Becca says. She’s only once experienced homophobia in-person, “but outside of that not many people would dare say it to your face. The type of people who have to sit behind a computer screen to shout the things they were shouting do not have the confidence to sit there and say it to your face at all.”
‘In lockdown we aren’t having to straighten everything’
For some, coronavirus has helped them embrace their identities further, in a way they weren’t able to before lockdown. Though Emily is now at home and unable to be out, she spent last summer living in her “super queer flat” at uni. Living with her flatmates and some of their partners, “I was actually living my gay lifestyle”, she says.
Emily and her flatmates did their own drag show and put on gay club nights in their living room. “I think we were overcompensating,” she says, because none of them are out at home.
In “normal times”, Emily and her housemates would obviously be mixing with other friends, which means going to straight clubs and house parties. But in lockdown, “because it was just us it worked out super gay. We weren’t having to straighten everything for mass enjoyment.”
*Some names have been changed to allow people to speak freely
The Tab’s Pride reporting series is putting a focus on highlighting LGBTQ+ issues and celebrating queer voices across UK campuses.
If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s an incident of homophobia on campus, an experience you’d like to share, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]