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, 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 “were not happy about it, so in family life I went back into the closet”. Her extended family still don’t know about her sexuality. She’s been living at home for the past few months. “Coming back is weird,” Emily says, “because it’s like a part of my life I just have to dance around.

“So many of my friends are gay, I am obsessed with queer culture and there have been occasions where I have had some very very close female friends.”

Being at home and not being able to be properly out, “my life is a fairly controlled version of what it was”, Emily says. “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 said: “The stigmas surrounding sexuality within South Asian culture as well as its forbidden nature in Islam make me too scared to ever say anything,” and said being home and not able to be out was “hard to adjust to”.

Similarly, Derby student Grey said coming home has had a massive impact on their mental health. “I hardly socialise and I have to try to fit this person my parents want me to be”, they said.

‘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: “I’ve never had a relationship with them where we’ve talked about really personal stuff so its much nicer to have that environment at uni.”

Tom says he “suppressed any gay feelings I had” 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 have guys round to his house.

He was able to speak openly about it with his housemates, and says they were incredibly supportive. “It was amazing,” Tom says. “We hadn’t been particularly close and it brought us together a bit because it was a big moment for me that I could share with them.”

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: “I suppose lockdown has made it a bit harder just because it’s harder to experiment and meet people, but I still think uni has been a great environment to explore my sexuality.”

Beth is also missing being able to connect with other members of the LGBTQ+ community. They say: “Moving to uni was a huge experience to explore gay culture outside of my own circle. It felt like a breath of fresh air. There’s just a different, very inclusive atmosphere around uni and students.”

They felt “a huge loss” when Pride events got cancelled last year, adding “it’s so isolating to be in lockdown away from the community”.

‘I wouldn’t have come out without lockdown’

Before lockdown, Sussex student Georgia had kissed one girl but then “convinced myself and my mates I was just too drunk to know what I was doing”. She says “that’s about as gay as it got for me before Covid” – she never got the university experience Emily describes.

Before they closed for lockdown, Georgia went to gay clubs a handful of times, but she wasn’t out: “Whenever I’d go, I’d get so depressed the day after thinking about how happy everyone was there. Like being in a club full of so many LGBTQ+ people made me feel so sad because I thought I’d never left myself feel that.” 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. “That’s what gave me the time to start thinking about everything and who I wanted to be after lockdown,” she says. 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. “I wouldn’t have accepted myself as quickly as I did, even though 10 months is a long time and 2020 was a year from hell, I’m very grateful it happened.” Now she’s out. “For the first time I genuinely feel optimistic about my future and where everything is heading. I’m ready to leave lockdown knowing I’m a better and happier person having gone though it.

“I definitely haven’t been able to live my best gay life during lockdown but I’ve been able to experience a scale of love and appreciation that still overwhelms me when I think about it. 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.

“Having a safe space for people to work on different parts of their identity is really important but I do think that it’s a very limited space for people, especially now with Covid”, Becca says. “I’ve lost faith in how safe it can be over the Internet, but I’m going to do as much as I can to ensure that we can make it as safe as possible.

“We want to take positives from negatives in terms of we want people to know this isn’t gonna stop us, we’re strong people and 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. “Having a safe space for people to work on different parts of their identity is really important but I do think that it’s a very limited space for people, especially now with Covid”, she says.

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. “I’ve once encountered someone saying something to my face about being part of the community, 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. “It was amazing”, she says. “I think we were overcompensating, all of us because I don’t think anyone’s out at home. It was just us, and in normal times we’d mix with other friends and go to straight venues or normal clubs or house parties.

“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

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