‘I’m finding lockdown difficult in terms of identity’: Cambridge LGBT+ students share their quarantine experience

Many are isolating with queerphobic, uninformed or unaware individuals

Like many students, I left college in a rush at the end of last term. My dad picked me up with short notice and I quickly packed my things and said goodbye to my friends, uncertain if I would see them again before Michaelmas. I forgot, however, to take off my nail polish before my dad arrived. I had gone to Glitterbomb the week before, sporting my ‘molten metal’ polish – a cute silvery black to match my turtleneck.

He was unusually quiet on the drive home, even though he hadn’t seen me in months. I knew exactly what was wrong, but had no idea how to approach the subject. Since I came out three years ago, my family has become a lot more supportive of my sexuality – but moments like this are stark reminders of just how much they still don’t accept about me.

At dinner that night, it was my mum who broke first. “Your nails are revolting”, she told me. My dad followed instantly: “Men can’t wear nail polish, Max”. After an argument about gender roles, body image and social constructs, I found myself alone in my room, removing the polish.

My favourite nail polish (now hidden in my room)

I was devastated when I found out term was cancelled. Whilst I don’t always like Cambridge, it’s the place where I learnt to be myself. I can wear nail polish, mascara and crop tops. I can hang out with LGBT+ friends who understand and inspire me. I can go to Glitterbomb every week and dance in a safe space, where I feel loved and accepted.

The prospect of being stuck at home with my family until October is upsetting and daunting. For me personally, Cambridge is an accepting environment, where I have learnt to explore and love my sexuality. This is the case for lots of LGBT+ students, many of whom are currently isolating with queerphobic, uninformed or unaware individuals. Here are their stories:

“I’m finding lockdown difficult in terms of identity”

Alex* has not come out to their family, and finds isolating with them particularly challenging as a result. They share their experience with the Cambridge Tab: “As loving as my parents are, I have not told them that I am bisexual and I’m finding lockdown difficult in terms of identity. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community is an important part of my life, and I enjoy queer culture and literature. Often my parents will ask what I’m reading or watching, and I wonder whether I should just reply honestly and explain.”

At this uncertain time, Alex worries that now would be a difficult time to talk openly about their sexuality: “I feel lockdown is perhaps not the time to have this discussion, due to the fact I cannot predict their reaction and wouldn’t wish us all to be trapped in the house together if it causes conflict.”

Pride flag above Gonville and Caius College. (Photo credit: Erin Hudson)

“The shift from being out in Cambridge to suddenly not being able to be open about my sexuality was difficult”

Sam* is another student who hasn’t come out to her family. In Lent Term, she started to explore and understand her sexuality more:  “I’m a bisexual woman and feel extremely lucky to have a safe and happy home environment. However, I’m still not out to my family, as it’s taken me an extremely long time to accept myself and I’m still working on it! It was only last term that I finally felt comfortable enough to start dating other women which was so exciting and amazing, and I’d even imagined coming out to my parents when I came home in the holidays, until someone I was seeing ended things with me just before lockdown started.”

Unfortunately, the sudden lockdown and closure of the University forced Sam to reconsider her position: “After feeling like I was finally having the experiences I’d never allowed myself to even want for so many years, the shift from being out in Cambridge to suddenly not being able to be open about my sexuality was difficult. I normally share everything with my parents so it was hard being upset and not being able to communicate why to the only people I’m able to see in person!”

Sam also notes that this experience is an opportunity for growth and reflection: “Lockdown has made me realise how far I still have to go in accepting my sexuality, having so much internalised homophobia stopping me from sharing this part of myself with my family despite knowing they’ll support me. Maybe it’s good to have the time for introspection so that once lockdown’s over I can pick up where I left off, but this time free of shame!”

The pride flag in Jesus College hall. (Photo credit: Erin Hudson)

“I felt completely alienated and dismissed by my parents”

Joe* is a student who used university as a chance to move away from their unaccepting family. Lockdown has forced them to return home. They told the Cambridge Tab: “I grew up in a very religious family, and coming to terms with who I am was always a very complicated process within the very tight frame in which I was supposed to evolve. After I had turned 18, all I wanted to do was leave home. Leave home at all costs. I love my family – my parents and siblings are very important to me – but I can’t help but ask myself this question: would they love me the same amount if they knew I was bi?

“I left home three years ago now, using my studies as an excuse to move away. Going back home for a few days once in a while was perfect. I would go when I missed my family, pretend I was everything they expected of me and leave before it got awkward. With the lockdown, I’ve had to go back home for an indefinite period of time – even if the lockdown ends soon I have had to leave my college room and to bring back all of my belongings to my parents’.

“Within my first week home, I felt completely alienated and dismissed by my parents. It’s just the little homophobic things that they casually say, it’s the switching channels when a gay character appears on TV, they don’t realise that they invalidate everything that I am. My mum asked me: ‘Why is there a rainbow pin on your jacket, do you know that the rainbow is the symbol for gay people? I hope you don’t support them, there are a lot of sins God can forgive but homosexuality sends you straight to hell. Take it out now, ok?'”

“Lockdown is actually giving me the opportunity to try out different gender expressions”

Charlie* is taking lockdown as chance to explore their identity. Their family is supportive and accepting and have created a safe environment for them. They say, “I’m lucky enough to live with a family that’s supportive of my sexuality and trans identity, and lockdown is actually giving me the opportunity to try out different gender expressions and clothing choices that I wouldn’t normally. My family is also trialling a new name for me, which would be far more difficult if we were engaged more with the outside world. This closed-in environment is very good for testing out a new name! I feel very lucky to be with a supportive family because many of my friends don’t, which must be really really horrible.”

“Part of my identity has got a tourniquet stuck on it”

Erin, a 2nd year MML student at John’s, also lives in a safe, welcoming environment, but misses the LBGT+ scene at Cambridge. “I’m extraordinarily lucky in that I have a family who are supportive and accepting, but being queer at home is still a far cry from being queer in Cambridge. Even without lockdown, there are no LGBT groups, events or spaces in my area; there’s also a lot less queer people.

“As much as my family support and accept me, they are straight so their support is much more theoretical. Also they’re my family – I’m not going to talk about my Cambridge crushes or which Too Hot to Handle characters are the fittest, queer or no. It just feels like I am apart from a big significant part of queer culture, and that part of my identity has got a tourniquet stuck on it.”

Erin, 2nd year MML student at John’s

“I miss being around other LGBT+ people who get me”

Taylor* is also missing the LGBT+ community at Cambridge. They say that it’s the “little things” making isolation difficult: “My parents are supportive and not homophobic at all, but there’s always a very awkward silence if I make any reference to or joke about my not-being-straight, which is then ignored as if I’d not said anything. I miss being around other LGBT+ people who get me and feel a bit isolated at home”

“Having Queerbridges pop up on my newsfeed is lovely as it reminds me of the Cambridge queer community”

Miriam, a first year HSPS student at Pembroke, got into a relationship with a girl from Homerton last term. They have been separated for five weeks now, and her family have been really supportive of her.  She says she is “very lucky” and has also found Queerbridge really helpful in keeping her connected to the Cambridge community. She shares, “I definitely feel like I have people to speak to and having Queerbridges pop up on my newsfeed is lovely as it reminds me of the Cambridge queer community”.

Miriam, 1st year HSPS student at Pembroke

“I’m not used to being away from university safe spaces for so long”

During their time stuck in isolation with their family, Francis* has been forced to open up more about their sexuality. “I have found it impossible to be guarded all the time about my sexuality because I’m not used to being away from university safe spaces for so long, and so I tested the waters and let myself make jokes in front of my parents because I missed being able to do that with my friends. They took it well and occasionally their jokes are okay too. I find it easier if we make it a lighthearted conversation when it comes up. Being around each other so much has brought it into conversation a lot more too.”

They share a particular experience that was pivotal point in building a stronger relationship with their parents: “I was upset by some queerphobia on a popular podcast I listened to and couldn’t hide that from my mum. When she asked what was wrong, I explained, and she was really angry at the podcast for sharing those views, which made me feel supported. I also finally told her why I never talked to my parents about being queer (because of something my dad had said when I first came out four years ago) and that felt like a good release, even if my dad still hasn’t apologised or fully understood why it hurt me so much.”

I think the potential struggles LGBT+ people are facing in lockdown has largely been overlooked and unexplored. I hope the voices of these students go someway in illuminating them.

*Names have been changed for students who wish to remain anonymous.