When she heard that her university campus would be shutting down after spring break due to the coronavirus pandemic, Alexis feared her life could fall apart.
She wasn’t able to afford campus housing this semester and is living instead in a nearby homeless shelter. But she depended on her school’s health and fitness center for daily showers and her school’s library for quiet study time.
“My whole life revolves around the university, and the university is closed,” said Alexis, a 34-year-old trans woman and student at the University of Eastern Michigan. (A university spokesperson told Vox that campus dining halls are still open for “grab and go” meals in accordance with a Monday order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; however, other services like the rec center are closed.)
When her school decided to shift to online classes, which meant finding a public space to study and attend classes, she knew that wouldn’t be possible in the shelter. She also knew that other public spaces would likely soon close to promote social distancing. She worried she may have to move back home with her father, who doesn’t support her transition and doesn’t use her name or correct pronouns.
“My relationship with my parents is not good, particularly my dad,” Alexis said. “My parents in general are just not very accepting of me, but [being] trans is kinda like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Alexis is one of thousands of LGBTQ college students dealing with campus closures; a 2016 survey of more than 33,000 college students found that 10 percent identified as LGBTQ. But many queer students don’t have a safe or supportive place to go home to while campuses struggle to manage the ongoing pandemic. When state and local health officials outlined guidance about closing down spaces where large groups gather, universities across the country were among the first to act in order to try to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, the disease stemming from the coronavirus.
On March 6, the University of Washington was the first to shut its doors, moving entirely to online classes in a region hit early in the pandemic. Since then, most schools have followed suit. But the closings disproportionately affect LGBTQ students, who are less likely in general to have supportive places to go home to.
“As a queer community, we have a long way to go. Oftentimes, for our youth, that means [they have] unfriendly places to go back home to from college — because at college at least maybe they’ve created a community, a group of friends, a support system,” said Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride. But sometimes “these situations or crises happen where students are asked to go home, and sometimes they don’t have a home to go to.”
What to do when LGBTQ students don’t have anywhere to go
The collective action by institutions of higher learning has triggered a panic among many queer students who have been forced to find alternative housing, medical providers, and even employment.
One of those students was Cooper, a 20-year-old junior attending DePauw University, a private college in Greencastle, Indiana. Cooper lives in on-campus housing and depends on a work-study job for income while he attends school. But the university’s decision to close meant scrambling to find basic accommodations.
“There had been rumors circulating between students that our university was going to cancel classes, but it kind of blindsided all of us,” he said. On March 12, DePauw gave students until March 20 to clear out, according to a university spokesperson. But then on March 15, the CDC issued a two-day travel advisory and the university informed students that they needed to leave the following day. It caught everyone off-guard.
“I am lucky enough to have a support system in Indianapolis, but I rely on this institution for my therapy, for medical treatment, and my whole support system is on campus,” he said. “There are other trans people I know on campus that aren’t lucky enough to have people they can stay with, that have families that have either kicked them out or they have to go back to being in the closet when they get home.”
At the same time, Cooper knows that closing campus was the right call to protect vulnerable people from Covid-19. “I completely understand the need for taking us off campus because there’ve been a lot of cases in the central Indiana area and they don’t want to risk a student getting infected. I get that they want to slow the spread of a pandemic. That being said, our university specifically seems to have given no options” for LGBTQ students who rely on the campus’s services. (The DePauw spokesperson told Vox that students were allowed to apply to stay on campus after the March 20 deadline, prioritizing international students, students who live far away from campus, students who do not have internet or other safe housing available, students who need access to special equipment to complete coursework, and others with extenuating circumstances.)
Different administrations have taken on different policies. Many schools have allowed international students and students with nowhere else to go to stay on campus. After initial vagueness when answering questions from a student reporter about housing for LGBTQ students, a spokesperson from Boston College, a Jesuit school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, told Vox that they were able to accommodate all of the LGBTQ students who applied to stay on campus during the outbreak. Nearby Northeastern University in Boston announced last Wednesday that students could also stay on campus if they needed to.
Ultimately, the level of support parents offer their LGBTQ kids dictates the decision-making process for how LGBTQ students handle their campuses shutting down in the wake of the pandemic. While many students are able to find alternative housing, some are forced to go back into the closet in order to move home with their parents.
Such is the case for Cal, a 20-year-old gender nonbinary student attending the University of Utah. Cal’s parents are conservative Christians, and Cal has never come out to them.
“I don’t think that they’ve earned that from me,” Cal told Vox. “I have repeatedly, time and time again, heard them say things about the queer community in general that did not resound with their quote ‘unconditional love.’ So that has discouraged me from being completely honest with them.”
Before Utah transitioned to online-classes, Cal was living in off-campus housing. It was a very supportive situation, and they attended a support group for trans and nonbinary students on campus.
Cal now finds themself living in their childhood bedroom again, trying to finish out the school year online. Cal is also now unemployed, having lost their on-campus job as a barista and any progress toward becoming a certified lab assistant, which means they can’t afford their off-campus housing. They had also planned on starting the application process for graduate school soon, but the shutdown has put those plans on hold as well.
Even with their life unraveling, they still think essentially shutting down the campus was the right call (a university spokesperson told Vox that the school has kept open its residence hall and dining services). “Despite the fact that it’s kind of destroying my life right now, I think that it will be easier for me to recover than somebody who could get the disease and perhaps not survive from it.”
In response to the pandemic and subsequent campus closings, some people have taken to offering their homes to LGBTQ students with nowhere else to go. In Washington, DC, locals organized a Google form to assist with housing students who can’t remain in student housing at nearby American University.
Windmeyer said that even when universities are strained under emergency circumstances, there’s often a queer community if not on, then around, campus that’s ready and willing to help. “I do think that in times of crisis that asking or making sure that you let people that you trust know your situation, many times through that openness and trust, people are able to come together and help each other,” he said.
In other words, queer students are doing what they’ve always done in times of crisis: turning to their communities for resources. That’s what Alexis ended up doing. She reached out to a local group offering direct support for students in need when Covid-19 cases first began popping up in Michigan. “I was like, ‘Oh, well I’ll reach out to them and see what we can do.’ And they hooked me up with a person who is generous enough to let me stay here.”
As millions of students see their lives turned upside-down by a global pandemic, queer and trans students are facing additional challenges. But they’re surviving through solidarity, a lesson that everyone will need to learn to overcome what’s ahead.