As students at the University of New Mexico dive into online instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic, some LGBTQ+ individuals are fearing for their lives as they’re forced back to unsafe living environments with little outside connection.
According to education specialist Frankie Flores with the UNM LGBTQ Resource Center, some students have had to move back into living environments with strict familial conditions where they are not allowed to be open about their sexuality or even have to detransition completely in order to be safe.
“If you’re living in a small town and you don’t know any other LGBTQ folks, how do you find community?” Flores asked. “How do you explore that sense of self?”
Adrien Lawyer, the co-director and co-founder of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico (TGRCNM), said LGBTQ+ students are also experiencing a heightened sense of isolation. He said this is particularly difficult for a community that already has a hard time connecting socially.
“It’s a whole word of potential challenges and dangers,” Lawyer said, adding that suicide is a regular fear in tense situations like these.
“It’s one thing to be lonely right now — which I think a lot of different kinds of people are contending with in the pandemic — but it’s a completely different thing to be trapped in a household of people who hate you or who are openly antagonist or even violent toward you,” Lawyer said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said schools are generally a safe space for students that allow them to socially and emotionally mature, especially for students in unsafe living environments.
“Students, in general, are just feeling a lot of detachment,” Flores said. “Students feel very isolated.”
The CDC stated on its website that “an environment where students feel safe and connected, such as a school, is associated with lower levels of depression, thoughts about suicide, social anxiety and sexual activity, as well as higher levels of self-esteem and more adaptive use of free time.”
UNM student Kiaira Patterson said the LGBTQ Resource Center is a great tool for students on campus.
“When it comes to LGBTQ issues, people think of the LGBTQ community as a niche market or as a trend sometimes,” Flores said. “The reality is that LGBTQ folks have always existed, and so it’s a place to learn LGBTQ history, it’s a place to learn current issues and it’s a place to just create community.”
The resource center — which is open to all students — offers counseling, educational materials, online workshops, unlimited printing and much more. The center normally offers HIV testing as well, but the center is still trying to work with its partner MPower to verify a safe way to continue offering tests during the pandemic.
“We have students who are coming here who have never been around queer folks before, and so it’s an opportunity for them to grow into their own queer identity,” Flores said.
The LGBTQ Resource Center is celebrating its tenth year in operation and plans to have an online event where a list of alumni speak about the center and their experiences.
However, not every university has a resource center specifically dedicated to serving the LGBTQ community, and Lawyer talked about other resources students could use, such as TGRCNM, Gender Spectrum, Trans Lifeline and more.
“There really are people out there to talk to and people to connect with, and (it’s important) to not lose sight of that because it can feel so bleak,” Lawyer said.
Still, he acknowledged that some individuals may not have the privacy to continue accessing these resources in strict living environments.
“I think that there is a constant need for connection, and what this pandemic has taught us is that we can meet people wherever they are,” Flores said.
Patterson said she has had an easier experience in her lifetime as a bisexual female than most other LGBTQ+ students but has still had experiences that others wouldn’t be targeted for. When she came out to her Southern Baptist family as bisexual in her freshman year, “it did not go over well.”
Patterson also recounted an incident where she was accosted by a preacher that had come to the UNM campus. According to Patterson, the man was holding an “abortion is murder” sign and approached her aggressively because of a rainbow pin she was wearing.
“LGBT students at the university level are contending with never being sure how they’re going to be received by their peers, by their professors; whether they’re going to encounter individual prejudice or bias,” Lawyer said.
Megan Gleason is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @fabflutist2716