Charlotte Wakefield ’23 wakes up every morning just in time to connect to her 9 a.m. Zoom class from her room in Hopper College. She skips breakfast, but grabs lunches and dinners in to-go containers from the Trumbull dining hall. Besides occasional walks around campus, she spends most of the day in her dorm.
But Wakefield’s living situation is the exception to the rule. The Yale College Dean’s Office permitted her to stay on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic because returning home was an impossibility, she said — her parents, Mormons who live in Utah, effectively kicked her out last year, when she came out as a transgender woman.
For many of Yale’s LGBTQ+ students, the advent of the coronavirus crisis exacerbated hardships like Wakefield’s, or entailed leaving campus and moving back home for the indefinite future. For some, that meant returning to hometowns and home environments with less-accepting social climates than that of the campus colloquially known as the “Gay Ivy.” In 21 interviews with the News, queer students — many of whom requested anonymity, as they have not revealed their LGBTQ+ identities to family members — described an array of quarantine experiences that intersected with issues of gender, socioeconomic status, religion and national origin.
“Moving home has made me have to put being who I really am on the back burner for now,” a first-year student told the News. “Mental health-wise, that isn’t sustainable. But it’s what you have to do, you know?”
Alex Taranto ’23 said that at home, she feels “more separated” from both her identity and Yale’s LGBTQ+ community — while her parents are not unsupportive, she said, her queer identity was not something she has ever been encouraged to “engage with or talk about in the house.”
Another first year said that while her parents might not care if she came out, she does not feel comfortable having the same type of conversations about her sexual identity at home that she has been able to have at school.
Some students have returned to home environments that they say are actively homophobic, exacerbating mental health issues and stifling the expression of their sexual identities.
One first year described her hometown as “performatively liberal” — while it is not uncommon to see a rainbow flag outside a neighborhood house, she explained, many coworkers and peers have expressed bi-phobic views to her. Her parents are supportive of LGBTQ+ rights “in general,” she said, but not supportive of their daughter being a member of the queer community.
Another first year described his experience in quarantine as “stifling.” Although his town is fairly liberal, he said, his Asian-immigrant family holds socially conservative views.
“I’m pretty much going to be stuck in the closet whenever I’m home until I’m financially independent,” he said. “This has been a pretty big and sudden change from my life at Yale, and it felt really heavy when I first realized that I would be stuck in the closet again for the next five months, but I’ve adjusted.”
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Sidney Sims ’23 said, she was not planning on spending spring break at home, but has since been forced back to a town she describes as “extremely conservative, extremely Christian and usually deeply homophobic.”
Since being outed her junior year of high school, her relationship with her family has grown increasingly strained, she said.
“Everyone’s experience is definitely different, but most of my friends come from families where they are out and accepted, so they don’t really get what it’s like to, basically, be hated by the people they’re quarantined with,” she said.
Moving home has proven to be exceptionally challenging for some students who are transgender or questioning their gender identity. Some students, like Wakefield, did not begin transitioning until after they arrived at Yale, and living at home for prolonged periods means being misgendered by family members and being forced to present as a member of the sex they were assigned at birth.
Cameron, a transgender masculine student who requested he be referred to by his first name, said that moving home essentially forced him to go “back into the closet.” For him, that entailed hiding everything with the name he uses at Yale — his student identification card, phone and emails. He said he receives daily “pushback” about his wardrobe and appearance. Politically, the area he lives in leans conservative, he said, and even grocery shopping trips garner stares and confusion.
“I can’t shy away from looking queer, and I can’t stop how people perceive me, my mannerisms or my appearance,” Cameron said. “Being seen as queer is not something you always opt into, and not something you can always hide.”
Leaving Yale abruptly also posed a setback for students questioning their gender identity. One first year said that the biggest challenge he’s experienced during quarantine has been the suppressed exploration of his gender identity, which he said was a “huge part of why [he] was excited to go to college.”
Prior to spring break, he was on track to start medically transitioning to a transgender male, which he said is now “on hold indefinitely.” But he said his parents have made it clear that they would not support a social or medical transition.
“I’ve been surprised by how helpful having all this extra time with myself has been in terms of thinking through my identity and how I visualize myself in the future,” he said. “It has made me more certain in who I am, and in a way, being in an environment that is not validating has further made me realize that this is not a sustainable way of living for me. I was previously on the fence about who I was and whether I wanted to pursue transition, and now I am [surer] than ever.”
Cameron also noted that for many students, returning home to unsupportive environments has meant a loss of ready access to health care they received at Yale, like birth control prescriptions, hormone-replacement therapy, mental health treatment or, in his case, trans-affirming care.
For other students, returning home has not had an intensely negative impact on their LGBTQ+ identity.
“I just can’t talk about more progressive stuff because my parents are a little bit conservative,” one first year said. “But it’s not a big deal because that’s just like how middle school and high school [were], you know?”
Eliya Ahmad ’23 said that growing up in New York City, the queer identities of her and her sister were “never an issue” in her family or community — in fact, she said that while the Yale community has always been respectful, it strikes her as “far more heteronormative” than her high school, where most of her friends and many of her teachers identified as queer. Being back in New York, she said, her queer identity is seen as “the default.”
Still, several students said that while being at Yale had helped them embrace their sexual identity, returning home has forced that identity to be hidden. One first year said that if she had previously had access to accepting spaces like those at Yale, she could not “imagine the [levels] of confidence and love [she] would emit today.”
“Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult for the resources that Yale has to offer to transfer over into my life at home, where I simply cannot escape the environment I’m in,” she said. “I’m in the space where I first learned to despise who I am, and I’m with the people who helped me to do so.”
As Ash, a first-year student who requested she be referred to by her first name, said, any school is limited in how it can support students during a crisis like this one, particularly regarding issues of gender and sexuality. However, Ash said, it is critical for the University to publicize its available resources.
In interviews, many students said that the Office of LGBTQ Resources has been the main source of support throughout quarantine. The office sends out weekly email newsletters with announcements and virtual events, such as Zoom dinners for queer people of faith, virtual queer teas and Zoom study hours.
Students also said that many of their peer liaisons — students employed by the office to serve as mentors — have been supportive and engaged throughout the pandemic.
Staff members at the Office of LGBTQ Resources did not respond to requests for comment.
Students are also seeking support in relationships and networks they built on campus outside of the resource office itself. One first year said that as a queer person of faith, he’s been staying connected during quarantine through Luther House, Yale’s Lutheran campus ministry.
Vivian Vasquez ’23 said that she’s spent much of her time in quarantine FaceTiming other queer Yalies, discovering LGBTQ+ communities on Twitter and TikTok and watching movies on the platform Netflix Party with the girl she was dating prior to the semester moving online. The activities have helped her “retain a sense of kinship” with Yale’s LGBTQ+ community, she said.
According to Avik Sarkar ’23, quarantine has created opportunities for queer communities to strengthen their bonds and create new ones digitally. He said that dating and hook-up apps have become spaces for “productive conversations,” because in-person meetings are precluded by the pandemic.
Still, Sarkar said that in addition to societal inequities the COVID-19 crisis is highlighting — such as job and food security, Internet access and health care — the pandemic is also “emphasizing the sort of inequities we already knew were there” for many queer people, like unsupportive or unsafe home environments.
Sarkar said he thinks the University should be doing more to support queer students during quarantine.
“The onus to support marginalized students has always fallen on their respective offices,” Sarkar said. “So, whether it’s first-generation, low-income students or queer students or international students, I think it really should be the responsibility of the entire administration to support vulnerable students. The responsibility is often delegated to specific offices, like the Office of LGBTQ Resources, and, yes, obviously that’s what they’re there for, but the administration should also play a huge role.”
In a statement to the News, Dean of Student Affairs Camille Lizarribar said that students also receive “broad, University-wide support” through their residential colleges and through bodies like Yale Mental Health and Counseling, the Chaplain’s Office, the Office of Student Affairs, the Office of Gender and Campus Culture and SafetyNet.
Several students said they thought the University should be doing more to protect the mental and physical health of its queer students. Gianna Griffin ’23 said she thinks the University should conduct a wellness survey of all its students.
Ahmad said she thinks the University should have been more accommodating of students who petitioned to remain on campus because of homophobic home environments — she said more people should have been allowed to stay on campus.
“We know that whether they’re on or off campus or ‘at home,’ many LGBTQ students face difficult situations,” Lizarribar said. “We are not aware of any LGBTQ student who wished to stay on campus and was not allowed to do so.”
“One of the things that continuously worries me about the prospect of the quarantine lasting beyond the summer is thinking about how COVID-19 is disproportionately harming other queer Yalies who might not have the leisure of easily sheltering in place with a nuclear family like mine and who physically cannot access their social support structures like their therapists or queer mentors,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said she thinks the University should consider setting up a support fund for LGBTQ+ students without a safe household to return to.
“For many of us, college was the safe haven we [imagined] and pinned our hopes on for years — to lose that so suddenly is really difficult.” Cameron said. “[Especially] since some students have nowhere else to go. Even if you can come back home, maybe, like me, you’re returning on the condition that you suppress parts of yourself.”
Olivia Tucker | firstname.lastname@example.org