While Pride month is typically the most visible time of the year for the LGBTQIA+ community, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Penn’s LGBTQIA+ students inside this June.
Penn's LGBT Center Director Erin Cross said the Center is normally fluttering with activity during the spring semester and summer months. But ever since on-campus operations shut down in mid-March due to the pandemic, the Robert Schoenberg Carriage House — the site of the LGBT Center — has been forced to close its doors.
QPenn, Penn’s annual LGBT pride week that usually takes place in mid-March, was also canceled. Beyond Penn's campus, Pride parades in Philadelphia and across the nation have been postponed or canceled entirely.
“Any time that ability to go celebrate yourself is taken away, it kind of chips at your armor, ” Cross said.
In previous years, rising College senior Tias Volker — who uses the pronouns he/him and they/them interchangeably — has enjoyed Pride celebrations as a public space to celebrate his identity and socialize with his friends. Volker said they are concerned that this year’s digital pride celebrations will feel more individual than the usual in-person parades.
Rising College sophomore Peyton Toups, who came out earlier this year, said he is disappointed that his first Pride celebration after coming out won’t be in person. Nonetheless, Toups said he still appreciates the wide variety of online events that are available throughout the month.
Since returning to his hometown of New Orleans due to the campus' closure, Toups said he is frustrated to be in isolation, particularly from the LGBTQIA+ community, so soon after he came out.
“It's kind of like a reset, but not in a good way,” Toups said.
Though Cross said many members of Penn’s LGBTQIA+ community come from families who support their identities, she said it was surprising to learn about the large number of undergraduate students who have been forced to conceal their identity from people they are spending time in quarantine with. Cross said many of these students are rising sophomores.
“[Students are] using that emotional energy to have two lives: one where your caregivers think you're this certain person, and who you actually are. It's emotionally exhausting,” Cross said.
Because of complicated relationships with their families, many students who identify as LGBTQIA+ chose to stay in Philadelphia after the campus shut down.
Cross said Penn provided on-campus housing for all transgender applicants who explicitly said they did not feel comfortable going home because they were transgender. This outcome was not guaranteed from the outset, however, and some members of Penn’s LGBTQIA+ community were not aware that applying to stay on campus could be an option for them.
Rising College senior Erin O’Malley is one of many LGBTQIA+ identifying students who stayed in Philadelphia in off-campus housing. O’Malley became independent from their family earlier this year, and they plan to live in Philadelphia year-round next year. The loss of on-campus resources, including the FGLI Pantry at Greenfield Intercultural Center and food from on-campus events due to the campus' closure, was a difficult adjustment, O’Malley said.
Volker also chose to stay in Philadelphia through the end of the spring semester, as they have a complicated relationship with their home life. Volker said he strictly self-isolated for his physical health, but said being alone for an extended period of time took a toll on his mental health.
“It got to a point where it had been a week since I had a touch, physical touch, with any other human being,” Volker said.
He said after coping with the isolation for nearly two months, he decided to return home for about a month after the semester concluded. Returning to see family was also stressful, given their complicated home life, so they ultimately chose to return to Philadelphia. His brother, who is also transgender, plans to move to Philadelphia to live with Volker after two weeks of self-isolation.
Many LGBTQIA+ students are keeping in touch through online group chats and social media. Rising College sophomore Walli Chen said she appreciates being able to virtually correspond with LGBTQIA+-identifying members of campus groups that are not queer-specific, such as Penn Band. O’Malley said they feel similarly about the connections they’ve formed through the Excelano Project, an on-campus spoken word poetry group and non-LGBTQIA+ specific organization.
“I think it's been really exciting to find queer people in the space that wasn't necessarily carved out for queer people,” O’Malley said. “It just feels like we've made that space our own. I'm definitely really appreciative of that.”
LGBT Center Associate Director Malik Muhammad and Cross both host weekly virtual office hours and "family dinners" via BlueJeans, and are working on outreach efforts to graduate, professional, and international students who identify as LGBTQIA+. The Center also plans to expand its non-synchronous programming so that students across time zones are able to participate in more of its events.
Volker and Cross both said while videochats are nice for staying in touch, many LGBTQIA+ students who have not come out to their caregivers do not have adequate privacy to fully participate in the calls. For those who do not have a private space to speak with others, Cross said corresponding via email has been instrumental in maintaining contact.
While Pride Month began on June 1, protests against police brutality and racial injustice have also erupted across the country and worldwide. Many members of the LGBTQIA+ community, including both Chen and O'Malley, said they are emphasizing the importance of intersectionality and solidarity during this time by educating friends and family and contacting their local governmental officials.
Chen and O’Malley highlighted the contributions of transgender women of color, from the Stonewall riots in 1969 to the larger LGBTQIA+ equality movement.
“I think it's important as a part of Pride to recognize the history of the gay rights movement and why it's so important to advocate, whether it's through protest, through donations, through even just raising awareness as a bare minimum, why it's important to be supporting similar movements now,” Chen said.
This month, O’Malley said they are organizing weekly Zoom calls with their friends to write letters and sign petitions that demand racial justice for Black people.
“I think [the protests are] truly a testament to people's desire and need for change right now, and I hope that's something that continues to be urgent, even when we are able to be present with each other in person,” O’Malley said.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.