Like much of Canada, many queer people have spent the last year at home, trying to keep safe in a world marked by risk and uncertainty.
For some queer people, time at home has meant time away from communities and friends who recognize and support their gender and sexual identities. For others, time at home has brought opportunities to build new queer communities online — communities that offer a sense of belonging and recognition.
Our team of student and faculty researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough surveyed 366 queer people about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Survey responses indicate that living with family during the pandemic was significantly associated with elevated depression, anxiety and loneliness. This was particularly true for cisgender women and for non-binary or two-spirit participants.
To learn more about these experiences of depression, anxiety and loneliness, we also interviewed 46 of our survey respondents at length about the last year and a half. In those interviews, we heard about not only loneliness but also new connections that will shape their return to community and public life.
Struggling to receive support
Our study is one of several that looks at the ways public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic — especially social distancing and stay at home orders — may have especially adverse consequences for queer people’s well-being and health.
This research consistently points to the ways intersecting structural and cultural inequalities shape COVID-19’s impacts on queer people.
For example, COVID-19 threatens queer people’s long-standing vulnerability to anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. Older queer people may be especially vulnerable to loneliness and isolation because of already being twice as likely to live alone.
Like these studies, we have found that many young queer people have struggled to secure the support they need, particularly from their families.
Young queer people have less access to secure and stable housing under the best of circumstances (about 1 in 10 of our survey respondents had experienced homelessness at some point in their life). During COVID-19 this has meant many young queer people have moved back in with families of origin.
Though these living arrangements may have afforded young people some stability in an uncertain time, that stability has come at a cost. As a Black, agender and bisexual interviewee in their 20s explained: “I live with relatives who constantly threaten to kick me out of the house and render me homeless.” This interviewee feels compelled to be “in the closet” when with their family, for fear of being among the many queer young people living on the streets in urban North American centres.
Even those queer people who don’t live with a constant threat of homelessness may contend day-to-day with low-level hostility in their families and homes.
A 19-year old interviewee who described themselves as a “non-binary trans femme” explained, “[Family members] say they support me, but they really don’t. (T)hey don’t respect my chosen name, or preferred name, pronouns … I guess the best way I could describe their attitude towards me is, like, tolerant.”
Such imagination requires a valuing of queer life and a recognition of the particular costs of COVID-19 for queer young people. Family settings that offer only lukewarm support may exacerbate feelings of loneliness. For queer young people, the best possibilities and connections may sit outside the family in community and public life.
Connecting amidst isolation
Some of the people we spoke to worried that queer young people have lost out on important experiences of exploring their queerness and building queer community. An interviewee in his late twenties remarked, many queer young adults will either delay for “quite some time” or miss altogether the opportunity to explore their sexualities and genders in a vibrant queer community because of the pandemic.
As we return to public life, for some young and newly out queer people, the interviewee continued, “That window of time where they may be open to participating in that kind of community will have come and gone.”
However, others described finding new communities online during the pandemic. They expect those relationships and connections will help them build more caring and sustaining communities as the world reopens.
Young queer people’s best chance may lie in the care and support that more experienced members of their queer communities can offer.
In our interviews, those young queer people who’ve managed to connect with others online during the pandemic look forward to the return to public life with greater hope.
A bisexual cis woman in their 30s belongs to an invitation-only online group that began as a few people watching movies and playing video games together. A year later, the group has grown to nearly 50 people who share ideas about not only films and video games but also their genders and sexualities. This interviewee described feeling “more comfortable for the future now … I know these people and this great community, and they will all tell me, ‘Oh, no, we got you. When things reopen, you’re going to be invited to our parties. We’re going to go to these things together.’ And it’s like, yeah, they got me under their wing.”
This community is integral to this person’s sense of possibility: “Meeting those people, even if everything’s on hold right now, is actually making me comfortable … It’s almost better this way because we get to know each other virtually. And now it’s like, cool. I have a group of friends that, you know, we’re going to go do stuff together.”
As cultural critic Roxane Gay recently reminded readers,
“We still need people who will show us different ways we can be and what might be possible and what we should fight for.”
For queer people, those people are often outside our home, in our communities, holding up the light of possibility. As our communities emerge from a year marked by loneliness and new possibilities, our task will be to sustain those new connections, support one another, and remind ourselves of the different ways we might be.
This article, and the research behind it, would not have been possible without the work of Laura Beach, Jada Charles, Danii Desmarais, Leela McKinnon, Kaspars Mikelsteins, Jennifer Peruniak, Zarin Parisa Tasnim, and Pamela Tsui.