The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the lives of college students nationwide. Some LGBTQ students have faced mental and physical health challenges due to quarantine and isolation, after students returned to campus.
LGBTQ+ Studies courses have existed for decades, but minors or certificates in such studies have been offered at many institutions for fewer than 20 years. Research, scholarly discourse, and interest continue to grow, with the pandemic bringing new areas to investigate.
“Since the pandemic struck, I have seen an upswing in LGBTQ+ Studies student interest in mutual aid,” says Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, associate professor of sociology and director of LGBTQ+ Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which offers an undergraduate certificate. “While before the pandemic, student attention might have focused more on queer crafting, grassroots political organizing, or reforming family structures, the topic of communities finding ways to provide for themselves the social services they need has really piqued students’ interest.”
Mutual aid is when people bond together to meet each other’s needs understanding that existing systems do not meet their needs. They also work to see established systems improve their responses. Costello says the last two years have been stressful, and he has noticed students in general dealing with mental health issues that have been more pronounced for LGBTQ+ students.
Each semester, Costello surveys students in his classes to get information about their lives, interests, and challenges. In fall 2020, 40 % of students in his online introductory level sociology class reported mental health issues. In his LGBTQ+ Studies-affiliated course, 65 % of students reported somewhat or very poor mental health since the start of quarantine. Graduate student instructors, working together with Costello, provided “informal social work services” for the undergraduates.
“Things have yet to return to the pre-COVID normal, such as it was,” says Costello. “It has been exhausting for lots of folks, but it has been a privilege to see my graduate student instructors go above and beyond the call of duty to help struggling undergrads and to witness students in LGBTQ+ Studies courses supporting one another.”
While Costello says there was a drop in the retention of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students, student evaluations show that the staff of the LGBTQ+ Studies program made a real difference in retaining at-risk students and helping them succeed. “That’s something to feel good about,” he says.
Dr. Kristie Soares is assistant professor of Women & Gender Studies and co-chair of LGBTQ Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Soares says she is seeing an increased need, including housing and food insecurity, among queer and trans students — particularly individuals of color — since the onset of the pandemic.
“Our work has shifted somewhat from our academic mission to getting students what they need in order to even be able to focus on their academics,” says Soares, who also sees students focused on mutual aid.
Gleaning insights from student reporting
Given current circumstances, there has been an increased interest in examining how LGBTQ students, who may already feel marginalized, navigate an unexpected crisis such as the pandemic. “Students are doing really great work in thinking about frameworks like disability studies and the way that disability studies intersect with queer and trans studies to talk about how the pandemic is illuminating forms of systemic inequity,” says Soares.
The University of Colorado Boulder offers a certificate in LGBTQ Studies. The interest in coursework is there, says Soares, but in some cases, the economic realities preclude participation. “Every LGBTQ Studies program has to be thinking about the ways that programs like ours in some ways have always been on tenuous ground,” Soares says. “We [at Colorado] have not had serious threats to our funding. We have university support. Actually, we’ve had increasing amounts of donor support during the pandemic.”
After more than a decade of students expressing interest in a minor in LGBTQ Studies, Queens College (part of City University of New York) approved the minor in 2019. Additional courses were developed, including queer theories. Dr. JV Fuqua, associate professor in the department of Media Studies and director of the women and gender studies program, was teaching the queer theories course in the spring 2020 semester when there was the sudden pivot to remote learning.
“The cohort of students in that class was a particularly strong collection of souls,” says Fuqua, who has continued to teach remotely but expects to return to the classroom for the fall 2022 semester. “They were vibrant, curious, dedicated, excited, grateful, and energized to be in that classroom.
“The courses are full, and we continue to add students to the LGBTQ minor and also to the women and gender studies program,” they add. “The challenges that have been faced by the students interested in the minor at Queens College have been the challenges faced by students in general at Queens College since the start of COVID.”
Dr. Sean G. Massey is an associate professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Binghamton University, a State University of New York institution that co-facilitates the Binghamton Human Sexualities Research Lab. Massey, a social psychologist, runs the lab with three colleagues. Each semester, the lab includes approximately 20 undergraduates interested in research about human sexuality broadly defined. Among their research topics is sexual identity and gender identity. There are four or five on-going projects in groups called analytic communities.
“We’ve been looking at archival materials related to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC, a community-based AIDS service organization),” says Massey, who volunteered at GMHC from 1988 through the late 1990s and conducted evaluation research. In addition to a special collection at the New York Public Library, Massey has a personal collection of GMHC materials. The undergraduates knew little about GMHC, or the AIDS epidemic, and they decided to conduct some oral history interviews.
“They’re incredibly moved by these stories,” Massey says. “It’s important we’re having these cross-generational conversations.”
Massey also teaches a course on LGBTQ history. The students read various histories and watch several documentaries, including “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP,” which was the propellor of AIDS activism. Students say this is the first time they’ve learned about how the community came together and responded to the AIDS crisis, and they see the parallels to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“The fact that we have [COVID] vaccines being developed so quickly now is a direct result of ACT UP, where they got drug trials to be expedited,” says Massey. “There is a connection between the work ACT UP did to get drugs released faster during the AIDS epidemic and the fact that we were able to get the vaccines released quickly.”
“Students are interested in a version of LGBTQ Studies that is in conversation with intellectual approaches like abolition, disability studies, Black Studies, Latinx Studies,” says Soares. “They are taking a very intersectional approach to LGBTQ Studies that understands that gender and sexuality were already intersecting with other categories of marginalization.”
Something Massey has seen, which he thinks may evolve into research in the years ahead, is the impact the pandemic has had on LGBTQ+ students. For traditional college students, ages 18–22, college is a time to explore their sexuality, develop their identities and find community, all of which have been impeded by quarantine and then social distancing.
“They’re not able to access the same kinds of social connections that they may have expected and that cohorts before them were able to,” says Massey. “Basic psychological needs, like intimacy, affiliation, and sex don’t simply disappear during a global pandemic. Public health campaigns need to give them a bit more attention.
“The students are very interested in how COVID affected sexual behavior and intimate relationships among college students,” he continues. “They want to look at how college students are handling COVID and reacting to it in terms of their intimate lives and sexual lives.”
Fuqua mentions recent Queens College graduate Sara Clayton’s senior thesis, “The Queering of Compulsory Monogamy as Community Care.” One topic Clayton explored was the impact of COVID-19 on polyamorous family structures and how care is reconfigured in a non-normative family context.
While Fuqua’s research has been on hold during the pandemic, they did write an article about “Pose,” a television series about the LGBTQ ballroom scene and subculture in the 1980s. The series dramatizes the culture celebrating LGBTQ individuals with a cast of LGBTQ actors.
“I felt compelled to write it because of my experience in that class in spring 2020,” says Fuqua. “We had been talking about ‘Pose’ and thinking about the series. Then, the Black Trans Lives Matter and the BLM protests of that summer re-energized me to finish that piece.”
Watching this LGBTQ minor thrive and be in a space where students of various backgrounds and interests create community is meaningful to Fuqua, who sees growing interest. “I want to grow the program,” they say. “I would love to see it be a major. I would love to get scholarships going for students who are minoring in LGBTQ Studies.”