By Sonia Rubeck
BU News Service
The last seven months have forced Americans to isolate in their homes to avoid spreading COVID-19. For LGBTQ youth who face disproportionate rates of suicide, unstable housing and depression compared to their non-LGBTQ counterparts, social distancing and other restrictions can have dire consequences.
For many LGBTQ youths, safe spaces are key for those struggling in unsupportive environments. Now that the pandemic has caused shutdowns and limited in-person gatherings, LGBTQ groups have been looking for ways to continue providing necessary resources to LGBTQ individuals. Events, therapy appointments and networking conferences have almost completely shifted to virtual platforms for groups operating statewide, in Boston and on college campuses.
Kris Berg, Vice President of Boston University’s Queer Activist Collective, said providing a space of belonging is especially important under current circumstances.
“Given the two pandemics occurring – COVID-19 and race-based violence – a lot of people are feeling isolated and struggling mentally,” Berg said in an email. “It is so important to have a space [albeit a virtual one] where folks can come and feel affirmed, uplifted, and safe.”
The QAC, a resource center for LGBTQ students at Boston University, has gone fully remote because of attendance restrictions on in-person gatherings. The center holds themed social events, educational workshops on LGBTQ history and safe sex practices and discussions surrounding activism and allyship.
One QAC event in June, for example, featured Japan-based makeup artist and Buddhist monk Kodo Nishimura who spoke about the connection of love and self-acceptance between Buddhism and the LGBTQ comunity before a makeup demonstration.
Berg said that despite challenges that come with adjusting to online spaces, remote interactions do not preclude meaningful connections.
“We’re really navigating through this new virtual world and trying to mitigate the issues that come with that, including feeling a heightened sense of anxiety, awkwardness, and even detachment,” Berg said. “Ultimately, we’ve found ways around these issues and are starting to build a great virtual safe space for LGBTQ+ people.”
Berg said maintaining privacy and safety for LGBTQ youth in online spaces has posed one of the greatest challenges for virtual events.
“It is very important that people can feel comfortable attending from wherever they are, such as if they’re not in an accepting environment and cannot fully participate,” Berg said.
To mitigate these concerns, Berg said, meetings cannot be recorded or photographed and only authenticated users are able to join.
Similarly, the Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, a which operates in the Greater Boston and Framingham area, has suspended in-person services including therapy, discussion groups and mentorship services for LGBTQ youth of color and moved to virtual platforms.
Akané Kominami, Behavioral Health Services Manager at GLASS, said access to mental health services for LGBTQ youth is especially important right now given the stresses that come with living through a pandemic.
“Some challenges that LGBTQ youth of color face are having increased feelings of fear, anxiety and depression which for some people is related to getting COVID-19 and for others it’s related to their environment and how the news we get has heightened anxiety,” said Kominami, the Behavioral Health Services Manager at GLASS.
LGBTQ youth now face increased time with unsupportive household members, delays in gender affirming surgeries and changes to sexual health access and strategies, Kominami said.
GLASS now offers a virtual drop-in twice a week and therapy via video conferencing, phone and text in lieu of in-office meetings. During a drop-in visit, an individual has the opportunity to establish an informal relationship with a therapist and then gradually introduce the prospect of formal therapy appointments.
Kominami said the goals of GLASS will remain the same even as in-person gatherings continue to be restricted, as consistent access to resources is a key indicator to LGBTQ youth that networks are still available to them, even online.
“It’s important to send the message that [the LGBTQ community has] always been here and always will be,” said Kominami.
High school-focused LGBTQ activism groups are also embracing virtual platforms to develop community. For example, the GSA Student Leadership Summit was held remotely this summer. Hosted by the MA Commission for LGBTQ Youth, the event offers high school students the opportunity to learn about leadership and activism among their peers.
Evan Gilbert, the GSA Program Administrator for the Commission, said the event was able to foster a sense of community despite its large size and virtual format.
“Some of the students by the end of the summit felt so comfortable that they actually came out,” Gilbert said. “It was really rewarding to watch them open up and to see how the sessions that we had during the summit inspired them to move forward that way.”
Barriers persist on virtual platforms but keeping the community intact has not been lost in the upheaval of the pandemic, Gilbert said.
“The high rates of attendance that we still have virtually, versus in-person, goes to show how the LGBTQ community is one that is self-made,” Gilbert said. “These are the people that are part of the community because they actively seek it out.”