Campus LGBTQ centers adapt to continue helping students amid COVID
By McKenzie Morgan
While walking to English class to take a midterm in March of 2020, then-sophomore Taylor (whose name has been changed to protect their identity) received an email from the dean of students instructing Central Connecticut State University students and staff to leave campus because a student had been exposed to the coronavirus.
As students and faculty rushed to get off campus, the campus’ parking garages became backed up and then the campus was empty soon after, Taylor recounts.
“It was really weird,” Taylor, now a junior psychology major and student worker at CCSU’s LGBTQ Center, says. “It was just kind of like the apocalypse.”
Like many other college students across the country, Taylor’s college experience was shifted completely online, where the campus resources he relied on were now entirely virtual.
A Human Touch in an Online World
As universities across the country shifted their classes online, so did their clubs and organizations that supported their most vulnerable students.
While the dramatic shift happened almost immediately, the centers that serve the universities’ LGBTQ students were most concerned with keeping the community alive.
“The greater concern was the loss of community, because the community that they had established on campus really supported and nurtured them,” says William Mann, CCSU history professor and coordinator of the university’s LGBT Center in New Britain.
Once the university decided to shut its doors and move to virtual, the LGBT Center was one of the first organizations to shift programming to make sure it could still serve its students as efficiently as possible, says Mann.
“The goal was to keep the students connected so that they didn’t feel isolated during this period of time,” he adds.
It hasn’t stopped the program from running at full speed. Since shifting to virtual programming, the center has organized several online-based events, from movie screenings to panels with guest speakers.
In New Haven, Southern Connecticut State University has seen its own set of challenges as its LGBTQ resource center also adapts to virtual life.
The Sexuality and Gender Equality Center, known as the SAGE Center, closed its doors on campus in March 2020 and immediately launched virtual programming and engagement efforts.
For Jenna Retort, coordinator of the SAGE Center and the university’s assistant director for the Office of Student Conduct and Civic Responsibility, the hardest part has been making sure the students are feeling connected.
“It’s really hard in this environment and it doesn’t seem like anybody has the best or the right answer,” Retort says.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the SAGE Center offered a variety of services for students, including running the “Open Door Closet” (where students can obtain donated clothing and toiletries) and collaborating with the university food pantry. Since then, it has organized limited in-person events, and the center itself is open for students to visit and access the closet. The SAGE Center has also hosted events on Instagram Live, such as a virtual Welcome Week, movie streaming, and an Among Us “Gayme Night” in December.
Southern’s Lavender Graduation, which honors graduating LGBTQ students and their achievements, virtually paid tribute to graduates in May 2020 by posting short biographies of each of them, along with positive messages written by faculty and administrators, on its website.
“It was kind of a quick turnaround and kind of thinking on our feet and offering our services and our programming in different ways,” Retort says.
“As we continue to be in this pandemic, part of the focus is creating outreach spaces,” says Diane Ariza, the university’s vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
To make sure that the students are staying connected with the center’s staff quickly and safely, the SAGE Center added a live chat feature to its website.
“I think it is really important for students, and even for prospective students who might not be out, might be questioning their identity, and who [might need] a more private avenue to be able to explore what resources are available to them,” Retort adds.
The University of Connecticut also transitioned to fully remote learning around this time and The Rainbow Center, the campus’ LGBTQ center, immediately set out to be proactive.
UConn, which was voted the top LGBTQ+ friendly college in the state in 2020, has also shifted the Rainbow Center’s programming online to make sure its students still have access to their community.
Aside from virtual movie screenings and game nights, the Rainbow Center also established virtual “coffee hours” where students can have more personal interactions outside of their classes.
“I think that’s really important because we needed to have times where it wasn’t always just the next Zoom,” says Kelsey O’Neil, director of the Rainbow Center. “You also need those little personal interactions.”
When the state shut down schools and universities in March, Trinity College students were on their spring break as they heard the news that they were moving to remote learning, says Carrie Robinson, the former director of LGBTQ Life at Trinity College, now director of diversity and inclusion at the University of New Haven.
“It was really figuring out a new way of advocating for students and getting students to see [the Queer Resource Center] as a safe space and me as a safe person during this time,” Robinson says.
Connecting to their students during a time of isolation with better programs has been a main priority for Trinity College and the LGBTQ Life Center, Robinson says.
“It’s just been being more intentional with the type of the types of programs that we’ve got and focusing more on the quality of the program versus the quantity of the programs,” she adds.
Like its fellow universities, Trinity has hosted several events for its students online over Zoom, from a livestream of their annual Transgender Remembrance Day vigil to a “Friendsgiving” event on Thanksgiving which included a Grubhub gift card so students could virtually gather for dinner.
To make sure that students still have a safe space and connection with the university, even remotely, these universities have worked to ensure each student has access to the proper technology.
Peers Helping Peers
Student workers play an important role in campus LGBTQ centers. They offer peer-to-peer relationships that students can’t get with faculty members, and which allow for a different kind of connection, Mann says.
“Sometimes it is very empowering to talk with a peer,” he adds.
UConn has a peer mentoring program called FAMILEE where first-year and transfer students are matched with mentors to help them, O’Neil says.
Having student workers who can relate to their peers who use the centers helps make it a more comfortable environment, Taylor says. “I think it makes the environment even better because we understand each other. It makes it easier for us to communicate with each other.”
Before the pandemic, CCSU held training and workshops about twice a month for campus faculty, staff, students and campus police, Mann says. The training courses offer instruction and education on allyship, intersectionality and racial justice, and various LGBTQ-specific issues.
Although they have since moved online, the training courses still remain a top priority for Mann and the center, he adds. And throughout the 2020 winter break, more than six other campus organizations reached out to the LGBT Center, asking for virtual training to make their spaces safe and inclusive for their students, Mann says.
From September through mid-February, the center has conducted more than 13 pieces of training for faculty, departments, and organizations across the university, according to Pat Bingham, university assistant for the LGBT Center and counselor education Master of Science student.
Trinity’s LGBT Life Center also offers a “Safe Space” training course that educates the university’s faculty and staff on current LGBTQ issues and allyship, and is currently working to move online so more people can be trained during the pandemic, Robinson says.
“This virtual world has amplified the need to move quicker on getting that online,” she adds.
Even though the training and discussions are now held over platforms like Zoom and Webex, it hasn’t impeded on the conversations that need to be had, Bingham says. “I feel like it’s given a lot more people the ability to be comfortable asking questions that may be uncomfortable to have asked in person.”
For students like Taylor, these training programs are significant in creating an inclusive and accepting environment.
“It’s just one way to help the students who are home in abusive and toxic environments find some sort of safe space with their professors and with the LGBT Center, which I think is a great way to help our faculty understand us more,” Taylor says. “It just makes me feel really good knowing that I have people who are okay with me and are glad to be there to make me feel safe.”
A Safe Space for All
These LGBTQ resource centers have also adopted an understanding of intersectionality into their programming and training to better support every aspect of students’ identities.
“We need to have an intersectional understanding of the LGBTQ experience because if we don’t talk about things like institutionalized racism, … implicit bias and implicit sexism, we are failing an awful lot of our students,” Mann adds. “None of our students have only one identity and when we understand that they have multiple identities, we have to look at the different needs for each of those identities.”
Says Southern’s Ariza, “We understand the importance of intersectionality of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, political, spectrum, disability – all of these come into play. We have to be more intentional about that.”
“We want our work to look at oppression across multiple identities,” O’Neil says. “We try and advocate for increasing education, access, retention, identity development, and community building for queer and trans spectrum communities.”
Looking Toward the Future
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced some LGBTQ students back to unsupportive homes, the risks of housing and food insecurity became major concerns for the centers’ leaders. Even before the pandemic, LGBTQ youth were twice as likely to experience unstable housing than their peers; now they are at even greater risk, according to a 2020 report by The Trevor Project.
Mann also worries about university drop-out rates increasing among the LGBTQ community, as he’s watched several of his students leave the university since the pandemic started.
Taylor agrees. “Even as a student, I’m worried about these other students because, you know, they’re gonna be losing out on a great education that they could be getting,” Taylor says.
In an effort to combat this, center leaders are striving to make their spaces a home-over-Zoom for their students.
“The main thing is to provide a safe space for students, but also a nurturing space and a creative space,” Mann says.
“The safe space was at the college or the university, it often was not at home,” Ariza adds.
While the resource centers are striving to keep their students engaged and connected, they still can’t beat the Zoom fatigue that most students are experiencing.
“I think folks are also feeling the fatigue of Zoom or virtual because you’re on all the time,” O’Neil says. “The answer is maybe we actually give people a break and listen to what our students need.”
Robinson at Trinity College hopes to get the students reconnected back to the LGBTQ+ Life’s center when in-person activities are allowed to fully resume, to help bring back that sense of home.
“We worked really hard over the past couple of years to get students to feel like they had a home in the center,” Robinson says. “So my hope is that when we come out of this pandemic and out of COVID, they still … see this as a place and as a home for them.”