While the LGBTQ community in the U.S. has made significant strides in recent years, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially for youth. According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ teens are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers. They also face disproportionately higher rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and PTSD.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has “exacerbated” these issues, says Amy-Sarah Marshall, president of the Charlottesville Pride Community Network. Some LGBTQ youth are stuck at home with families who are not supportive or accepting. Others have not come out to their families, so they cannot be their authentic selves at home, causing intense feelings of isolation and loneliness.
“The youth who have less supportive home environments are just really struggling a lot more,” says Rowan Johnson, Charlottesville youth program coordinator for Side by Side, which provides programming and resources for young LGBTQ people in Virginia. “Someone whose family doesn’t want them to talk about their identity. Or families who might also be under a lot of stress, and who don’t really want to deal with the queer-specific struggles that their kids are going through.”
Due to stay-at-home orders, LGBTQ youth have also lost access to the support systems they have at school, and other potential safe spaces. Even if they have a good relationship with family, they may still feel like they have nobody to talk to.
“Finding found family is a tried-and-true tradition in the LGBT community,” says Johnson. “Even those with supportive families are really missing their found family, and not being able to see each other and be together.”
To help, Side by Side offers Zoom support groups every week: one for ages 11-13, the other for ages 14-20. CPCN also has a weekly Zoom hangout for local kids and teens to talk and play games, says Marshall.
Marshall’s own child, Phin Green, an eighth grader at Buford Middle School who uses gender-neutral pronouns, says CPCN’s support group allows them to chat with people their own age.
“It’s nice to talk about stuff without fear of being judged,” they add. “Most of us can talk about stuff and not feel like we are going to be outed or hurt by other people on the call.”
Now that the support groups are online and not in person, some people who were not able to attend before the pandemic, due to issues like transportation and distance, have been able to participate, Marshall says.
But at Side by Side, Johnson says poor internet access has occasionally made it difficult for kids to join the meetings. Those who live in rural areas, or who come from unstable households, are the least likely to show up.
“We have a group of regulars who try to make it every single week,” he says. “But [attendance] is obviously much lower than it was in person.”
When the pandemic finally ends, LGBTQ youth will need even more support, as they recover from the additional trauma they may have endured at home. The people they rely on for support—including teachers, counselors, mentors, and LGBTQ organizations—are “going to need to be there for these kids, and allow them space to talk about [the pandemic] whenever this is brought up,” says Johnson.
“Sweeping this whole COVID time under the rug and trying to move on isn’t going to be helpful…The youth that we serve, they’re going to remember this time, and what it was like for the rest of their lives,” he adds. “We are really going to have to leave space to unpack it, and for youth to work through this.”