Creating queer community at UC Berkeley during COVID-19 pandemic

Photo of queer organization at Berkeley
Zoe Muse/Courtesy
Creating and having queer communities at UC Berkeley during the COVID-19 pandemic has involved moving many activities online. These communities are important because are spaces and groups where students’ identities are affirmed, and LGBTQ+ groups play an important role in advocating for change on campus.

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Is Finland a country? A real country? According to campus senior Mehak Kaur at Gamma Rho Lambda, a UC Berkeley sorority for queer students, these are the types of questions that are posed, debated and answered by its members.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaur said the sorority has had to move its activities online, including its get-togethers. But hosting Conspiracy Night is one way the group has bonded while apart, they added.

Yet Gamma Rho Lambda is not alone when it comes to trying new things during the pandemic.

Luca Giles, the president of campus’s queer and transgender, or QT, fraternity, Sigma Epsilon Omega, said the fraternity tried throwing a virtual dance party — an activity Giles noted could have gone better.

“A bunch of people had a really fun time. But I remember being in my room feeling super awkward, dancing alone with the lights off,” Giles said.

Other events, however, were real successes. According to Angel Morales, a member of Sigma Epsilon Omega, one of the highlights during the past year was the fraternity’s Zoom talent show, where participants did everything from karaoke to drag shows to playing guitar.

Mirah Mirzazadeh, Gamma Rho Lambda’s alumni relations chair, explained how outreach to former members improved during the pandemic.

Instead of hosting sit-down lunches with alumni as is usually done, Mirzazadeh said the sorority did a virtual “alumni munch” — an event she said had record levels of attendance.

However, despite the nights of Finland denial and dancing, with the past few semesters being virtual, Kaur said it has been a challenge for LGBTQ+ students to find their community at UC Berkeley — something they noted was important for them when joining Gamma Rho Lambda.

“I knew that I fit in because it just felt right. It didn’t feel like I had to perform in a very formal way,” Kaur said. “Sometimes it feels like that in certain spaces at Cal, I have to be super professional.”

Zoe Hayes, the internal director for the Queer Alliance and Resource Center, or QARC, a student-run group that — among other things — supports QT clubs on campus, echoed Kaur’s thoughts. They said these groups make the campus community stronger.

Having more QT organizations helps the campus become a safer place for students because they can join groups where their identity is affirmed, Hayes added. 

In addition, Mirzazadeh explained that LGBTQ+ groups, beyond providing a sense of community, play an important role in advocating for change on campus.

Describing how organizations such as her sorority affect college policy, Mirzazadeh said Gamma Rho Lambda reads ASUC campaign platforms, endorses candidates and tries to hold them accountable to their promises.

“It’s also very important that these organizations exist in order to organize around issues that are important to us and important to our community,” she said.

In anticipation of fall semester, Zoe Muse, the president of Gamma Rho Lambda, said in an email she was cautiously excited for the sorority members to finally get to meet each other in person — a sentiment that Giles also shared about their fraternity.

As for the QARC, Hayes said the center will continue to support QT students and plans to move one of its safe space centers to a more permanent location at the Hearst Field Annex.

“Pride is not just a June thing,” they said. “It’s an every day, every minute thing for the queer and trans community. So, even when June ends, QARC will be there.”

Contact Tristan Shaughnessy at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @TristanShaughn2.