The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the student experience of every undergraduate at the university, but some challenges facing LGBTQ+ students remain unique.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Em Huang, the director of LGBTQ+ advancement and equity at the Gender Equity Resource Center, or GenEq, shared how many preexisting challenges facing queer and trans, or QT, students on campus were exasperated by the pandemic.
“The first things that come to mind are around basic needs,” Huang said. “We know from data and from the individual experiences that our students share with us that QT students face challenges around basic needs, whether that’s food or housing insecurity, safety or access to affirming health care.”
Accessing affirming health care can be an overwhelming challenge for people in the LGBTQ+ community. Huang explained that health care providers on campus are trained to support students in the community, but advocates on campus had little power to support students who were unable to come to campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Huang went on to explain that one of the most significant challenges for LGBTQ+ students outside of basic needs is isolation.
“Folks have really different experiences depending on their families and communities,” Huang said. “One of those pieces in particular is thinking about isolation — thinking about folks who are navigating being out and what it means to build community and stay connected to community when they may not be supported in their homes.”
Isolation was also a struggle for students living on campus.
When Jason Tighe arrived on campus as a freshman in the fall of 2020, his experience was atypical, like so many others. He was a part of the Unity Theme Program — a living-learning community for LGBTQ+ students in the Berkeley residence halls. Unity typically houses more than 20 students, but in Tighe’s year, it housed only four.
Tighe shared the challenges of dating within the queer community during the pandemic. He talked about how the college meet-cute of bumping into a crush on the way to class was not a reality. His entire class schedule was online, and so were his dating platforms.
“The biggest challenge was navigating dating apps like Tinder and Grindr, learning how to use them in a positive, non-toxic way,” Tighe said.
As a new student, Tighe utilized a range of resources for LGBTQ+ students, from GenEq’s Queer Cal Pals program to events by the Queer Alliance Resource Center. He described how Zoom fatigue sometimes made it difficult to access community spaces but created a genuine solidarity between LGBTQ+ students living on campus during the pandemic.
As students return to campus in large numbers, Huang shared their optimism about providing space for a reengaged LGBTQ+ community.
“We’re not only thinking about how to support folks in navigating the trauma they’ve experienced over this time, but also finding the joy of reconnecting with community,” Huang said. “I see how excited folks are to be on campus and that’s something that brings a lot of hope back into the space.”
However, there are many challenges to be considered when programming in-person events. Huang is balancing these concerns with the reality that students need to feel a part of the community they have been isolated from.
“It’s the duality of supporting folks who may not feel comfortable being in person, but who also want community, access to affinity spaces, a support system and their friends,” Huang added.
Huang described how GenEq, as a physical space that can hold both in-person and remote programming, is dedicated to meeting those needs without shutting people out. Events such as QT Pie, a welcome event for LGBTQ+ students who are new to campus, are projected to be in person. More information-based programs, such as the Trans Wellness Panel, are likely to be remote.
As new students navigate their identities and the resources available to them, Huang advised students to identify what is important to them.
“Our community is so multifaceted and diverse that there’s no one size fits all … Recognize that there are so many different spaces that exist and ways to get support,” Huang said. “We are really lucky that at Berkeley there isn’t just one place to get support. Our queer and trans community on campus is huge, we’re everywhere, and I think it’s really about finding the places and the people that will sustain you as a person.”