LGBTQ people are 50 percent more likely to experience cyberbullying than their heterosexual peers. As a prevention strategy, the Cyberbullying Research Center suggests strict anti-discrimination policies, queer representation and setting up a Gay-Straight-Alliance (GSA) on campus. Many of these options disappeared during the pandemic.
For many young queer people, GSAs and similar groups in school were the only ways they could connect with fellow queer people and receive support.
Darid Prom, a queer rights activist with a focus on supporting queer high school students, had the same experience:
“GSA became a safe space for me to talk and express my identity among people who understand and can relate to it. During the pandemic, the GSA space disappeared and it led to social isolation mainly because I am not out to my parents. I didn’t get to talk about my identity and had to conceal my expression at home.”
Educators were feeling overwhelmed with the pandemic themselves and often “gave up on cultivating these safe spaces” in online settings, Prom explained.
Prom eventually was able to find safe online spaces that supported them throughout the pandemic. But now that schools are moving back to in-person classes, educators and students are facing the challenge of rebuilding the safe spaces in-person that were lost during the past 19 months.
“Now that we are transitioning back into in-person learning, it is difficult to find trust within educators to go back to those spaces,” Prom said.
That’s why the young activist is currently working with the state of Pennsylvania and a few educators to develop a gender and sexuality curriculum—which is meant to ensure educators running GSAs and similar spaces for queer youth can learn how to navigate these spaces properly and how to support their students in a way that will actually benefit them.
The lack of safe spaces wasn’t the only issue that young queer people were facing throughout the pandemic. Cyn Gomez, a mental health, gun control and LGBTQ rights activist, said that with schools moving to online spaces, many LGBTQ students did not know how to report bullying anymore: There were no structures in place to deal with the increase in cyberbullying and to counteract it.
The issue of bullying is one that the queer rights organization GLAAD aimed to raise awareness about on Spirit Day, Oct. 21. On that day, GLAAD encouraged advocates to wear purple to symbolize support for the LGBTQ community. But Spirit Day is about much more than just wearing purple, said Gomez: “I use Spirit Day on campus as a catalyst for larger conversations.”
In these conversations, Gomez is looking at the bigger picture of bullying: “The impact that these forms of bullying and harassment have doesn’t stop after high school. They have detrimental effects on your overall well-being for the rest of your life.” (Ways of dealing with these long-term effects include supporting mutual aid initiatives and educating people on queer and trans issues.)
Gomez is also doing research on transgender mental health resources. Mental health resources specifically for queer people, especially for queer people of color, need to be prioritized to improve the situation for young LGBTQ students in the country, said Gomez. Up to this point, access to mental health resources for queer and trans youth has left much to wish for, exponentially so during the pandemic.
As an educator themself, Andrea Alejendra Gonzales has experienced the impact the pandemic has had on queer youth personally. Gonzales said even though there are a lot of educators who made the online space work well, there was a gap online that made it much harder to talk about sensitive topics such as identity or gun violence—two issues Gonzales focuses on.
As the world emerges from the pandemic, Gonzales is determined to continue working closely with their students to find solutions: “Young people that are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution.”
The pandemic has further exposed major issues queer young people in the U.S. face. As we approach a world less dictated by COVID, we are at a critical point for young LGBTQ students. This transition presents a major opportunity for making changes that benefit those most marginalized, especially young queer people of color. The work of these three activists shows some examples.
“Spirit Day is about being there for young queer people, standing up for them, even if they are not there,” Gonzales says.
No matter how we choose to support the LGBTQ community, there is still much work to do. A recently passed bill in Texas prohibiting trans students in kindergarten through 12th grade from participating in the school sports that align with their gender, presents a major attack on trans rights—specifically trans students. And the bill is just one of over 100 anti-trans bills introduced across the country, by far the largest number in U.S. history.
In light of attacks like these, Gomez emphasized how important it is to stand up for the queer community: “Do it on behalf of those young, trans, undocumented people who can’t.”
Queer young people can find more support resources here.