Shaking Up the Routine
It's undeniable that coronavirus has drastically changed the patterns of daily life around the world. Whether one is temporarily unemployed and quarantined at home, attending work via Zoom meetings or ramping up hours due to an essential worker status, it's clear that the definition of a "normal" day has changed. And with thousands of institutions moving courses online and sending students home, the same can be said for universities.
However, for the LGBTQ student population on college campuses, there may be an added layer of challenges in particular related to the loss of everyday campus life. At Wayne State University, for instance, Student Senate President Stuart Baum said that many of the LGBTQ students who have been forced to move home in lieu of other living arrangements have stopped living visibly "out" lives.
"We have a lot of students who live on campus who have had to leave and they're at home now with their folks, and they just can't live a life being out. They can't live their authentic selves," Baum said. "And then we also have a bunch of students who maybe have always lived at home and have just commuted to school, but the fact that we have the student organization meetings, that's where they've been able to live their out lives on campus during the day and still have that refuge here on campus."
And while it is only a temporary shift, statistics have shown that LGBTQ people tend to suffer from depression and other mental illnesses at a higher rate than heterosexual peers. Because of that, it's possible that a sudden shift to living in the closet might compound negative feelings on top of stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic. And because, or perhaps as a result of, how crucial positive parental and familial relationships are for the well-being of youth, many LGBTQ people fear coming out to parents because of potential rejection. Baum said that even in his own accepting family experience, coming out was made easier because of his campus life.
"I grew up in a very supportive family, but being able to go to student organizations and meet with fellow members of the community, that was what really gave me the support that I needed to feel comfortable coming out," he said. "So it's still hard to feel that in a community of others not like you."
COVID-19 Slows the Expansion of Equality at WSU
But there's another reason LGBTQ students at WSU have been impacted differently due to COVID-19. Besides missing out on everyday one-on-one student interaction, this year, students were unable to attend WSU's April Pride Week events because of the virus. And though that might seem like a short part of an otherwise full school year, Baum said that Pride Week held a special significance for the LGBTQ members of the WSU student body. Specifically, because of the school's lack of enough LGBTQ-specific resources, classes and events.
"We're one of the only public universities in the state … that really have been lacking in terms of providing resources for LGBTQ students," Baum said. "And we looked at it in kind of two buckets: one is student life, so things involving Pride week, like the fact that we don't really have a lot of programming, we don't have a support staff or budget for that programming in the student life bucket. But we also don't really have the academic life and engagement resources that other universities have. For example, we only have a couple of courses in the books that are offered in the realm of queer studies, and they haven't been offered for years because there hasn't been faculty to teach them."
Baum said that this stems primarily from a lack of dedicated funds in WSU's budget to aid LGBTQ students. As Student Senate president, he decided to take action, and he co-sponsored a resolution to promote diversity, inclusion and provide support for LGBTQ students at WSU. Elements of the resolution include advocacy for the establishment of a previously proposed LGBTQ+ Resource Center, a push for more classes and faculty in the field of queer studies and more. The response, he said, was overwhelmingly supportive.
"We got every single LGBTQ student, faculty and staff organization to support this, and then we got the student government to support it, and then we even got the academic side, which is the faculty government, to support it unanimously," Baum said. "This was the first time that we had really any initiative on campus that was supported by all the students and all the faculty and all the staff."
However, because of the social distancing required to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Baum said for the first time he's worried about the resolution's fate. Much of the concern, he said, lies with WSU's fiscal year that ends in October.
"So we always have budget negotiations that go into the summer, rather than other universities that have a budget end in June. Last year, all of our budget priorities, we had to work well into the summer to actually see them through … which has all been complicated with the switch to online," he said. "Part of the concern is that, especially with a lot of the student leaders that have been involved with this moving on, we need to figure out how to organize going into the next year."
Despite these complications, Baum said he's far from throwing in the towel. He said he's working with other members of the Senate to "create infrastructure for other students to be there once we all graduate." He said the biggest push right now is to keep the WSU student body informed about these efforts — like through social media.
"Being able to show your support for social media for this, being able to share updates and news about this is really crucial to keep it alive, and to really give it the roots that it needs to stand up for next year and through the summer," he said.
But obstacles to its progress or not, Baum is keeping a positive attitude.
"I don't think it's doom and gloom forever," he said. "I think things will get better, and that we can build on the momentum and advocate for needs to be met at the university and create the community that we need at the university."