Expert Q&A: The Effects of COVID-19 on Vulnerable LGBTQ+ Students

7 min read

Share this Article

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, college students have dealt with a myriad of personal and academic challenges. But many LGBTQ+ students are experiencing additional hardships, such as unsafe home environments, bullying, and limited access to therapy services.

The pandemic has revealed the unique barriers faced by LGBTQ+ students. While some colleges are working diligently to continue to offer resources and support to LGBTQ+ individuals, others are struggling to assist their most vulnerable students.

In light of these challenges experienced by LGBTQ+ college students, we reached out to Dr. Maria Anderson-Long, an expert on gender and marginalized student populations, for her perspective on how the current crisis has created and augmented LGBTQ+ issues in higher education.

Interview With Dr. Maria Anderson-Long

Portrait of Dr. Maria Anderson-Long

Dr. Maria Anderson-Long

Dr. Maria Anderson-Long received her Ed.D. in higher and postsecondary education from Columbia University's Teachers College, her master's in higher education student affairs from The Ohio State University, and her bachelor's in women and gender studies and theater arts from Clark University. Her primary research interests include understanding how organizational responses to shifts in society are impacted by institutional characteristics, specifically focusing on the creation of policies that better serve marginalized students.

In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerability of LGBTQ+ students?

Many LGBTQ+ students arrive at college having left unsupportive environments. A 2018 Human Rights Campaign report found that 67% of LGBTQ+ youths aged 13-17 hear family members make negative comments about LGBTQ+ individuals. Furthermore, only 24% indicated that they could be their authentic selves at home.

LGBTQ+ students also report experiences of bullying (70%), increased stress levels (85%), and sexual violence (11%) due to their LGBTQ+ identity. Students of color and transgender students experience additional challenges and forms of discrimination.

“The COVID-19 outbreak [has] forced many LGBTQ+ students to return to unsupportive or even nonexistent home environments [and] has also complicated or removed access to key resources for these students’ mental health and well-being.”

Quotation mark

While colleges still have important work to do in supporting LGBTQ+ students, the situation is improving. In a recent report by Higher Education Today, LGBTQ+ students indicated feeling a stronger sense of inclusion and safety in college than when they were in high school.

In college, LGBTQ+ students have access to resources such as counseling services, campus health clinics, and other student support services, which they could lose by leaving campus, or which could change by shifting to a virtual format.

The COVID-19 outbreak forced many LGBTQ+ students to return to unsupportive or even nonexistent home environments as college residence halls shuttered with little notice. The pandemic has also complicated or removed access to key resources for these students' mental health and well-being.

What are some of the unique academic, psychological, and financial challenges LGBTQ+ college students are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused or exacerbated many psychological, logistical, and financial challenges for LGBTQ+ students.

Even under regular circumstances, trans students must navigate institutional and legal processes to ensure their gender and names appear correctly in places such as course rosters and their institution's learning management software. The legal process for changing your name or gender varies by state and can be expensive and time-consuming.

“[Due to the pandemic,] trans students may … experience shifts in access to essential healthcare needs, such as hormones[.]”

Quotation mark

The closure of public agencies, such as DMVs and social security offices, and the postponement of name-change hearings adds a further layer of complexity. Some colleges do not have a name-change process in place for students. As such, the pandemic has resulted in some trans students' deadnames (original names given at birth) appearing on their institution's video conferencing software.

Trans students may also experience shifts in access to essential healthcare needs, such as hormones, and the postponement of previously scheduled gender-affirming surgeries. While some college health insurance plans provide students with this type of care, students may not be able to utilize that insurance outside the college vicinity.

LGBTQ+ students who had to return home are faced with navigating unsupportive environments and going back into the closet — a considerable stressor, in addition to having to complete courses virtually. These students may also experience increased feelings of isolation and/or lack the supportive community they established in college.

A young, smiling LGBTQ+ man stands with a rainbow pride flag wrapped around his shoulders.

In what ways has the current pandemic exacerbated mental health issues among LGBTQ+ students?

Issues such as unstable housing, food insecurity, and negative healthcare experiences are already more likely to impact the LGBTQ+ community than they are the non-LGBTQ+ community — even when there isn't a pandemic. Students may experience increased stress around lost wages from campus or other jobs, reduced access to healthcare, and/or unstable living situations.

Depression and suicide are critical concerns for the LGBTQ+ community, too. Disruptions to schedules and routines, as well as pandemic-related social distancing and isolation, could exacerbate mental health issues.

“The move to telehealth can impact a counselor’s ability to provide care for students, as some states do not allow patients to access telehealth across state lines.”

Quotation mark

One particular challenge that is emerging for all college students, including LGBTQ+ students, is the shift of counseling and psychological services to telehealth, or remote patient care.

The move to telehealth can impact a counselor's ability to provide care for students, as some states do not allow patients to access telehealth across state lines. In other words, if a counselor does not hold a license in the state a student returns home to, they may have no choice but to abruptly stop seeing that student.

There are also concerns about ensuring that telehealth platforms are HIPAA-compliant.

What are some examples of organizations and instructors helping to support LGBTQ+ students right now?

LGBTQ+ centers are often an important resource and source of community for queer and trans students. Some centers are finding ways to build community and connect with students virtually; this includes continuing with Pride Month programming, holding a virtual Lavender Graduation, and hosting spaces for students to connect.

Institutions are also soliciting donations to go toward emergency grants for LGBTQ+ students.

What kind of support systems would you suggest for LGBTQ+ students struggling with mental health issues while campuses remain closed?

If you're seeking mental health support and not facing an emergency, there are a few places to begin looking for help. One option is to check in with your college or university's counseling center, assuming your campus has one. If not, go to your healthcare provider to ask about your teletherapy coverage.

You can also look into community resources. The National Center for Transgender Equality has assembled a list of resources specifically for trans individuals, whereas Harvard Medical School offers resources for the entire LGBTQ+ community.

A college graduate stands outside wearing a graduation stole that reads 'Lavender Graduation Class of 2019.'

Do you believe schools are doing enough to support LGBTQ+ students academically and psychologically right now?

Even under regular circumstances, there are going to be ways that colleges can better support LGBTQ+ students — but we are not currently operating under such circumstances. Across the country, schools are concerned with questions about enrollment, budgeting, the survival of their institutions, and the safety of those who work at and attend them.

“[W]e need to be thinking about how the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted some of our most vulnerable students, including LGBTQ+ students.”

Quotation mark

Amid all this planning, we need to be thinking about how the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted some of our most vulnerable students, including LGBTQ+ students.

Do you believe the pandemic will affect LGBTQ+ student enrollment or re-enrollment in the fall?

Absolutely. Researchers are predicting lower enrollments for the fall term across all demographics, but students from marginalized backgrounds are at an increased risk of delaying their college plans, dropping out, or not enrolling at all.

LGBTQ+ individuals already face heightened levels of economic strain, including under-employment and housing instability. The pandemic will exacerbate these issues for LGBTQ+ students, who may not be able to rely on their families for financial support or whose families might have lost income.

What do you think will be some of the long-term educational consequences of the pandemic? How will these consequences affect LGBTQ+ students in particular?

“The COVID-19 pandemic will change schools’ plans to introduce or bolster funding for LGBTQ+ programming.”

Quotation mark

We are already witnessing the financial impact of the pandemic on higher education, with many institutions announcing their intents to downsize or close altogether. When budgets get tight, colleges and universities must make difficult decisions about where to make cuts.

Unfortunately, student support services, such as LGBTQ+ centers and other funding directed at LGBTQ+ students, will be reduced or eliminated. The COVID-19 pandemic will change schools' plans to introduce or bolster funding for LGBTQ+ programming.

The consequences are clear: cutting institutional support will further impact the campus climate for LGBTQ+ students, which is already perceived as hostile and chilly, and where 21% of LGBTQ+ students report experiencing harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Is there anything else you want to discuss that we haven't touched on?

When we think about supporting LGBTQ+ students, we must also think about the multiple social identities they hold and how those identities intersect.

Although what I've discussed speaks broadly to the problems faced by LGBTQ+ students, issues such as financial security, housing stability, food insecurity, and access to education may be magnified for low-income LGBTQ+ students or LGBTQ+ students of color.

Not every LGBTQ+ student will experience the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the same way — some of that variance will be related to other social identities.