I knew that walking back home in the middle of a snowy winter night would leave my fingers and toes completely numb. I knew that I’d come back home a shivering mess and would barely have the energy to crawl under my sheets and call it a day. I also knew that, just for a little while, the cold would sink into my bones completely and I would forget how to think. And maybe that’s exactly what I needed.
I just didn’t want to think about anything anymore.
I didn’t want to think about the months I’d spent trying to justify my sexual identity to my family. I didn’t want to think of how much longer I would have to stay at home, or how much more money I’d need to save to move out. I most definitely didn’t want to think of my upcoming assignments or the fact that I hadn’t done my laundry yet.
I feared the overwhelming shame and guilt I felt every time I had these discussions with my family. I just wanted to protect myself.
So I guess that’s why I walked through the cold winter. I didn’t take the bus or the car. I simply wanted the cold to freeze my thoughts, to suspend me in the present moment for just a little while, so I could breathe.
Alone in the cold
The pandemic has been riddled with obstacles for most of us since it began in March 2020. Many people’s lives have been upended by increasing unemployment, unreliable housing, work interruptions, and worsening isolation. That isolation has swept over us — a wave of loneliness making life unbearable.
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, isolation has been a barrier to finding community time and time again, and the pandemic has been no exception. While the pandemic has had widespread detrimental impacts on mental health, according to a research study in the SSRN Electronic Journal, LGBTQ+ individuals have likely faced increased economic difficulties compared to their peers. We are also more vulnerable to the emotional and mental repercussions of isolation.
As the 2020 fall semester progressed, the relentless cold of the Canadian winter stretched on. People’s sense of isolation only grew. For Gilliane Arfaoui, a second-year student at the University of Calgary, the cold compounded the loneliness she felt having travelled approximately 7,000 miles away from her family back in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Travelling to Canada brought with it a new set of stresses, including setting up health insurance, opening a bank account, and handling financial responsibilities.
Perhaps these new responsibilities would have been easier to manage with in-person classes and a structured routine. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Arfaoui found herself shut in her room attending online lectures. Often, she skipped meals. Eventually, like many other students during the pandemic, she turned to social media as a means of finding support and friendship.
“During [the pandemic], I downloaded Twitter. And so it was through that, basically, that I got to meet more queer people. And then I read through the whole LGBTQ+ stuff, and I was reading the description for bisexual. I was like, ‘Hey, that’s me,’ ” said Arfaoui. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she found a sense of companionship in online friendships that allowed her to explore and understand her sexual identity better.
Arfaoui proudly embraced her identity and used social media platforms to foster these new connections. However, she no longer publicly mentions her orientation on social media for fear of backlash from family members back in Dubai. The UAE operates under Sharia law, meaning same-sex relationships are punishable by death. In Arfaoui’s case, openly identifying as bisexual could lead to further conflicts with her family, as well as the possibility of dangerous consequences if she were to return to Dubai.
“Now, I have to hide [my sexuality], because my family’s digging in my business, which can affect our relationship — because on my dad’s side, they hold grudges. They can give you the silent treatment for a very long time.”
“They’re very proud people. And it’s kind of frustrating in that way, but I also want to connect with people like me, because it’s hard to find other queer people,” said Arfaoui.
Many members of the LGBTQ+ community face this dilemma: we seek connections to combat isolation while being forced to remain closeted around family and friends. Our identity quickly becomes the concern of everyone but ourselves, and breaking from that cage often involves having to break ties with close family members. Sometimes, we need to take even more drastic measures.
According to an article in the Journal of Research in Gender Studies, LGBTQ+ spaces and social support services have been increasingly difficult to access due to physical distancing and lockdown measures being in place. Additionally, this lack of social support is often paired with LGBTQ+ people being socially isolated in places that are not accepting of different sexual orientations or gender identities.
Going against the order of nature
While Canada decriminalized homosexuality in 1969, the constitution only recognized marriage between same-sex couples in 2005. In many countries, members of the LGBTQ+ community still struggle to obtain the same civil rights as other citizens and will often choose to immigrate to countries like Canada in order to establish a legally recognized partnership with their significant others.
When it comes to international students from countries with anti-LGBTQ+ laws, studying in Canada can provide an opportunity to finally come out of the closet and feel safe in their identity. The delays associated with the pandemic, and the increasing number of LGBTQ+ students who are finding it difficult to continue their university education due to financial stress, are therefore concerning.
For second-year student Rahul Selvakumar, the first year of university involved adapting to a 12-hour time difference between his classes and normal life. Living in Malaysia while being a full-time student at a Canadian university meant that he had to sacrifice his days for long nights of isolated studying, often staying up until 4:00 am to finish work. This seclusion between him and the rest of his community only further exacerbated his loneliness. He was barely interacting with those around him, including his family and his neighbours. That made university even more difficult for him.
Having moved to Malaysia only a year before starting university, Selvakumar was dealing with the stresses of being in a new country, as well as losing his LGBTQ+ support system back in India. According to the Malaysian legislature, same-sex relations are “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and are punishable by canings, fines, and up to 20 years’ imprisonment. For Selvakumar, the lack of state support and media representation of LGBTQ+ individuals only further pushed him to remain closeted.
“I felt okay with my identity, but suddenly, [I moved] to Malaysia where everything is suddenly so illegal and so heavily stigmatized. It became quite difficult for me, especially as I’m not out to my family. So it felt like there was nowhere in the entire country where I could be myself,” added Selvakumar.
Having to remain closeted while at home with unaccepting family members can be detrimental to students’ mental health. According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, LGBTQ+ youth who report a lack of family and peer support experience greater psychological distress than youth who at least have support from peers. The isolation perpetuated by the pandemic only further exacerbates the general isolation experienced by LGBTQ+ youth in everyday life. Many individuals may be left living in fear as they struggle to come to terms with their identity while weighing the vast disapproval and judgement that accompanies simply identifying with a label.
It’s hard to feel whole
The identity conflict that many LGBTQ+ folks experience is often politically weaponized to segregate and divide people even further. History provides evidence of this segregation: during the AIDS epidemic, members of the LGBTQ+ community were demonized. During the 1992 US presidential election, heated debates ensued surrounding the passing of Amendment 2 within the state of Colorado, which prevented the enforcement of any anti-discriminatory laws protecting the LGBTQ+ community. The central basis of the campaign for this amendment was “no discrimination and no special rights,” which characterized anti-discriminatory laws as special advantages for LGBTQ+ communities instead of basic steps toward equality.
While laws surrounding LGBTQ+ rights have greatly improved, discussions surrounding gender identity and transgender rights remain rife with polarized debates. That polarization has intimate effects on individual people. When the pandemic hit, Sakshi, another second-year U of T student whose real name is not revealed for fear of retribution, was forced to study from home. She found herself struggling to align her gender expression with her biological sex and the expectations that came with it, but her home culture does not embrace differences in gender expression. As a result, she lacked the support system she needed to feel secure in her identity, and was forced to conform to the pressures of traditional femininity associated with her culture.
“I was feeling way more masculine, and I couldn’t express it. And there was a lot of pressure for me to be more feminine than I feel because of my culture and just how feminine all women are expected to be in my culture. So being back home and living with my parents, it really made me feel like I was being somebody else and I wasn’t being myself,” said Sakshi.
During this time, the gap that existed between her identity at home and her true self only widened, leaving her questioning her own queerness and sense of belonging within the LGBTQ+ community. Since her family was unaccepting and her friends chose not to believe her when she came out, she no longer felt that she could trust the people closest to her.
“I was just really frustrated with, you know, not feeling enough — not feeling whole,” added Sakshi.
On a broader scale, it isn’t difficult to find public figures with large followings scrutinizing and invalidating the experiences and gender identities of individuals in the LGBTQ+ community. Transgender and non-binary individuals reportedly face increased rates of harrassment and violence, according to a study by TransPulse Canada.
Be a friend
There is still a lot of work that needs to be done within Canada in order to address the discrimination that LGBTQ+ individuals face, because instututionalized discrimination is still present within Canada. For example, Bill 2, proposed in Québec by Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, would allow only transgender individuals who have undergone gender-affirming surgery to legally alter the gender on their birth certificates.
The LGBTQ+ community within Canada provides a support system that people desperately need. The culture of open acceptance in the community gives many LGBTQ+ youth an opportunity to envision a future where their identity and expression are not up for debate. Many of those youth lost this support during the pandemic, and currently, there are still individuals who simply do not live in environments where they can access support. With that in mind, coming together and validating the experiences and struggles of other individuals is crucial for healing. People need to feel safe in expressing their identities and being their authentic selves.
When Pride month rolled around this past summer, I didn’t feel pride in my identity. The shame I felt seemed out of place among the LGBTQ+ community’s rainbow flags. Having come out to my family last year, I didn’t have the energy to defend my identity any longer and simply wanted to forget that part of myself. But not being able to fully come out of the closet and having to ignore a critical part of my identity left me feeling like an empty shell.
So, if you know someone within the LGBTQ+ community currently struggling to find support, be an ally, be a friend, and just hear their story. Doing so could mean isolation no longer has the power to silence the stories of LGBTQ+ students, especially during the pandemic.