“One student broke up with her girlfriend just as the pandemic began. She was sent home but wasn’t out to her family. So she was heartbroken, that young love heartbreak that totally guts you, but her family didn’t even know she was gay. And so she couldn’t be heartbroken in front of them. At the same time her brother was home, with his girlfriend stuck in another city. And so their parents were doting on him – empathetic and supportive of the poor moping brother, sad at being separated from his girlfriend. And she’s watching this knowing she can’t even tell them that she’s heartbroken, that she got dumped because of the pandemic.”
Dr. Karen Blair is an assistant professor of psychology at Trent University. She is also the Chair of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Section of the CPA, and has been since 2014, a fairly long time to be the chair of a section. She says she’s likely to remain the Chair until at least 2022, as it would be a pretty big ask to get someone to take over virtually, in the middle of our current pandemic.
One of the things Dr. Blair has done during the pandemic is the ‘COVID-19 Interpersonal & Social Coping Study’. It was a large, ongoing survey of hundreds of Canadians on a variety of topics. It found as the pandemic progressed between May and July, Canadians wore masks more often and supported mandatory mask mandates more strongly.
Dr. Blair and her team also looked at Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), and found that the sample couples who had negative reactions to COVID-19 were at greater risk of perpetrating and being the victim of IPV. Their results found that married or common law couples are at greater risk for psychological IPV victimization; women and married or common law couples are at greater risk for psychological IPV perpetration; and younger individuals, parents, mixed-sex couples, and individuals in newer relationships are at greater risk for sexual IPV victimization.
They also looked specifically at Nova Scotians and how they were coping with the pandemic relative to other Canadians. Nova Scotians reported higher levels of social support, mental wellbeing, and medical help seeking behaviours. Nova Scotians also reported more engagement in WHO recommendations, feelings of competency to engage in social distancing and more positive attitudes toward mandatory mask regulations.
Part of the survey had participants writing notes to their past and future selves - one was a message to a past self, before the pandemic began. The other, a message to a future self several weeks later (see Courtney Gosselin profile).
Perhaps the biggest thing Dr. Blair and her team keyed on in the survey was LGBTQ+ university students who were dealing with the pandemic, home life, and distance learning.
When the first lockdown and stay-at-home orders came down way back in March of 2020, students from all over Canada were sent home from school. Accommodations were made for those who could not return home – those whose home was in a hot spot, like Italy. Or those who may not have been able to get back to Canada once they left for their home countries. But students whose needs could be met only on campus, like the LGBTQ+ population, were not considered.
Universities across Canada closed on March 13th. Students were, for the most part, given 24 hours notice that they would be moving back home. For LGBTQ+ students, that meant giving up the support systems they had cultivated at school – social groups, roommates, dorm communities and so on. It also meant that for many of them, they were going home to a place where there was simply no support at all. Everything else in the family might be fine, but for these kids there is a huge part of themselves that is having to hide.
“Parents were scrambling to get their kids home, kids were scrambling to move out. In all that chaos we never stopped to ask if we were sending closeted kids home to unaccepting families.”
In addition to the students who remain closeted at home, there are some who may have it even worse – their family knows, but is hostile about their orientation or identity. Which means they are being berated for it every day, stuck in a place they can’t escape, where the support system they’ve built outside the home is inaccessible.
Even virtual support becomes difficult for these students. Now stuck at home with a family that doesn’t accept their sexual orientation, or their gender identity, there is often not a place private enough to have that conversation over Zoom or Skype without the danger of a parent or sibling overhearing the discussion.
These youth, while experiencing all the same upheaval the rest of us went through with the pandemic, had this added layer of a difficult home life. Dr. Blair says this difficulty doesn’t tend to extend to adult LGBTQ+ people – the 30- or 40-year-olds who are settled and married.
“Someone asked me the other day how it has affected me, and I thought not really – I might actually be doing really well. I’m stuck at home with my wife… we’re both academics and often collaborate with each other so we’ve been able to be great supports to each other throughout the various lockdowns.”
Dr. Blair herself relocated during the pandemic to be closer to family. While her wife’s family is now within driving distance and they are only one flight (instead of two) from her own family, the pandemic has meant they haven’t been able to realize the benefits of seeing their families more despite living closer. But the fact that they both have families that want them to visit, and that are happy to be cooped up with one another, puts them in a place many of the university youth Dr. Blair speaks about can only dream of being.
One day, hopefully, those LGBTQ+ youth will get to that place. For now, they must navigate their way through a difficult school year, the same global pandemic with which we’re all dealing, and a certain kind of isolation and difficult home situation most of us won’t experience. What they are missing is a community, a peer group, and a support system. And someone with whom they can share their heartbreak.