As a middle school teacher in New Jersey, I was fortunate enough to work in the most diverse city in the nation and had little worry about my students finding out about my sexuality. When I got married a few months into the school year, my 7th graders quickly found out it was to a woman. As a middle school teacher, fostering relationships with each of my students was a crucial aspect of classroom management. The more I was able to connect with them beyond the curriculum, the more likely I was to be able to focus on my curriculum during class hours. So much of this connection, I quickly realized, was based on the intrinsic knowledge that my classroom was a safe space. I had no idea how many students would crave the safe space that my classroom offered, or how many students I would encounter who were questioning, coming to terms with, or struggling with their sexuality. I am honored to have been able to offer my students a judgment-free zone in which they could vent, cry, and express whatever emotions they may have felt the need to keep previously bottled up.
This offering, I’ve come to realize, was more important than I ever thought it would be. As I packed up my belongings and left that job, I ensured my students knew how to contact me, gave them the names of other staff members that would offer just as safe a space as I did, and provided them with links to various resources should they need them. I was going to miss my students, but I was sure they were being left in good hands with my colleagues.
Then, as COVID-19 reared its ugly head and quarantine forced normal life into a standstill, I began to worry more about my students. According to reports by the Human Rights Campaign, 67% of LGBTQ youth hear their families make negative comments about LGBTQ people, and less than one-fourth said they can “definitely” be themselves at home.
This is what many of my students were faced with. Without that safe space, I began to wonder what would happen. Would their journey to self-acceptance being halted due to extended time with homophobic parents? Would their mental health begin to suffer by being stuck in quarantine? Would the strength and confidence I’d see them gain be lost yet again?
Unfortunately, these are very real possibilities that are not limited to only LGBTQ+ youth. Many adults will also be forced into similar situations. What about the married father who had just come out to his wife and is now stuck in quarantine, trying to make the best of it for his children? What about the 22-year-old transgender college student who was just trying to finish out her senior year before getting a job and a safe space of her own? What about the queer person that is afraid to come out while stuck in quarantine with their less-than-accepting roommate?
Whether it’s at school where they feel freer to be themselves, at the gym running the stress away, or at an event meeting new, like-minded people, for many members of the LGBTQ+ community, solace is often found outside of the home. Being stuck in quarantine not only takes those safe spaces away, but it can also force too many people into uncomfortable situations that can lead to fear, anxiety, self-doubt, or depression.
Imagine yourself living your absolute best life. You are surrounded by friends and chosen family that thoroughly support you. You are exploring every aspect of your being. You are becoming the best, most fulfilled version of yourself. And then suddenly … you’re not. All of a sudden, you’re living a life that feels mediocre. You’re forcing yourself to go through the daily motions of a less-than-ideal life. You’re surrounded by people that don’t even know who you really are, let alone accept you for who you are.
So, how can we combat that anxiety or depression? How can we maintain our self-worth in the face of oppression? How can we rally as a community? How can we use this time to spread the awareness that for some people, their homes are their most uncomfortable, unsafe spaces?
In our current world, I find that taking the time to find joy in the little things is immensely important for anyone’s mental health. Go outside and enjoy that ray of sunshine. Guiltlessly watch that new episode of your favorite TV show instead of being productive. Use an hour of your day to practice your favorite hobby. Take a moment to think about what makes you feel fulfilled and how you can adapt that to your current situation. And through it all, don’t be too hard on yourself for having down moments. Accept that it is okay to feel however you feel, especially in light of your current situation. Practice mindfulness and recognize your thoughts and feelings as valid. Just as we shouldn’t judge others, it is equally as important not to judge ourselves. And if you need reassurance, connection, or a listening ear, reach out!
The Trevor Project discusses how people “who find themselves in an environment that does not affirm their identity, or places them at risk for abuse and victimization, can benefit from access to supportive individuals to help them maintain their own safety while also providing an outlet for them to be their authentic selves.” We are fortunate to live in a digital age that means social distancing doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant. We are able to socially connect while still implementing physical distancing practices through online message boards, social media, and video chat. These means of connection can be invaluable to so many people during quarantine, giving them an outlet to truly be themselves.
Being LGBTQ+ definitely has its challenges, and for many, quarantine has only added to that. But think about what it will be like to come out on the other side, ready, willing, and able to live the life of your dreams. Use this time to reflect and really work on appreciating yourself for who you are. Use technology to your advantage to maintain connections. Take time out of your day to do at least one thing that brings you joy. Let’s face it - quarantine can suck, but you can get through it, I guarantee!
As for my students in New Jersey, I continue to think about them often. They reach out to me every now and then, and I offer as much support as I can. It is my hope that they are implementing some of the strategies I’ve talked about here and using the resources I’ve left them with. The Trevor Project’s call, chat, and text lines, One N Ten’s digital programs, and the It Gets Better Project website are some amazing resources where they and other members of the LGBTQ+ can find the support that they need.
I also think about their parents and families, hoping that they are able to open their minds and hearts to accepting and loving their children for exactly who they are. I hope they explore resources such as The Family Acceptance Project to learn how to create safe spaces for their children. I hope they take steps towards exposing themselves to other LGBTQ+ people and families so they can see how normal we really are. I hope they gain the courage to join online forums, such as our community message boards at The Pride and Joy Foundation, where they can join and start conversations relating to the LGBTQ+ experience and see how they really are their children’s most valuable allies.
Written by Gabrielle Ackerman - a caffeine-drinking, adventure-seeking 28-year-old mom and wife. I was born and raised in Jersey City, NJ, just 10 minutes outside of Manhattan. I lived and worked in New Jersey as an educator, until my wife and I decided to move our family west to Idaho, where she is originally from, to allow me to transition to being a stay-at-home mom.