Groups that support LGBTQ students are trying to connect with young people in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, but say virtual learning spaces create challenges.
Queer youth are statistically more likely to experience mental health issues, according to a 2019 survey by the nonprofit The Trevor Project, 39% of youth who identify as LGBTQ+ have seriously considered attempting suicide.
Before the coronavirus pandemic forced many schools and groups online, queer students were able to attend Gender-Sexuality Alliance meetings and other groups where they could feel safe talking about and expressing their identities. Taking part in such gatherings has been shown to improve psychological outcomes for the population.
“It’s really sad, especially in Pittsburgh, for young people,” said Coley Alston, program director with the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation. “There’s not a lot of opportunity for people to interact … in spaces where they’ve historically felt safer or at least felt comfortable enough to disclose their identities.”
Hugh Lane has held virtual programs for young people, but Alston said it’s been tough to keep kids engaged.
“The issue with that is a lot of times these young people are in virtual school,” Alston said. “So they’ve been sitting in virtual school for seven, eight hours a day. Then you’re saying, ‘Hey, come out, we’re doing something on Discord or Instagram.’ They’re drained from looking at screens.”
Participating in these virtual LGBTQ spaces can be dangerous for some students who might not be out to their families. Dakota Garilli, a Heinz fellow at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, typically works within area schools to create support groups and provide mentoring. They’ve now been working to create non-academic virtual classrooms for students, but say it’s hard to recruit LGBTQ students to the spaces if they’re not in a supportive environment.
“They were able to engage in different activities during the school day or even after school without necessarily having a family member who might not be as accepting of knowing what the group was,” Garilli said. “Now, people around them have, potentially, a much higher level of awareness of how they’re spending their time.”
Other organizations have reframed their programming to reflect young peoples’ new realities. Ali Hoefnagel with the queer youth arts troupe Dreams of Hope said the past few months would normally have been about writing their original play. But as the news changed, so has their emphasis.
“The movement for Black lives picked up in a major way and that became the organization’s focus for many months and still is very much so,” Hoefnagel said. “[It’s] really taking into consideration what it is they want to do and what it is that they feel excited about or what they need.”
Dreams of Hope has been producing virtual performances of original pieces and plans to conduct arts workshops online. Because the group is made up of LGBTQ people, Hoefnagel said it’s an important outlet for students.
“They can come into this separate creative place where everybody is queer,” Hoefnagel said. “And that’s really special.”