The pandemic has forced thousands of LGBT students back inside the closet

Ewan Somerville
·4 min read
Ewan Somerville telegraph journalist
Ewan Somerville telegraph journalist

The sense of freedom when you 'come out' at university is immense. Days into my Sheffield student digs aged 18, I felt liberated. Until, that is, I travelled home to rural Devon in the holidays and returned to the closet.

Around campus, I no longer felt the need to constantly suppress being gay. Surrounded by friends in an environment where seemingly everyone you met was somewhere on the LGBT spectrum, I was free to express my true self.

But each time the university holidays arrived, I noticed my behaviour change as soon as I returned home. The imprint of a childhood where I largely denied my sexuality, despite having the most loving parents, couldn’t be shaken. This temporary state was manageable because, before long, I was back on campus for the next semester.

But for those LGBT students who have spent much of the past year at home, the situation has been much more difficult.

When the first lockdown struck half way through my final year, I began to find things tougher. Speeding home on the train last March, I was expecting several weeks of remote classes at most. Ultimately, I was at home for almost a year, cut off from a social life and stifling my sexuality for the longest period since my school days.

Consider, then, that the majority of Britain’s 2.5 million university students are currently shut away in their childhood bedrooms learning online, with most not expected to have some face-to-face teaching until after Easter at the earliest.

For LGBT students, that will be the best part of a full academic year isolated from their peers. Some have been denied a crucial chance to come to terms with their identity that just being on a bustling campus provides: partying until the early hours, late-night chats and experimenting, to name a few. Others previously reconciled with their identity will be growing distant from it, especially those in rural towns where few LGBT role models or acceptance often exist.

So many students have struggled with their mental health during lockdown. For me, the hardest part was constantly overthinking why I felt the need to hide my sexuality, and worrying I was missing out on irretrievable opportunities to explore it.

I’m 21 and should be in the prime of life, I thought, but instead have lost much of my independence and cannot possibly pursue a dating life beyond artificial dating apps. But I count myself lucky. I have a hugely supportive family who accept me for who I am.

More worrying is the number of LGBT youths quelling their identity out of necessity, because of unsupportive or even hostile households. Almost half of LGBT people don’t feel able to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to everyone in their family, according to the charity Stonewall.

One of them, a friend of mine at Cardiff University, says he shifts between personalities when at university and home, and is only out to a handful of friends.

“On a personal level, I tend to completely suppress the fact I’m gay,” he tells me. “As someone who comes from a conservative family, it’s difficult to know whether my parents will understand how and why I feel the way I do. It’s so difficult. Covid definitely exacerbated this.”

Perhaps this illustrates why the fight for LGBT equality in Britain is far from over. Discrimination is less overt, particularly for gay people than in decades past, but still divides families behind closed doors, curtails public displays of affection, toxifies social media and weighs heavily on young people’s minds.

Since I moved to London last month, I’m feeling much better. But at the root of my return to the closet during the pandemic is, I think, the flawed concept of ‘coming out’. Why should anyone have to come out? Surely you are just coming out from being straight, which immediately ‘others’ homosexuality or diverse gender identities.

The societal expectation to come out pressures young people to pigeon-hole ourselves from such an early age, when we may not even fully understand ourselves yet. This creates a mental torment, the scars of which can last years.

As with so many things, I fear that school closures and remote university learning has entrenched this problem. Once we’ve cracked the taboo cloaking it, maybe we can learn to address it.