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Nora didn’t want to come home.
When Michigan State University, where she is a senior, shut down because of the coronavirus, Nora’s panicked parents brought her home. Back to rural Michigan, to an isolated house surrounded by woods and cornfields on all sides.
It’s a house where 21-year-old Nora, who is transgender, can’t be herself: where every day, her parents call her by the wrong name, use the wrong pronouns. Where she can’t dress the way she wants. Where she can’t leave the house — not even to go to the pharmacy to get the medications she needs for her gender affirmation, which her parents don’t know she’s taking.
Nora, who asked that her name not be used in this story, isn’t out to her parents. “I've got a strong feeling that if I were to come out,” she said, “I would be swiftly disowned.”
It’s “dehumanizing,” Nora said, not to be able to be herself, to be called every day by a name that isn’t hers. “Even if it comes from a place of ignorance.”
Students across the country have had to grapple with enormous loss as colleges shuttered their campuses last month: missed graduations and rituals; communities splintered across the country in a matter of days; uncertainty around grades, housing, financial aid, and nearly every other aspect of college life.
But for transgender students, the loss was often even more profound and complicating. For many, it meant a loss of safety and dignity, of access to vital health care and, fundamentally, a space — any space — where they could be themselves.
Those safe spaces are incredibly important right now. Trans kids are far more likely to report having attempted suicide than their cisgender peers and are more likely to have depression and anxiety. For many, access to medical transition services has been abruptly cut off, and some have lost access to mental health care, too. All of this means the coronavirus pandemic has put the mental and physical health of an already vulnerable group at far greater risk.
In interviews with BuzzFeed News, trans students described the experience of being trapped in a pandemic with families who do not accept them — a whiplash change from a college campus where they are openly trans, most for the first time in their lives, to a house where they are misgendered and called by deadnames.
Others who had the option made painful decisions to spend months living alone in their dorm rooms rather than going back to houses where they felt unsafe or unwelcome.
In the midst of the pandemic, trans students have done what they always have: found a safe space in each other. They've learned to cope, many said, by leaning on classmates over text messages, Discord, and Zoom, talking to one another through medical challenges, homelessness, and isolation. They’ve found housing for each other, even mailed medications.
Many experienced a similar isolation in high school, before they were openly trans — without the community they’ve found in college to lean on. But that hasn’t made the experience of going back home, and back into hiding, easy.
"Do I want to spend the next however many months being not myself — versus if it goes wrong, I have nowhere else to go?"
“Being misgendered hurts physically a little bit sometimes,” one nonbinary student said. “It’s like you’re constantly wearing a costume, being someone that you’re not. It would be different if it’s a one-time thing, but if it’s all the time…”
Taking the costume off can be frightening and dangerous. As the weeks tick by, students said, they are coping with the fear of being outed, or coming out, to families who might throw them out of their homes in the midst of a pandemic.
One student living at home weighed what felt like the necessity of coming out as trans and nonbinary against their own safety, their voice kept to a low whisper during an interview to prevent their parents from overhearing.
“Do I want to spend the next however many months being not myself — versus if it goes wrong, I have nowhere else to go?”
At Michigan State, many of the students in a tight-knit group called TransAction have decided not to go home at all.
Elijah, a first-year student who is trans and wanted only his first name used in this story, said his life has been mostly confined to his dorm room: two lofted bunk beds, only one of them occupied, two desks, linoleum floors littered with takeout containers from the dining hall where he picks up his meals. He has a microwave, but no kitchen.
It’s not an ideal place to self-quarantine, but the option to stay at Michigan State has been vital for Elijah and many of his friends.
At home in Indianapolis, Elijah’s parents refuse to call him by his name or refer to him with the right pronouns. He came out to his mom last summer, and she was “worse than I expected.” The last time they spoke on the phone, she sent Elijah a text afterward asking if he spelled his name “Alisa,” which hurt: It was a feminine spelling, and that felt intentional.
And after they opened his mail and found out he was medically transitioning, his parents pushed back. They were not happy, Elijah said, that he had used their insurance to cover his health care. When his dad called him to talk about the mail he had read, he used words like “woman” and “girl” to refer to him.
“Before I came here, I didn’t know how sad I was,” Elijah said of Michigan State.
When campus shut down, Elijah navigated a difficult situation with his parents, telling them he didn’t want to come home even though the university had written that only students who “need” to remain there could stay. He hasn’t really explained to them why, he said, or even talked about it at all, except when he got an angry phone call from his father.
“My parents claim a lot of love for me but in basic ways don’t respect me,” Elijah said. “That leads to a lot of distrust for the people around you, and it’s really isolating, especially when they’re the only people around you.”
Elijah has cataloged all the ways, some big, some smaller, that he and his trans friends have been affected by the pandemic.
Take handwashing: “When people encourage you to wash your hands more frequently, they expect you have access to a bathroom.” On Michigan State’s campus, many buildings have only one gender-neutral bathroom, usually with a single stall. That complicates the one task that public health officials have repeatedly stressed as vital to preventing infection.
“As far as virtual classes go, I kind of love it,” Elijah said. “They can’t see what I look like and judge me because of it. Which is really nice — a lot of trans people gravitate towards the internet for that reason. Being able to be in certain classes where I don’t have to show my face can be really refreshing.”
Zoom isn’t without problems, though. It often automatically populates with trans people's deadnames — their birth names — since it’s registered to their emails. And online, Elijah’s professors sometimes assume students’ genders because of their voices.
“That shit hurts, man,” Elijah said.
Summer plans and internships are up in the air for everyone. But for trans students, the simple fact of where they will live this summer is another huge question mark. Campus dorms, if they’re open, don’t always offer gender-neutral housing in the summer, and some campuses will be closed altogether to students, forcing them to find places to live at the last minute. Finding a sublet means finding a roommate with whom you can be out safely, which is not always an easy task.
"As soon as my folks let me leave, I'm headed straight to the pharmacy."
Losses that are big for other college students — parties, rituals, graduation — can be magnified for trans students.
May Isrow, a student at Michigan State, came out as trans only during the beginning of her senior year. She’s in a “privileged” place relative to many of her friends. But what she’s lost is big too: after three years on campus living as someone else, this was her only real chance to experience college as herself.
“I hadn’t really been me very long — it felt like I’d just woken up six months ago.”
She’d only just started being able to go to parties, or even wanting to. She’d only recently started being able to go to TransAction meetings presenting as a woman. Even missing out on the chance to wear spring clothes on campus feels like a loss of self.
That college experience was the reason she chose to come out when she did, she said: “I knew in 10 years I would think back on this time, and I would have regretted it. Now, thinking back 10 years, I’m going to appreciate what I did, but I’m still going to be upset that I didn’t get to finish that.”
Perhaps most importantly for many trans students, there’s health care. Many hospitals and clinics have ended all nonessential services, including gender affirmation surgeries and some treatments for people who are medically transitioning.
When it comes to gender-affirming health care, Elijah and other students at Michigan State have struggled to get in touch with their doctors in the midst of the pandemic. Elijah was supposed to get important blood work done after a month of taking drugs for his medical transition, but he hit that mark last month and hasn’t heard from his nurse practitioner since.
Elijah is “a little nervous,” he said, but his prescription doesn’t run out until July — plenty of time, he hopes, to get the necessary blood work done. Unless, he worries, his last-minute summer housing falls through and he has to go home, where his parents “don’t want [him] to be taking it in the first place.”
Nora, in rural Michigan, is waiting anxiously for her parents to ease restrictions. “There’s no way in hell I'm letting anyone know,” she said of her family, about the drugs she needs to take as part of her medical transition. So, like she's done before, she's waiting.
“As soon as my folks let me leave, I'm headed straight to the pharmacy,” she said.
Nora has been coping by trying just to forget about it — the situation with her medicine, the worries about her parents’ finances. Animal Crossing helps a lot, she said: “It’s easy to forget everything’s gone to shit when you can fill a house with nothing but bugs.”
Like many students, she said, she’s been relying heavily on the trans community at her school, who have been “incredible.”
For Elijah, that meant finding safe summer housing when his original plan fell through. For many others, it’s support and connection across separate dorm rooms and from different states.
Group texts and other chat rooms are buzzing all the time. They talk about tough things like dealing with parents or how to get a hold of the doctor’s office for blood work. Mostly, though, it’s just lighter stuff.
As one student said: “It makes things feel a lot less alone.” ●