‘Disconnected’: A Discussion with Young Queer Voices on the Social Impacts of COVID-19 by Jay Roundtree

 Alexis B.  (she/her pronouns)

Over this past year, many of the ways that we navigate the world and experience life have changed a lot, and maybe even permanently. With the pandemic also came a number of regulations that essentially prohibited human interaction: lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, travel restrictions. As we adapt to living in a new world that has been largely shaped by COVID-19, I have wondered if socializing, and how we relate to one another, will be entirely  different experiences than they once were. How has all of this distancing impacted us on a personal level? Do people really feel “alone together” or are they completely disconnected?

To find out, I talked to four individuals within the queer community who are between 19 and 21 to hear their perspectives. I wanted to use this discussion as an opportunity to center young queer voices around this topic, considering that we live in a world where socializing has always proven to be a unique and sometimes challenging experience. 

In this roundtable discussion, Kendall, Lauren, Alexis, and Bianca share their thoughts on the value and importance of relationships and community in their lives as queer people, how the pandemic has affected their relationships and social life, and how they feel now, after such a large part of their social life has either been taken away or fundamentally changed.

It’s  always been very important to me to have people in my life who I trust and care about. For myself, and I think that, for a lot of other Black queer people, it has not always been easy finding people who are both understanding and accepting of my identity fully. I definitely went most of life without those types of people. 

I often navigate the world with a wall up between me and the people I interact with, out of fear that they won’t respond well to me in my entirety. I’m constantly asking myself questions like, Does this person know I’m a lesbian? Am I going to have to explain what nonbinary means? Does this person have other queer people in their life? Am I going to have to constantly explain and defend myself to this person? 

Even pre-pandemic, socializing and trying to relate to others can be so exhausting sometimes that it is refreshing to know that I have people in my life who genuinely “get me” and who value my company as much as I value theirs. Having a shared circle and a sense of community with other queer people is a very special experience. It’s affirming and comforting to have meaningful connections with other people like me who understand me, uplift me, and remind me that I am not alone in my experiences.

As a queer person, what does it mean to you to have healthy relationships and connections? What is the value of community for you?

Kendall R.: I’ve spent a lot of my life looking for community. I think that’s a pretty universal experience for queer people, especially queer people at the intersection of other marginalized communities. More than anything else, I think it’s about comfort. Like you mentioned, can you be yourself comfortably around the people close to you? Do you feel safe, understood, loved? Healthy relationships and meaningful connections, even brief ones, have had a profound impact on my life.

Bianca M.: I like to have relationships where the connection is meaningful and beneficial for the both of us. There is constant support and unconditional love between us. I consider those who are close to me practically family because of their role in my life. I do not have many people I consider myself close to for the sole reason that we must prioritize healthy relationships on a quality over quantity scale.

Alexis B.: To me, having a healthy relationship means having someone who accepts all of me, in my entirety. Whether it’s a platonic or romantic relationship, having someone who is open minded and happy and willing to learn everything that makes me who I am, I guess. Being queer can seemingly come with a lot of labels, so having someone who isn’t too wrapped up in labels and stereotypes, and doesn’t think people are supposed to be only one type of way, if that makes sense. 

Community is definitely something I’ve always wanted as a queer person. Feeling like you can thrive and be authentically yourself with other people who respect you and relate to you is probably one of the most amazing feelings. Being comfortable and not feeling the need to put up a facade or dilute my personality is really important to me.

Bianca M. (she/her pronouns)

Lauren H.: For such a long period of my life, I have been surrounded by people that are different from me and do not share the same experiences I do. I spent a lot of time with white straight people that are very hard to relate to and these relationships never felt authentic or lasting. Once I moved on, I craved relationships with people that have similar identities and can understand my perspectives. I have created healthy and meaningful connections with queer people that make me feel seen and heard. Surrounding myself with people that accept me for who I am and acknowledge my identities is my ideal type of community. 

I can definitely relate to this, Lauren. Similar to your experience, I also spent a large part of life I spent in spaces overwhelmed by cishet white men whose voices dominated the room, and whose experiences were often put on a pedestal and considered the standard. It has always been difficult to exist outside of the bounds of heteronormativity and the gender binary, especially in spaces that were specifically designed to not welcome and accommodate queer and other marginalized people. Like you mentioned, it is so important to surround ourselves with people and groups who we can relate too and who acknowledge and accept our identity. Feeling seen and heard is a really valuable experience. 

My relationships and the role that they play in my life have changed so much since last March. During the pandemic, I moved out of my parents’ house and got an apartment with my partner and best friend. I stopped going out and meeting new people, and most of the time that I spend engaging with those I care about is through a screen—whether it be the occasional text to check in on my friends and family, long FaceTime calls from miles and miles away, or an Instagram post reminding someone that I’m thinking of them. 

I think that the importance of relationships in my life has really changed. I’ve always valued physical connection, intimacy, and being in the same space as people I’m close to, and not having that has really emphasized that importance for me. I don’t see my family often now that I don’t live with them and can’t travel six hours every weekend, especially during a pandemic. My social life currently consists of the two people I live with, and although I love them, it can sometimes make me feel a little crazy being in such a small space with the same people all the time. We’ve almost grown too close to each other at this point and barely remember how to start new relationships. At the same time, I’ve also grown to value the few really close relationships that I do have and have been able to maintain throughout the pandemic. I really just enjoy being in people’s presence and not being able to see people in person has kind of made me avoid interaction all together. 

Could you speak a little bit on how the pandemic has affected the role and dynamics of the relationships in your life?

BM: The pandemic has majorly affected the way that I communicate with others. In the beginning of the pandemic, I lost connections with many people and my relationships suffered as I was spiraling down a tunnel of my own depression. I filled that void of depression and emptiness on social levels with the adoption of an emotional support pet. 

 Kendall R. (any pronouns)

During this time, however, I got to realize the importance of the people who chose to reach out to me and the value between our relationships. The pandemic gave me a perspective on the quality of relationships that I had at the time. It showed me who had concern for me in a time where the world felt crazy. I had certain connections and relationships that simply fell off  during the start of the pandemic due to a multitude of reasons. Simple text messages and the sharing of content became more significant to me as that was the only form I had of connection between those I knew and a new line of communication between us, showing the value we have in each other and knowing that we were at least thinking of one another.

KR: I felt that, Bianca. I was living my best life studying abroad in Paris at the start of the pandemic, making new friends, making plans. I made a resolution last year to put myself out there and just go for everything that I wanted and it was going well! Really, I was so grateful and excited to be there and then it was just over. One day I was thinking about what country I would travel to for spring break and literally the next I was being told that I had to go back to the US as soon as possible. I’ve only recently been able to finally process it all and I definitely don’t talk to people as often as I once did, I’ve kind of become comfortable with the isolation. 

LH: I can relate to being comfortable with being alone. Throughout this year I have learned to value the time that I have alone because I probably won’t get it again. Unfortunately, It is pretty rare for me to spend time with friends since the beginning of the pandemic. I spend so much time with my family and I have come to realize how important they are to me. With that being said, I miss my friends so much, and sometimes it does bring me to tears because I miss the physical connections much more than I could ever put into words. I have learned to value the relationships that have lasted the duration of the pandemic because I truly know these are the people that belong in my life.

AB: The pandemic has definitely changed everything about relationships with other people. There’s a new level of anxiety when seeing family and friends. A lot of anxiety in even meeting new people for possible relationships. It’s usually customary to greet friends with a hug, but with the pandemic we kind of just awkwardly wave now, people are scared to breathe each other’s air so there’s not a lot of physical contact going on either. A lot queer friends I have who are or were in relationships experienced a lot of strain due to the pandemic and social distancing orders. I even had to end a relationship as the pandemic began, and it was due to some of those factors. Even some friendships are strained due to social distancing rules. 

Meeting new people can be a weird and challenging experience. Having to put yourself out there and share parts of yourself with another person is both exciting and intimidating, especially right now when so many of us haven’t adjusted to socializing and going out with new people again. 

Do you feel like your desire or willingness to pursue new relationships has changed as a result of the pandemic?

BM: Over the past year I have faced a multitude of red bumps involved in pursuing new relationships. I’ve certainly changed my perspective on the relationships I’ve had and how I was pursuing them. I can say that due to the pandemic I have become more social and more willing to try new things and reach out to people in a way that I had never felt like I could have before. I am willing to make those connections and step out of my comfort zone and make an effort to gain a deeper relationship with others. 

Seeing the world go into chaos and tragedy in such a short time, my mentality skewed from staying conservative to myself and my sheltered bubble to wanting to express that love and emotion with others and not being afraid of expressing myself with the time that I have here.

That’s actually really interesting. For me, the complete opposite happened. At the start of the pandemic (before we really knew it was pandemic), I was meeting a lot of new people, going out on dates, hanging out with my friends a lot. But after lockdown and quarantine started, that all just came to an end for me. The only way I could really get in touch with people was through text or FaceTime, which just didn’t work for me at all. I suck at texting. I either never reply or I literally have no idea what to say to people. So a lot of my relationships with people who I didn’t live with or go to school with just kind of faded. And meeting new people wasn’t an option. As much as I would’ve liked for it to work, I just can’t keep up a text conversation for more than a few hours before ghosting. It’s like all of that social distancing led to some sort of emotional distancing for me as well. 

I definitely have a desire to keep meeting people and building new relationships, but I feel like I don’t know how anymore (not that I really knew how to begin with, but certainly less so now). As a Black queer person in Upsate New York, I think this has been an especially unique experience because trying to find other Black queer people and queer circles where I feel welcome has always been challenging, even before the pandemic. 

AB: My desire and willingness to pursue a new relationship has definitely changed and fluctuated through the course of all this. In the beginning I didn’t want one because I’m not good at being consistent over online communication, either, and with the initial social distancing order I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to keep up. After a year, though, of not being able to, like, fulfill the social meter I started to want a romantic relationship a lot more since I missed that close social interaction with another person.

LH: Being isolated has made me a hermit! I have not reached out or tried to create new relationships because I am so focused on making sure those that I have now are getting the attention they need. I don’t really feel a desire to pursue new relationships because it makes me anxious to be in social spaces due to the pandemic. Nowadays it takes a lot out of me to be social, and life has slowed down so much that I’m worried about the return to normalcy. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how excited they are to get out and meet new people but sometimes I doubt my ability to make connections because it’s felt like so long since I have. 

Lauren H. (she/her pronouns)

KR: Right, I definitely feel less inclined to pursue new relationships. Or maybe it’s just that doing so seems like it would take a lot of energy that I honestly don’t have right now. While the desire to meet new people is there, actually doing so hasn’t happened so far. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m tired or because there’s not much to talk about right now, or if I haven’t found my people here or if I’m making excuses, but everything’s different now. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have all been constantly changing and adapting to our new lives. A lot of the ways that we do and experience things in our daily lives have changed completely and may never be the same as they were before COVID. 

Do you think that socializing and how we relate to one another will be different experiences once the pandemic is over? 

BM: I think the pandemic will have lasting effects on the way that society interacts with one another. I mean, for heaven’s sake, a large thing between people is claiming that you have been vaccinated and if that is not a huge significant sign of change in society I don’t really know what is. I hope that the pandemic will be a restart to others with this new wave of technology and wave of social media. I feel through the use of even TikTok we were so hopelessly trying to clot at a sense of community and connection and have become accustomed to communicating over the phone. However, I hope that ultimately it shows that we need each other more than ever, that no matter what happens we are strong and capable of doing things when we are with one another and that if we were able to survive a pandemic together and suffer the loss of thousands upon millions of innocent lives we must cherish the time we have with one another and with ourselves and grow those connections. These connections are the only things we have left and although it is not physical it weighs something more than that, it is something that transcends the time we spend here on Earth and puts value into our daily lives.

KR: Some might be excited to socialize, but I’m sure others will be much more hesitant. That said, though, the pandemic, or rather talking about the pandemic, has become a topic over which people bond and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I wonder how this will impact how we communicate with one another. Will it promote transparency and a willingness to be vulnerable or will we be even more guarded than before? Will it be easier or harder to connect? I hear people say “We’ve all been affected” and “This is taking a toll on all of us” and other,  similar sentiments. It’s true that we have all been affected, but we have not all been affected in the same way. Simply put, these are weird times and I don’t think there will be any return to normal-normalcy is dead. As we relearn how to relate to one another and to ourselves, I hope that patience and empathy will be prioritized. 

LH: I think there will be a very long transition period for most people after the pandemic is over. Some people have never changed their ways and continued socializing, so they will be just fine. For those that have spent much of their time isolated, it will take more time to become comfortable in society again. I believe people have had to reevaluate what they value in their lives and will be more cautious in the social lives coming months to years. Everyone has gone through a similar experience, but none of us have had the same exact experience. The pandemic has shifted a lot of the world around us and navigating the aftermath will be another monumental moment for many of us.

AB: I absolutely think how we relate and socialize with others will be different after the pandemic. Right now while we’re still in the midst of it and there’s a lot of anxiety about how online communication is now further emphasized, if that makes sense. Since traveling and seeing friends is limited, the primary form of communication becomes through a screen. 

Everyone who has had a COVID scare is a lot more cautious now around others. I can only imagine once the pandemic is over that air of caution might linger. People will now have it in the back of their mind questions like “Is it safe to go over?” and “Has anybody been sick here?”Apart from all the cautious and possibly scary stuff, I think people will have learned to value in person connection a lot more after the pandemic is over. I know I definitely took seeing my friends for granted and wish I had made a bigger effort to hang out before all this started and I couldn’t see them for months and months.          

Jay Roundtree (they/she) is a Black queer writer and creative from Baltimore, MD. They are currently a junior at The College of Saint Rose studying communications with a minor in writing. When they’re not in school, Jay enjoys writing, drawing, and painting, and taking care of their plants.

Special Feature: F2020

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