August 2020

A Return to Home: Navigating Familial Relationships as a Queer Person During COVID

A queer college student in New York City faces challenges navigating interpersonal relationships after COVID sends her back to her small hometown.

by Emma Simpson

March 10, 2020 was a good day. My morning class at Hunter College was cancelled, I got coffee with my favorite professor and made late night nachos with my roommates. The next day was decidedly not a good day. Midway through my shift at work I learned that school would be shut down for the remainder of the semester, effectively ending my senior year. Tuesday I was sitting in a seminar on James Baldwin, and Wednesday I realized I would never walk into Hunter for another college class. By the end of the week my place of employment was closing indefinitely, and shortly thereafter the decision was made that I would be going back to Ohio.

On the Tuesday before everything went downhill, when I was asked if I would return to Ohio should school shutdown, my answer was a resounding “absolutely not.” I had lived there for the first nineteen years of my life and devoted myself to getting out. I’d finally put down roots in NYC, a city where I once knew virtually no one and where I was so desperate to stay that I worked multiple jobs to make sure it was possible. In the end, though, the choice was out of my hands—the senior year I had been dreaming of had slipped through my fingers as I sat my bags down in my childhood bedroom.

Emma enjoying her freedom in New York City.

My disappointment about school being cancelled and my return to Ohio ran deeper than just sadness about the effective loss of my senior year. My life in NYC had emboldened me to open myself up to who I was. Living in Ohio, I’d always felt like an outsider. Everyone around me was the way I thought I should be, but I never fit in.

In New York everything felt freer. I had gay friends for the first time in my life. I surrounded myself with people who were like me. After so many years of being on the outside, I finally felt like I had a community. I stopped being concerned with hiding my sexual identity and learned how to simply exist for the first time in my life. 

Since I came out to my mom, one month after I moved to New York, our relationship has become decidedly tense. I’d known I was gay since about the sixth grade, though it wasn’t until a few years afterwards that I’d accepted it as an immutable fact about myself. Still, even knowing this about myself for years, I didn’t tell my mother until we were living two states apart. Initially things went better than expected—she’s Catholic from rural Ohio—so when she seemed to take it in stride, I was hopeful. Now, however, as my time in Ohio stretches on, the gulf between us continues to grow.

I learn more and more that my mom’s aversion to my sexuality has little to do with me being a lesbian, and more with my refusal to be silent about it. About six months after coming out to my mother, I told her I was ready to tell everyone else in my life. Upon hearing this she dragged her feet; she was suddenly full of questions like “How will I explain it?” and “I don’t mind, but what will other people think?” These questions always felt far away when I lived in New York. I was surrounded by people who accepted me and the hundreds of miles between my mother and me allowed me to forget all that weighed on our relationship. But as COVID sent me—quite literally—packing, I was forced to reckon with all that I was trying to ignore.

A view of the author’s hometown, Sidney, Ohio

As the people close to me know, I love my mom. We’ve always been close. She’s often the first person I turn to when something, good or bad, happens to me. This only makes it so much harder when I cannot share with her something that is a huge part of who I am. As I spend this extended period of time at home, I am forced to reckon with the fact that our relationship has been, on some level, fundamentally fractured by my sexuality.

Soon after I returned home, my mom brought up the topic of my wedding. I knew quickly that this conversation was going to be difficult. I was prepared to walk on eggshells around the subject while using carefully selected gender-neutral pronouns in order to make her more comfortable. But the detente was ruptured with a question: “Are you going to get married in Holy Angels?” I was dumbstruck. Asking if I will marry in the Catholic parish in which I grew up and in which my mother was married, one that condemns gay unions, hurt me on many levels. It hurt to hear her ask me a question she knew the answer to, just so she could express disappointment about my answer. It hurt for me to have to say that I will not be getting married there, when it was all I dreamed about for years. It hurt me to have to come out again and again. It was like she’s sitting there waiting for me to say, “I take back what I said about being a lesbian, mom, I will get married to a good Catholic boy in the church!” Up until this point in my time back in Ohio, I had tried to ignore that she had been throwing boys at me, hoping one would stick. And all the while she refused to listen to the fact that not only can I not be “fixed” by the right boy, but even if I could, I would not want to be. I’ve finally gotten to a place where I’m happy with who I am, and I wish she could be too.

My friends have been my saving grace throughout all of this. I was barely getting academic support from my school throughout the pandemic, I certainly was not going to get any special support from them. My friends have been the only ones to whom I can turn. They have listened to me while I vented and joked with me over FaceTime when I needed to grasp onto a memory of what life used to be.  Still, they only exist in a digital reality, on my phone or computer. My physical reality is inescapable. In protecting my health from COVID, I feel like I’m sacrificing the emotional security I worked so hard to build. I love my mother deeply and do not want to talk to her about how she’s hurting me and damage our relationship even more, but not talking about it is slowly eroding our connection. I desperately need her to hear me when I say “Mom, I love you, but I need you to love me for who I am, instead of trying to make me who you want me to be.” COVID has displaced so many people—especially students—and returned them to situations where they no longer know how to exist. We are trying to survive a pandemic, while also trying to fit into worlds we have outgrown.

Emma Simpson graduated from Hunter College this Spring with a major in English. She is a transplant to NYC, having lived in Ohio for the first 19 years of her life. She is interested in literature, especially literature from post-WWII to the present. She is also interested in historical linguistics and linguistic anthropology, theatre, and embroidery.

1 comment on “A Return to Home: Navigating Familial Relationships as a Queer Person During COVID

  1. Emily Reinhart

    You are amazingly strong and beautifully confident Emma Simpson. I am so thankful to have you in my life.


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