by J. Aimon
When the President of my university sent out an email saying we would no longer have in-person classes, my classroom seemingly erupted in a cacophony of emotions. Some students were ecstatic that they didn’t have to go to class for the next month and a half, some were confused about what the rest of the semester would look like, while others were annoyed that we had just gotten back from spring break and they would now have to return home. I, however, felt a deep sense of sadness and foreboding. I didn’t want to go home. I had already just spent spring break at my parents’ house and I wasn’t planning on returning for summer break. In fact, I have never spent a summer break at home in my four years of undergrad.
I didn’t come out until my freshman year of college. In some ways it was anticlimactic. In one of my classes, everyone was making PowerPoints about themselves to share with the rest of the class. I noticed people were including slides about significant others and I panicked. I asked the girl next to me, who I barely knew at the time if she was going to talk about a partner and she said, “Yes, probably, what about you?” I responded “I don’t know, I don’t think I should. I’m not with a guy. I’m not straight.” I realized that was the first time I had ever said that out loud and it was to someone who was almost a stranger. She just looked at me and said, “Cool, me neither.” That was the end of that.
Not all of my friends reacted as positively when I told them, but most supported me with love and acceptance. College for me has been a place or relative liberation, a place where I can be my full self. My school is in no ways perfect, there still is conflict, racism, parochial narrow-mindedness, and homophobia, but I have found vehicles for liberation through clubs, classes and friendship groups.
My family is completely different. My parents hold very religious and socially conservative beliefs. I am well aware of how they would react if I ever came out to them. Because of this, I found myself distancing from them. However, COVID-19 left me with few choices. When my university cancelled all in-person classes, I remained in my dorm, hoping that everything would be back to normal after a while and my summer study away plans would not be interrupted. When, after a few weeks, the university closed the dorms, I was forced to return home. As I expected, my time at home has been filled with anxiety. I have become extremely paranoid. I am worried that something will out me, whether it’s a text message, a tagged photo on Facebook, or even leaving my computer open on this article.
I considered moving into one of my friend’s apartments for the duration of the lockdown, but I saw on social media these friends were partaking in risky “school is cancelled” festivities. The bars around my university had lines around the door, and every frat was filled to the brim. When I challenged my peers about the safety of these activities, they responded, “Young people can’t get it,” “We won’t get that sick,” “It’s just the flu,” and “Stop being so scared.” Unlike most of my friends, I have a compromised immune system. In normal situations, I get sick very easily and I have been hospitalized more than once for a variety of issues including pneumonia. I knew for me, COVID could be fatal. Since I couldn’t afford my own apartment, I had to sacrifice my mental health for my physical health and live with my parents. I knew that at least they would take this pandemic seriously.
As an African American, my mental health has been further challenged by the recent highly publicized deaths of Black people at the hands of racists in the past few months. My childhood was punctuated by police brutality. I wasn’t even ten when police in my hometown murdered a child younger than me. I was in middle school when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, and I was in high school when Ferguson police fatally shot Michael Brown. I remember a feeling of helplessness because I was too young then to do anything. With modern technology allowing deaths to be recorded, widely disbursed and promoted on social media, I never have to go far to be reminded of my vulnerability as a Black American. I felt more alienated realizing that I could not participate in some of the most powerful and self-affirming protests in generations for fear of getting sick. There is no question that what is happening now is cathartic and politically important, but the most popular forms of protest are out of the question for those of us who are high-risk if we were to contract the virus. I watch and digitally support the movement from a home where I still struggle to be my full self.
As horrible as this pandemic has been, I have learned a lot during this time. I am hopeful watching society struggle to become more equitable. I’ve noticed that accommodations that disabled students have asked for that were previously deemed fiscally impossible are now commonplace. I watch recorded lectures and participate in self-paced classes which is a concession I thought my professors would never make. I have also seen many symbolic gestures towards the Black community like murals painted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and a Black woman being placed on a major party ticket for the first time. I hope that these are the precursors of structural corrections against white supremacy.
Although I know that it was not the safest option, I decided to go back to campus in the fall. I love my parents, and spending time with them is generally fine, but it is very difficult living with them. I dreaded things that normally I would be excited for, like the Supreme Court ruling that lesbian, gay, and transgender people cannot be subject to workplace discrimination, being reported in the news because they would give their opinions and I was reminded once again how they felt about people like me. My school recently announced that classes will be all online, and while the announcement was long overdue (classes start in less than two weeks, many students are already back on campus), I would feel much more comfortable being my full me if I were to return.
Now that I know that I will be moving back to campus soon, I have been reflecting on these last five months of suppressing parts of myself and questioning what being my ‘true self’ in these times mean. Today being safe, mature, and scientifically informed, as I believe I am, requires a socially narrow existence, dependent on a few close friends and viscerally distrustful of strangers. I already feel a sense of nostalgic loss for the ease of pre-COVID interactions and fear the cumulative effects of loneliness and anxiety among the immune-compromised. I feel an inclination to end on a positive note, yet that would be inappropriate in a time of such acute uncertainty. If we are to talk of hope then it should be invested not only in science to find a cure for this virus, but also the possibility of renewed appreciation for our shared humanity and the personal connections that bring the closeness and acceptance we all crave.
J. Aimon (pseudonym) is an undergraduate who has chosen to remain anonymous, as their sexuality is a secret to their family.