Clubs such as the Queer-Straight Alliance are important outlets for students to discuss their experiences without fear of discrimination, says Chapel Hill High School junior and QSA President Grace Davis, who notes the relatively high rate of suicide and depression among LGBTQ youth. In clubs, they can freely talk about the issues they face, whether it’s homophobic bullying or a teacher who won’t respect their pronouns. 

While virtual schooling presents challenges for all students, they can be especially grave for some LGBTQ students, such as those who must spend long days in unaccepting households. They’re also deprived of the simple joys of in-person interactions with LGBTQ peers, such as rummaging through the rainbow buckets of candy in Mx. Reinholz’s room during QSA meetings at Chapel Hill High School.

“It’s really just to give them a place to talk about those issues and feel accepted and loved, even if they aren’t in other areas of the school and even at home,” Davis says.

Before the pandemic, the QSA hung posters in the school displaying mental health resources and hotlines. But then COVID-19 derailed some of the group’s other activist endeavors, like a bake sale Davis had hoped to hold in support of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.

For the virtual semester, the QSA is eschewing much of an outreach agenda in favor of internal community-building via online meetings and a group chat, where members can exchange memes and talk about what’s going on for them. 

“Our main thing is to just meet and try and play a game or talk about what’s going on in online school to just kind of have fun for a minute and get our mind off things that are not going so well,” Davis says. 

McDougle Middle School’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance was also engaging in activism before the pandemic, seventh grade English language arts teacher and GSA adviser Seth Gillis said. The GSA had participated in a book drive for Book Harvest to help ensure that some of the donated books included queer representation. 

Gillis says the GSA is an essential safe space for youth who are questioning their identity or identify as queer. He’s seen it make an impact. As a teacher, he’s observed that members feel more comfortable bringing things that the GSA discusses into the classroom.

“I think that my relationship with schooling would have been much different if I had had this opportunity or this space when I was in school,” he says.

COVID-19 largely halted the GSA’s activities last semester, but Gillis hopes that with a more consistent school schedule this fall, students will be able to maintain the club remotely. Gillis says GSA advisers try to keep the group as student-centered as possible, so the students will determine what they think is necessary for their community in a virtual setting.

“The thing I’m worried most about is whether or not some of our kids are going to feel safe at home being a part of the meeting, so I’m looking at a lot of different ways of how they can be involved just using the chat feature,” Gillis says.

After months in quarantine, and with a semester of online schooling ahead, some LGBTQ youth are stuck at home with family members who don’t affirm their identities, and a lack of privacy could make it difficult for them to fully participate in virtual LGBTQ groups.

“That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night,” says Danie Reinholz, Chapel Hill High School online learning facilitator and QSA adviser. “I want to make sure that their names and pronouns are respected, and also that they’re not inadvertently outed at home if they’re not out at home.”

Although virtual learning can impose burdens on LGBTQ youth, it can also make some aspects of life easier. For example, Davis says, students no longer have to deal with encounters in the hallway between classes, where most bullying happens.

“You can create a place, like our group chat, where you only have the people that support you, instead of just everyone that is at the school,” she says.

Virtual meetings might even lead some students to feel more comfortable participating in GSA.

“If this is going to be a safe haven for at least one student who maybe feels more comfortable getting involved virtually, then that’s a win in itself,” Gillis says.  

Reinholz says that to support the work of LGBTQ student groups, people should take care to use LGBTQ kids’ chosen names and pronouns.

“That’s really what I want from the school, to treat these kids with respect and actually get to know them,” they say. 

Asked what the broader community can do to support the QSA, Davis says, “As a parent of a student who’s not part of the LGBTQ community or is not out, I think it would do a lot to help to just open your mind and educate yourself on LGBTQ issues, and just always be aware that not everyone is who they are on paper.”

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