After a Year+ of Disrupted Community, Pride Is as Important as Ever

published Jun 7, 2021
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Young multi ethnic lesbian couple with rainbow flag running on city quay
Credit: Getty Images | bojanstory

In early 2020, Jamie* made a new friend whom she describes as “the coolest person ever.”  She found herself drawn to nearly everything about the new acquaintance, from her style to her sense of humor to her overall vibe, until it dawned on her that this wasn’t simply the exhilaration of a new friendship. It was a crush. 

“A switch basically flipped in my head,” Jamie explains, adding that she had been noticing an increased attraction toward women within herself around the same time. Around March of last year, she realized that she’s pansexual. “And then: full pandemic shut-down.”

While living at home in British Columbia with one of her partners, Jamie used much of this past year to explore what being a pansexual, polyamorous woman means to her — on her terms. “In a way, the pandemic has allowed me to keep my newfound queer identity very quiet;  I let my mind wander wherever it wanted to,” Jamie says. But she also longs to connect with other LGBTQ+ people, especially as her friend group has narrowed without consistent IRL interaction. 

Like many other things in a year filled with upheaval and change, community might look different today than it did before 2020. As Pride Month continues, Apartment Therapy caught up with a few LGBTQ+ folks and organizations across the globe to find out what community means to them — and how Pride can be embraced anytime, anywhere.

For many LGBTQ+ people, COVID-19 was a great disruptor of community. 

While having a sense of community is important for everyone, it can be especially crucial for LGBTQ+ people. Maybe that’s the close friends you turn to through the good and the bad; a group chat with people you follow on Instagram but have never met IRL; a LGBTQ-owned or -friendly coffee shop or neighborhood you frequent; or a chosen family, which has roots in ball culture. “The journey of self-discovery can feel scary and lonely, even when you’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by family and friends who support you,” explains Ross von Metzke, the Director of Communications and PR at the It Gets Better Project. “The ability to choose your family is one of the privileges of being a part of the greater LGBTQ+ community. Sometimes you have to go and find them, and sometimes they find you.”

It’s no secret that the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of people to find new ways to maintain their close relationships, or that stay-at-home measures negatively impacted people’s ability to foster new ones. “The pandemic chewed me up and spat me back out with no mercy,” Emilie Lavinia explains, noting that the isolating effects of stay-at-home orders especially disrupted her sense of community and her ability to express her sexuality as a polyamorous person. “I grew up queer in a small town and struggled with erasure, so I rely on those external references of queerness around me now to feel happy and validated. Having been separated from that during the pandemic, I feel a little like I’ve taken a few steps back toward the closet.”

While Lavina has been able to lean into her queerness online, she misses the concrete boundary that once existed between her home and social life. “Before the pandemic, I used to have all my fun and then come back to my London flat, which was my quiet sanctuary,” she says, adding that while she once enjoyed the peace and flexibility of living alone, the saturated isolation of this year was overwhelming. “When your social and dating life is taken away and solitude is your only option, it changes you.” 

Gabrielle Kassel, a writer and queer sex educator, lived in a busy city with a large LGBTQ+ population prior to the pandmic. Kassel often turned to IRL interactions for affirmation, pointing specifically to the little exchanges she’d have with other queer people during the day. She recalls walking down the street “decked out” in clothing she selected to make her queerness visible, like pride bracelets or cuffed jeans. “This often resulted in others reading me as queer, and affirming as much through a head nod, a wave, or a wink,” she says. “In short, they saw me for me!”

But once the pandemic hit, Kassel relocated to a smaller town without a substantially visible queer population. Due to the change of environment and stay-at-home orders, those little interactions were no longer part of her daily life. “Gone were those acknowledging glances on the sidewalks between myself and other queer people,” she says, adding that the loss of those exchanges hit hard because she likes being able to control how others see her queerness. “Am I able to validate my own queer identity? Yes. But do I miss the validation that comes from being recognized and appreciated by my own community members? Also yes!”

Jeffrey Klein, the Chief Operating Officer of NYC’s LGBT Community Center, adds that community is often the antidote to isolation — and can be life-saving for that very reason “Connecting with others who share our experiences or our identities reminds us that we’re not alone,” he says. And throughout a year where loneliness has been rampant, that connection has been needed more than ever.  

An opportunity for self-reflection.

For some LGBTQ+ folks, the past year provided a quiet chapter to further navigate their identities. For their part, Skye* navigated feeling lonely and gratitude  for the space to focus on growth. 

“Before the pandemic, I was out as non-binary with some friends and in some social media spaces, but not with everyone,” they explain. When COVID hit last March, Skye had just moved to Los Angeles and spent the next several months at their apartment with a lot of time to think about who they are — and how they want to be perceived by the world. “I started feeling more confident to re-examine gender in my own life, and found myself experimenting with different clothes and makeup to see what felt most like me,” they said. “I’m not sure I would have been able to do that as comfortably if I were going out to work every day, but with the whole world shut down, I had some room to get to know myself.”

The same was true for Lola Méndez, a journalist who currently lives in Uruguay. “The pandemic served as a reality check for me that life is short and precious and that I shouldn’t let fears prevent me from living my truth,” explains the 31-year-old, who came out last year. After experiencing her first relationship with a woman and spending a lot of time in queer online spaces, Méndez is now eager for an IRL community, too. “I don’t know many queer people here in Uruguay and hope that I can form a community with fellow queer people in the future,” she says.

For some, coming out can be an important milestone, and part of the self-identification process; for others, it might be more gradual, and there are many LGBTQ+ people who are not out for a variety of reasons. Coming out anytime can be both challenging and exciting — and even if you do have the necessary support, doing so can still feel lonely. But for those who are taking the step to publicly assert their identity, community can play a huge role in making it a positive experience. “There might be this feeling of ‘no one understands what I’m going through,’” emphasizes von Metzke. “So to find a group of people who look like you, who sound like you, who have similar experiences to yours — especially if you’ve grown up feeling like an outsider — is like having this giant weight lifted off your back.”

A home isn’t always a community.

While some people used the pandemic to connect to their identity, doing so posed a risk for many others who found themselves in different living situations than the ones they were in prior to March 2020, and were now forced to navigate an environment that was hostile to their identity in one way or another. 

That was the case for Elle*, who says she had “to go deep back in the closet” while caring for her parents, who are not supportive of her identity and have expressed biphobic falsehoods to her. “In some ways I grieved the year as a lost one where I could not be my full self,” she says, adding that she was hyper-vigilant about anything that could potentially “out” her as bisexual to her parents. Because her new living situation left her feeling physically isolated from her queer community, she tried to find new ways to “feel affirmed” in her identity, but that was sometimes as difficult as it was comforting. 

In particular, she leaned into her identity through memoirs, LGBTQ+ non-fiction, and other queer-forward texts. “In these pages, I found characters, desires, and relationships that I connected to and saw myself in,” she said. Even so, she felt the need to hide her new hobby from her parents as a matter of safety: “I had to read queer lit from Kindle, and I cleared my user history every hour in case my mom or dad wanted to use my tablet. I couldn’t even have any queer stuff in my room,” she said, adding that such belongings are important to her because they’re representative of who she is. “It’s the same reason I have photos of friends, favorite quotes, and Taylor Swift quotes in my decorating — it’s part of me.”

Klein emphasizes that living with unsupportive family members can be incredibly difficult, encouraging people who feel unsupported or unsafe in their homes in such circumstances to turn to the online LGBTQ+ community, if it’s safe for them to do so. Organizations like NYC’s LGBT Community Center and the It Gets Better Project provide options for confidential support and online resources for anyone in need of help.

Credit: Ben Haist

The Heightened Importance of Digital Community

While she hasn’t felt comfortable coming out to her friends or family yet, Jamie found a plethora of support on social media. She read books like Florence Given’s “Women Don’t Owe You Pretty,” found friendships with other queer women on dating apps, and cleansed her Instagram feed for a much-needed fresh start. “I followed a variety of queer, BIPOC, and fat activism accounts, and the humor and perspectives of all these amazing queer people being free and polyam and funny and shameless has been so inspiring,” she says, noting that these online spaces feel like “real” communities. 

The digital world has also fostered a sense of community for Skye, who spends a lot of time on TikTok and is particularly drawn to videos by trans and nonbinary creators. “To me, community means just finding the people who ‘get’ you or have been in similar situations as you,” they explain. “I don’t think it’s limited to immediate surroundings, because community can happen in the digital world too, and I have made so many online friends this year who I feel closer to in some ways than people in my physical life.”

Online spaces have had the power to create a queer community for years, from the days of message boards or Livejournal to Tumblr and the social media apps of the present. The anonymity that comes with posting online can translate to a higher level of comfort than one might experience IRL, allowing people to truly be themselves — and connect with others on a similar journey. In a recent survey by the Trevor Project, 96 percent of LGBTQ youth respondents said that social media positively impacted their well-being, and 69 percent said they accessed LGBTQ-affirming spaces online. 

“There’s a lot about the digital space that can be toxic,” Von Metzke notes. “But if you can navigate through the negativity and seek out a community of support, you’ll open yourself up to extraordinary people you may never have otherwise had the opportunity to meet.”

Social media has always played a huge role in Kassel’s ability to connect to others, explaining that since she was Very Online before the pandemic, her sense of community didn’t change too much in the past year. She adds that her online community has brought a wider variety of language with which to describe queerness, allowing her to expand her own sense of self. “These days, rather than identifying only as ‘queer,’ I identify as a ‘queer bisexual dyke,’ which feels like it speaks more fully to my lived experiences,” she says.

After one year of the pandemic, Pride is as important as ever.

Even though vaccinations are on the rise, Pride events still might not look the same as in the past — but the act of gathering itself is desperately needed. “Finding moments of celebration is crucial, especially during times like this one when we are experiencing such widespread collective and individual trauma,” says Klein. “Claiming pride in our identities gives us the strength to push forward in the face of difficulties. It is a joyful defiance of the challenges we come up against every day.”

It’s also important to remember that Pride isn’t just a party; it’s a statement, and an act of resistance with deep historical roots. “Pride requires that we recommit to fighting for justice and equity, especially for LGBTQ+ people who are at greater risk for discrimination and violence,” Klein says, citing transphobic state legislation, violence against Black trans women, and suicidal ideation among LGBTQ+ youth as just some of the issues that demand attention. “We have to honor the activist history of Pride with continued action, because though we’ve made progress, too many are still facing violence and attacks on their very existence.” 

Many LGBTQ+ people are using this year’s Pride as an opportunity to look toward the future and what comes next — both in terms of individual identity and the larger sense of community. Lavinia is especially excited to reconnect with other queer people, anticipating that she’ll finally feel at home after a year of loneliness. “I’ve realized how much confidence community gives me,” she explains. “Sometimes being yourself isn’t always something you can do alone.”

Similarly, Linda Demarco, the President of Boston Pride, tells Apartment Therapy that the theme for 2021’s virtual celebrations will be “the rainbow after the storm” to reflect upon the past year’s pain and sorrow. “It represents an opportunity to come together again, and support each other in healing from the events of the past year, and in committing to continuing to work as a community toward acceptance, justice, and understanding,” she says. “It acknowledges the tough and painful year our community has had and that better days are ahead.”

The idea that better days are ahead is something that Jamie thinks about a lot too. “The prospect of exploring my queer identity as the world starts to open back up is helping me build a foundation for my life going forward,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m going ‘back to normal.’ I’m starting a new adventure.”

*Interview participants requested their names be changed.