MSU LBGT Resource Center Celebrates Students During Pandemic

May 1, 2020

Spring wasn’t supposed to be like this. Events were planned to celebrate accomplishments, recognize achievements and engage a community deeply committed to its members. Then the novel coronavirus changed the way we live and function. Campuses cleared, including Michigan State University where just a fraction of its students remained while finishing the spring semester online with their peers from across the U.S. and around the world.

Part of spring celebrations were the plans for MSU Pride Month 2020. While globally, LGBTQA+ Pride Month occurs annually in June to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, at MSU and many other colleges and universities, Pride Month is celebrated in April while students are on campus. This is a time to commemorate and recognize the impact LGBTQA+ individuals have had on equality and civil rights, to increase understanding of and reduce violence toward the people of this community. Campus events were planned – events that would not materialize. The celebration, however, did go on. 

MSU’s LBGT Resource Center (LGBTRC) leadership quickly adapted to the new virtual normal, directing attention to the needs of a community that, Director Jesse Beal explained, is uniquely able to transition online because “many of us found community online in our younger years.”

The LBGTRC is a student-centered campus resource that works to celebrate, affirm and empower LGBTQA+ members of the MSU community. The center staff is comprised of Director Jesse Beal, Assistant Director Oprah Jrenal, and Coordinator Morgan Doherty, as well as a graduate intern and four undergraduate student staff.

Celebrations were moved to virtual platforms. The LBGTRC, a part of Student Affairs and Services, celebrated “Deeply Connected at Any Distance:  Pride Month at MSU.” The center planned a series of virtual programs on social media and Zoom, as well as a digital bulletin board. Programs included Instagram cooking shows with community members and alumnx and Pride Chats with local LGBTQA+ activists, all coordinated by Assistant Director Oprah Jrenal. Students requested the bulletin board, Beal said, and leadership responded sharing the posts of members and adding daily prompts shared from social media, managed by Coordinator Morgan Doherty.

“Building Pride Month with them (students) with the virtual bulletin board allows us to share our pride” Beal said. “It’s one of the ways we ensure we all feel connected. We need and want that connection.” 

Beal said the importance of connection has never been more apparent than now, evidenced by students reaching out to the LBGT Resource Center that have never reached out before. “We’ve leaned into the community, listening deeply,” they said.

MSU’s LGBTQA+ community knew they would need each other to face tests and challenges during this crisis. Many members are estranged from family or deal with bias and oppression at home. That hasn’t changed due to the pandemic.

“Many in our community hide who they are when at home,” Beal explained. “Being at MSU allows more freedom for LGBTQA+ students to be who they are… Many have built their own families here.” The opportunity Residential and Hospitality Services (RHS) provided for students to remain on campus has been a great comfort for many LGBTQA+ students.

For those who returned home or live alone and face isolation, being without their support systems is difficult. Being without that support system during a time that was supposed to be filled with celebration and instead has been replaced with anxiety and fear, magnifies that struggle. So, the community moved quickly to ensure connections remained intact.

In addition to Pride Month celebrations, the LBGTRC held a virtual Lavender Reception to recognize and celebrate MSU’s 2020 LGBTQA+ graduates. Those wanting to participate signed up virtually for the remote, private event that included a keynote from Social Justice Educator and Consultant Derek Hall, as well as words from student speaker Becca Cox ‘20. The ceremony honored 10 graduates who were celebrated by friends, faculty, staff, and students. Each graduate was given a rainbow tassel and rainbow honor cords, as well as a lavender pin. Graduates were also celebrated in social media posts.

Outside of celebrations, Beal remains concerned about the community they support and keeping members connected longer than the end of the semester. Suicide is a concern in the LGBTQA+ community. For trans members suicide rates climb even higher, and with medical procedures postponed since they are not considered essential, anxiety and pain has grown, Beal said.

According to the 2019 Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ Youth (ages 13-24) Mental Health, 39 percent of LGBTQ respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months. Fourteen percent of cisgender LGBTQ youth and 29 percent of transgender and nonbinary LGBTQ youth attempted suicide in the past 12 months.

Ensuring support is available is key, similar to ensuring community connection during normal breaks, Beal explained. Summer brings parallel issues to the community. However, this has become exacerbated with the pandemic and orders to stay in place. 

“Some of our students are really struggling,” they said. “We have hosted a queer community care check-in call with resources in hand, strategy, sharing and support, and we refer students to the right resources.” In addition, the LBGTRC has hosted a bi-weekly meeting for student organization leaders and each staff member hosts weekly drop-in office hours. The center also has strong campus partners, such as MSU Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) Liaison Ginny Blakely.

“Moving to remote classes was the best choice for the MSU community,” Beal said, “but when many LGBTQA+ students left campus they returned home to unsupportive families.” On top of that, some independent and graduate students are dealing with a financial crisis after job losses and without a safety net. All of the pieces together intensify the situation.

Beal and center staff work to ensure students are connected with resources, including CAPS. “My concern is that many are in crisis, so we need to help them work within the system,” they said. “We meet students where they are, plug the gaps and be who they need us to be – listener, advocate, whatever they need, and we refer them to the appropriate resources.”

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