Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom
From entering the open and welcoming atrium of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA) building, to the rooftop garden, anyone who finds themselves wandering the halls will immediately be greeted by a rainbow of personal styles and expressions. Students can be found laying draped all over each other, as if they’ve known each other all their lives. Though in reality, they could only have just met a month ago.
At an arts school it’s nobody’s surprise a loud majority of students are also part of the LGBTQ community. Students agree that the environment is accepting, and inclusive at FSSA. Art itself is deeply related to expression, and art can be made stronger when it’s with other people. So it was a jarring shift to all students to take both these aspects away when the 2019 lockdown and remote schooling came around.
Being kept isolated indoors for nearly two years gave everybody time they’ve never had before to look deeper into themselves. For teens, it was time without the prying eyes of their peers influencing their every move. This time away from societal pressures came with a lot of deep dives into identity, specifically regarding gender and sexuality.
What happens to people’s feelings on their sexuality and gender when one completely takes their peers out of the equation? What about when societal expectations are lifted for a long period of time?
Sexuality and gender are, by principle, relative to other people. Sexuality is how people are attracted or not attracted to other people. And although gender is more individualistic, it still has the aspect of how one is perceived, or want to be perceived.
Unfortunately, upon first impression, gender is usually one of the first assumptions made about an individual. When given the chance to speak to our LGBTQ students, it became apparent how different their views on their identity are, and how much of that is due to the time they had during quarantine.
“[I was] forced to spend so much time with myself. I confronted things about myself that I previously hadn’t had time to pay attention to,” senior Bassie Chin recalls.
Over quarantine he got to explore and figure out more about himself relating to his gender identity, and feels lucky he can be out and proud back at school. However, he also reflects on how quarantine hasn’t been entirely helpful.
“No personal growth can make up for being lonely. When we interact with people, it’s a matter of constantly taking risks and making mistakes, from which you learn and change a lot. I think I probably lost that,” he said.
Even students whose identity didn’t change over quarantine, like FSSA senior, Jackson Moore, found the lack of socialization to be a struggle. Jackson expresses how he’s never felt the need to hide his sexuality.
When people aren’t accepting, he explains he kind of likes to show it off even more. Jackson finds socialization very relative to his identity.
“Teenagers are naturally social at this age at points they wouldn’t be at other times in our life. Not having a lot of socialization can lead to depression and isolation,” he said.
This didn’t make coming back to school easy though.
“When you’re online you can turn off your camera and adjust yourself. There’s always an off button. There’s no off button now,” Jackson said.
It’s no surprise that personal expression was easier to cater to when in quarantine. When teens found themselves away from others’ perception they could explore their presentation at one’s own pleasure. Computer cameras and mics have an on and off button, and for the first time, the way teens were perceived did too. They could control when they wanted to be seen, adjust their look to their liking, and reinvent themselves. It was a truly unique experience that will likely not be replicated again.
Additionally, senior vocal major Mekhi Deleon shares this sentiment. Over quarantine they started dressing in more traditionally feminine ways, moving away from a masculine presentation. Unfortunately now that school is back they feel they’ve lost that same freedom for expression.
”I don’t want there to be a pandemic, but having the freedom to walk away from my screen and take a break when I wanted to, that freedom really helped me. Being in school is not the same,” Mekhi said.
However, senior instrumental major Trinity Moore found the limited socialization aspect didn’t have too much of a negative impact.
“[What brought about my identity realization over quarantine was] the people I surround myself with. Allowing myself to feel more comfortable and not trying to live up to anybody’s standards,” Trinity said. They found that socialization isn’t relevant to their identity at all. “I know who I am and I don’t really need anyone else to confirm that.”
Many LGBTQ students credited social media for playing a big role in their self-discovery during quarantine. Platforms like TikTok have a very unique interface where you never run out of content to consume. As more and more teens were using primarily social media for stimulation, they became more exposed to topics they never paid much mind to.
Many content creators talk and post about their own self discovery in these short clips, students found the posts to be relatable and entertaining. Seeing this content is somewhat eye-opening, and clarifying to those questioning their own identity. Witnessing these content creators being comfortable and open about their own identities, made it easier for others to feel safe coming out about themselves. And that is what TikTok and other social media platforms made possible during this time of isolation.
It certainly won’t be easy for anyone to suddenly be thrown back into “normal” life after everything that’s happened. It would be inane to expect teenagers to be able to just resume life pre-quarantine like it never happened. But this shared experience has brought about a new sense of unity among the LGBTQ community at FSSA, a sense of mutual understanding and compassion towards each other. It wasn’t an experience anyone asked for, but perhaps it was one that was needed.
by Andrew Knierim ’22 and Bettirose Epstein ’22