Ro Redfern-Taube, 20, was finishing up their sophomore year at the University of Chicago last March when the school decided to shut down its campus and send students home because of the spread of the coronavirus. Redfern-Taube, now a junior, returned to their parents' home in New York City, where they said they're not comfortable openly talking about their gender identity.
However, as a leader of GenderQ, their university's only organization for transgender and nonbinary students, Redfern-Taube said they have felt compelled to be present and to create a safe space for a group of students that is starved of community. Over the past 11 months, that has included organizing Zoom hangouts, creating private chat servers and including LGBTQ first-years who might not have even seen campus.
"It's definitely not the same as forming those organic connections between you and other people who might share your identities," they said. "I miss parties."
With many colleges and universities across the U.S. operating remotely, LGBTQ student groups are trying to find new — and virtual — ways to engage with students, some of whom are socially distancing with unaccepting relatives and in need of queer-affirming outlets.
"A lot of the burden, even before Covid, fell on the backs of students who provide their own services and support," Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, said of LGBTQ-affirming events at universities across the U.S. "You have students who are trying to figure out their online courses and how to stay in school and dealing with their academics. Plus, now, if they're a leader in a student group, 'How do we create engagement with our members?'"
Windmeyer said LGBTQ student leaders are using a variety of social and digital platforms to stream live events for their peers, celebrate special occasions like National Coming Out Day, organize social and educational events and even plan "lavender graduations" for graduating seniors.
'Togetherness in a virtual space'
Redfern-Taube founded GenderQ with fellow University of Chicago junior Will Harling after the two met in the first week of their freshman year. The pair said they quickly decided to dedicate their free time to forming connections with other trans, nonbinary and questioning students at the school. The on-campus experience, they said, was crucial to their personal growth.
"First year was particularly important to me as a nonbinary person and a queer person in general," Redfern-Taube said. "Those were parts of my identity that I hadn't really explored until the very end of high school and definitely wasn't open about until I came to UChicago."
Redfern-Taube described their campus as a "pretty queer-inclusive space" and said meeting people face to face and socializing at parties played important roles in their fully embracing their gender identity. Before the pandemic, GenderQ's in-person events included weekly meetings, parties and casual hangouts on campus.
Harling lamented that current first-year students won't have that experience.
"Community is such an important part of identity, especially marginalized identities," they said. "Covid has taken community away from everybody."
But Harling and Redfern-Taube are trying to make the best of a bad situation — and their efforts have paid off. Since the start of the pandemic, GenderQ has grown from around seven members to over 35, with more trans and nonbinary students turning to its video meetings, private chatrooms, virtual panels and remote speaker events.
It has been "a lot of trial and error," Harling said, adding that they and Redfern-Taube have been using several social platforms to reach students, particularly first-years who might not have ever had an on-campus experience.
Leslie Lim, a freshman at Vassar College in New York's Hudson Valley region, started her undergraduate career remotely in a pandemic. Lim, a California native, said she decided to attend Vassar, which has a reputation as an LGBTQ-friendly institution, in the hope that a strong on-campus queer community would be a part of her college experience.
"I think what's so integral about being a young person in the LGBTQ community is being in physical spaces and in community with one another," said Lim, 18. "It's so difficult to replicate the same feeling of togetherness in a virtual space."
While Vassar is mostly remote, students are still able to live in the residence halls if they choose, and some courses permit in-person attendance for those on campus. Lim is among the students living at the school, and she took an in-person job at the university's Women's Center, which is in one of the few open buildings. Part of her job is to organize virtual programming to help LGBTQ students feel welcome and part of a community.
Last semester, she gave out clay to students in a no-contact pickup, and they all made clay figures together over Zoom. She also helped plan a "speed dating"-style Zoom event at which LGBTQ students on campus could meet and talk one on one.
"It really helps me," Lim said of interacting with other students. "And I hope it helps my peers feel connected."
'A daunting task'
It's not just undergraduate LGBTQ student groups that are trying to foster a virtual sense of community for their members — and with good reason.
While the process is different for everyone, it isn't uncommon for LGBTQ people to come out during or even after their undergraduate college years. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that the median age at which an LGBTQ person first comes out to a family member or a close friend is 20, with about a third of LGBTQ Americans reporting that they have never disclosed their sexual orientations or gender identities to parents. With millennials across the country moving home more than ever during the pandemic, even those beyond their undergrad years may seek support from LGBTQ-affirming student groups.
That's why the LGBTQ student group at Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has been creating virtual events for members since the school started operating remotely in March.
"It is a rather daunting task," said James Evans, the group's vice president, adding that he and the group's other student leaders are creating programming without the help of the university.
Evans, 30, said the group has hosted 25 hours of Zoom events, including trivia nights, costume balls and panels, to engage students who need the support and community. They have also launched a "buddy" program to make sure new students are integrated and feel welcome.
Evans and the group's other leaders, however, recognize that they alone can't provide all the support their members need.
Malinda McPherson, one of the group's co-presidents, said: "It's particularly difficult to be student volunteers working to create support structures for LGBTQ+ graduate students when we ourselves are LGBTQ+ students who need support. Mental health for queer students is more at risk compared to our peers, and the pandemic has probably exacerbated that existing divide."
Even before the global health crisis, LGBTQ people were at greater risk of mental health issues like depression and anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic has only aggravated those issues.
An LGBTQ-affirming community is about more than socializing, and its absence can be dangerous, Windmeyer said. He said some students have lost access to the LGBTQ-affirming health care services they had on campus, while others are forced to stay in unaccepting environments.
"What we find is that LGBTQ students before Covid were some of the most vulnerable, especially our trans, nonbinary [and] our youth of color," he said. "That didn't change with Covid. It actually got worse."
He said the suffocation of being in an LGBTQ-unfriendly environment is, in some cases, compounded by not being able to talk openly in video support groups and other queer-affirming online events.
"We had one individual who volunteered for us because they wanted something to do that was kind of queer," Windmeyer said. "They couldn't talk about 'LGBTQ.' We basically had to use another word."
Even Redfern-Taube, who leads their campus group, said they would leave their parents' home and take walks when running virtual meetings for GenderQ through the Zoom app on their cellphone. And for GenderQ members who don't feel comfortable talking out loud in their homes, Redfern-Taube and Harling created a messaging space where students can type written messages to one another.
While virtual spaces aren't perfect substitutes for in-person connections, the ability to foster community with their members and provide a safe space has been their goal since they started the group.
"I think they're genuinely grateful that it exists," Redfern-Taube said of GenderQ's growing membership.
This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.