Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

Student Profile Stories: What it’s like being an LGBTQ+ student at PCC during a global pandemic

Interviews and Story by Dakota Abercrombie

(Photo of the author)

Otto Norton (he/they)

Otto Norton is a queer trans nonbinary student at PCC. Last year he completed his associates degree and is graduating this year in Human Services. Otto also works on campus as a Disability Advocate with Disability Services, a Student Accounts Associate, and Second-year Confidential Student Advocate at the SE Queer Resource Center (QRC). When talking with Otto about the largest impacts this pandemic has had on them, they disclosed that loneliness has been a very large factor. Otto really values his friendships and says that when he first started making friends in college is when he began to really value school. When we spoke, he described how this loneliness can be extremely impacting for folks in the LGBTQ and other marginalized individuals, they stated “For marginalized people it is pretty isolating to be in the world, especially in a pandemic, more privileged people don’t have to deal with that much consistent isolation”. Otto feels that we could all benefit from more connection right now. He feels it can be especially hard to form these connections without in person access to the QRC and other student help centers. Otto says, “Student help centers are student retention, and with them closed, more time is spent being overwhelmingly lonely instead of doing homework.” Otto has worked to make up for this loneliness by throwing themselves into their work, going to a lot of virtual meetings, spending time with his partner and connecting with friends through social media and gaming platforms. The online gaming community can be a good place to connect as long as you stay in your own bubble because outside of it you can be exposed to a lot of oppressive language and behavior.

With so many online activities, screen burnout is almost unavoidable for most students. When I asked Otto about screen burnout, he said that he definitely experiences fatigue, but isn’t sure if it is due to all his time online or other factors. As someone who experiences chronic pain and anxiety, there have been some upsides to the pandemic for Otto. Virtual classes can be a lot more comfortable because you are in your own space. They said going outside can be scary because he can never be sure if he will be safe, even before the pandemic, due to his identity. He feels that he doesn’t experience homophobia via online classes the way he did before the pandemic and that online classes take less energy for him. Sadly, Otto mentioned that for other LGBTQ+ students, home might not be as safe for those with non affirming parents and/or roommates. He also talked about the awful risk of students being kicked out for being themselves. He feels privileged to not be in a situation like that currently.

Noelle Smalls (she/they)

Noelle Smalls is a two-spirit indigenous student at PCC who also works as a Student Advocate at the Sylvania Queer Resource Center. This is her first year in college and she is currently working towards an Associates of Arts Oregon Transfer(AAOT) aligning with Portland State University (PSU) Native American Studies Masters and Bachelors program. Noelle would like to be a middle school teacher in the future. They feel that representation in the school system is really important, and that is something she could bring to the table. Noelle has a very interesting pandemic experience, as it allowed her the access to start her college career. Before the pandemic, she worked kitchens. They have been working since 14 and they are now 28, which means they have spent half their life as a service worker. When the pandemic began she said it forced her to slow down and leave work, which allowed her a lot of space for self reflection. They wanted to do something that aligned with their values, being a middle school teacher seems to be the best route.

Adjusting to online classes has been a bit difficult for Noelle. She dropped out of high school and hasn’t been in a school setting since. When we spoke about this she said, “With the 12 years of absence of school, it’s been a challenge adjusting to technology and the new platforms that exist. Students have been vital to my abilities to understand these, while I think the college itself falls short.” She says originally Desire2Learn (D2L) was hard, and that not all teachers utilize it in the same way. Also, some teachers use more than one website/area for information which gives Noelle anxiety about missing due dates. As a first year student, not being able to be on campus, she isn’t sure what she is really missing. As far as access to community, she feels the QRC is attempting, but the reach isn’t far. Luckily, Noelle lives within community with 6 other people who are all also a part of the LGBTQ community. She feels fortunate that she has this access. When we talked about if there is a difference between LGBTQ students versus cis-heterosexual students at home, she said that she thinks there is a very noticeable difference. As LGBTQ students, Noelle believes we are often removed from our nuclear family and adopt a chosen family, but this pandemic has many people distanced from their chosen family and living with nuclear families instead. Outside her household she has maintained connections through her phone. At the beginning of the pandemic they felt able to connect with people in state, out of state, and even some friends outside the United States, but she feels this is harder to maintain now due to being tired of being on the phone. Noelle experiences a lot of screen burnout. She says some days she wishes she could throw her laptop like a frisbee. They said screen burnout feels like a different tier of exhaustion, and that it makes their brain feel “shrouded with clouds and bog” like they don’t know who they are outside this screen.

Vallen Gonzalez (they/them)

Vallen Gonzalez is a queer first generation Mexican full time student who the Rock Creek Queer Resource Center (QRC) as a Student Advocate. Vallen is in their first year at PCC and was working towards a Science Transfer Degree, but is now considering changing to General Studies. When we spoke about the largest impact the pandemic has had on them, they talked to me about the way isolation has made them question themself in a lot of ways. They said they began to question everything including how they present themselves, how they want to be perceived, their gender identity, sexuality, future career, and more. This questioning had both negative and positive aspects. It caused a lot of anxiety, Vallen said, “Because I pushed it down so much, I was forced to think about it”. They are still figuring themselves out and mentioned the way that having Borderline Personality Disorder impacts their experience saying, “Identity and sexuality are always changing. Expanding on that, going through such a hard time in my life, I will always have to question myself because I have BPD, so it always makes my feelings and perceptions feel out of proportion.” Vallen feels they are always breaking down, reflecting and changing.

Vallen told me that being a part of the LGBTQ gives them a sense of community, but the pandemic kind of “shut down” that connection. When I asked about how they feel the pandemic has impacted LGBTQ students they said, “Resources that are available to queer students are not as accessible because queer students who live with family that are not accepting, or in an environment that is not accepting. Queer students might not access these resources because they feel uncomfortable in comparison to cishet students who are comfortable in their home environment.”Vallen also spoke about how being a QRC advocate is the only connection they have right now because they can’t go out or be in person with other queer people. They feel that they have made connections with the people they staff the QRC virtual room with, but that the virtual room is the only time they can really talk, as work training is not a social place as much as a time to learn. Vallen feels they definitely experience screen burnout between being a full time student and working at the QRC, but says they don’t really care because even after being on the computer all day they will still go on their phone. They feel that being connected to a screen is part of modern society with so much advancing technology and that it won’t change unless we want to break the cycle, but they doubt this will happen. When I asked Vallen if they felt there are any upsides to being online during this pandemic they said that while it’s not the best, being at home gives them a sense of comfort when doing homework or class. They also said even though they have had a hard time being isolated and forced to question themselves, they no longer have a sense of being unidentified or lost.

Forest Svendgard-Lang (they/them)

Forest Svendgard-Lang is a Native American, Jewish queer transgender student at PCC who also works at a Student Advocate for the Sylvania QRC. They have been off and on at PCC since 2019 working towards a AAOT. They do not feel super committed to this major, but are undecided on changing it. Before PCC Forest went to Minneapolis College of Art and Design for a little bit. In the beginning of the pandemic they were living with their older parents and their boyfriend was working at a grocery store, so they weren’t really able to see him. This impacted Forest a lot, they said they felt a very weird balance of being so afraid of possibly raising the risk factor of their parents and missing their boyfriend. They spoke about feeling guilty when they would see their boyfriend and said “It’s hard to not be able to touch the people you love, especially when you are both having a hard time.” During the beginning of the pandemic Forest wasn’t enrolled at PCC, they began their college term again in January 2021 when they started at the QRC. Forest said that they actually really have enjoyed being back in classes because it makes them feel like they are making progress, they said “Starting classes again has made me feel a sense of purpose in moving forward to other opportunities and possible futures.”. Before they returned to school they had a service job at a pizza place, but were laid off when the pandemic started.Working in the service industry was so tiring for Forest. They had the fear of always being in the service industry, since they have worked since high school. They were able to work again after being laid off, but then ended up quitting a few months ago knowing that they had the QRC job. This was a big decision for them, but a positive choice as it allowed them to take more classes and be more remote.

Forest also moved during the pandemic, into another home with roommates. They said they had wanted to move for a while, but it was extra important as to not risk their parents’ health and it made it easier to see their boyfriend. Being able to see their boyfriend gives them a sense of connection alongside the QRC which makes them feel more connected. They said the it is “so sweet” and “so affirming” to be around other queer folks and folks of color. Sadly, between work and school both being virtual Forest feel exhausted by the end of the day. They said even with all the cool events, that it is hard to commit because they already spend so much time on Zoom and simply want to exist as a human outside their computer. On the flip side, Forest appreciates the accessibility that comes with Zoom and online courses, including having more sections of classes offered, no campus limitations, the opportunity to meet new professors and typically an easier time planning their school schedule. Also as a neurodivergent student Forest feels they benefit from being able to do other tasks during class such as sewing or playing with silly putty, saying “Being at home and having the option of having your video off can be beneficial for folks who are not neurotypical or may need other things to be focused. I hope the pandemic shifts these ideas of what it looks like to be focused.”