Opinion: Technology unites LGBTQ community during social distancing

The widespread outbreak of COVID-19 has forced the nation to adopt strict social distancing guidelines, which have effectively shuttered bars and coffee shops and forced the cancellation of events. Nevertheless, on April 9, Keep Colorado Springs Queer hosted its monthly queer open mic — online.

The queer open mic is one of my favorite LGBTQ events in Colorado Springs, where folks across the spectrum have gathered to listen to poetry, music and standup comedy since 2016. Co-founder Nico Wilkinson (a former Indy columnist) brings performers from across the country to be featured each month. It’s a great event for networking and meeting all the diverse, creative and wonderful human beings who make up the LGBTQ community in a city that is known more for its military bases and mega-churches than for its queer population. It’s like a family dinner composed entirely of black sheep.

This month, instead of being held at its usual venues like Switchback Coffee Roasters or The Modbo, the event took place over Zoom. Approximately 20 people logged on (although the livestream of the event had over 200 views on Facebook) and introduced ourselves and our pronouns in the chat window. It was the first time many of us open mic regulars had seen each other since the stay-at-home order began.

“It’s amazing the amount of energy that can still transfer, even through a webcam,” says Wilkinson. “When I switched to gallery view, it really did kind of look like an audience. ... [P]eople really showed up to be expressive and supportive of the performers, and that really made all the difference.”

[pullquote-1] The public health order has taken its toll on communities across the country, but for the LGBTQ community, who often find themselves cut off from traditional support networks, the isolation can feel even more poignant.

“We are definitely seeing an increase in youth experiencing anxiety and the dysphoria that comes with being in unaffirming households,” says Candace Woods, the youth program manager for Inside Out Youth Services, a nonprofit that provides a safe space for LGBTQ people ages 13 to 22. Usually these youths gather at Inside Out’s downtown location Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but the center closed on Friday, March 13, and moved all its programming (including support groups, game nights and group therapy) online by the following Tuesday, according to Woods.

“While we’re really grateful we are able to make this shift,” says Woods, “and we are seeing new youths accessing our resources and our community who have never been able to get to our space before — kids who aren’t out to their families and don’t have access to transportation — we do also know that there is a significant portion of our community that is not being able to access our resources, so we’re working on finding ways to connect with them.”

Inside Out is still providing its core programming, and has even managed to expand its “drop-in” hours. “[W]e have voice channels that are open from noon to 10 p.m. on weekdays,” explains Woods, “which is actually later than our hours at our physical space, so we’ve been able to expand services in that way. Text channels are open 24/7.”

Woods says Inside Out is also working to address economic uncertainty. “We’re getting grants from some of our grantors to be able to support our LGBTQ youth and their families with financial assistance for groceries and rent assistance,” she explains, “and there’s a survey we’ve published to see where our needs are at to build queer mutual-aid in the community.”

This crisis has seen communities across the country band together to face the pandemic and adjust to a “new normal,” and, as Wilkinson says, “Now is a time for trying things out and seeing if it works.”

The queer community, whose bonds have historically been forged in crowded social scenes, is turning to technology to support young people and adults alike.