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Lockdown Loneliness and LGBT+ Research

The (re-)surfacing of ‘the household’ as a conceptual unit under lockdown has once again shown the precarity of this construct, especially for LGBT+ people. In this reflexive piece, the author considers the social and affective responses that household-focused discourse exposes in relation to LGBT+ communities, the author’s own wellbeing, and their research.

Although the UK has emerged from yet another lockdown, it seems like we cannot progress past considering ‘the household’ as the primary unit in which to measure our movement and social relations: how many households can now meet outside? When can we finally bring someone into our household? The household will ideally keep us physically safe, but it has historically not provided mental or emotional safety for LGBT+ people. For many LGBT+ people, being forced to stay inside the house means a detachment from wider LGBT+ communities, and moving back home can mean moving back into the closet. Recent statistics have shown that young LGBT+ people at secondary school have suffered immensely during the pandemic, with many young people stuck in houses where their family and/or cohabitants are either unaware of or actively hostile towards their identity. Indeed, the metaphor of the bubble has done a lot of work to create the image of households as comfortable, hermetically sealed units, neatly contained and closed off from outside interaction[1]. In reality, of course, bubbles are precarious constructions, not built to last.

LGBT+ communities have traditionally found solace in each other in public spaces. From the community centres that facilitate organising, to the bookshops and bars that allow for socialising, to the bathhouses, clubs and cruising spots that provide sexual intimacy, our lives are very much ‘out’ in the streets. There is a reason that the ‘chosen family’ is a term that has blossomed within LGBT+ spaces[2]: because the people that are close to us due to circumstance (accidents of geography, legal status, family ties), are not always those that we can, should, or want to surround ourselves with.

Of course, class and income distinctions (which often run parallel to distinctions of ethnicity and ability) are key players in this. It costs money to be picky with cohabitants, or alternatively to live by oneself out of choice. It is expensive to have the proverbial ‘room of one’s own’[3] to work in, away from spaces of domestic work and communal living, and these are expenses that LGBT+ people cannot always afford: when 18% of LGBT+ employees face harassment from their colleagues, when 12% of trans employees and 10% of LGBT+ employees of Colour have been physically attacked at work, and when 18% of LGBT+ people have experienced discrimination during recruitment processes, access to the funds to afford living space is far from guaranteed[4]. Money buys the opportunity to have some space away from others. When these ‘others’ include people who are dismissive or hostile of one’s LGBT+ identity, space can form a buffer against tangible danger.

Even for those of us, including myself, who have had the luck[5] of being locked down with like-minded people, the impact of confinement (however necessary, however interrupted by daily walks and intermittent lockdown-lifting) has been immense. My experience of my house has become increasingly claustrophobic, as responsibilities have piled up into the same space: I sleep in the same room that I exercise in, which is the same room that I use for my academic work, for socialising and for eating. Increased use of a space involves increased friction[6], expressing itself through worry about the loss of this multifunctional space - what if the walls start getting mouldy? What if there is an infestation of rats? What if my wifi goes down? Before Covid, public spaces like libraries, cafés, or campuses would have provided temporary respite. These public spaces have now been suspended, as has the safety net that they provide.

However, there has not just been an emotional impact to my life because of COVID-19. It has also affected my work as a researcher. My PhD research explores LGBT+ volunteering communities in Higher Education, and when I started planning this project in 2019, I wanted to interview and follow various LGBT+ student societies, student officers, and staff networks around the UK. I had hoped to go to different university campuses to talk to volunteers on their home turf, or attend events set up by LGBT+ students and staff. The pandemic has forced me to revise my strategy, and at the moment I am planning to interview my participants digitally, from the relative safety of our own homes.

Intellectually, I had hoped that connecting with my participants face-to-face would enable a more thorough understanding of their experiences through immersion into their environments. Qualitative methods are highly dependent on the relationships that one can form with participants in the field, which is eased by being in the same physical space[7]. However, part of my motivation for wanting to research this way was purely affective: I want to research LGBT+ communities not just as an intellectual exercise, but because this is where I have always found friends, colleagues, people who have challenged my thinking in the best way possible. I enjoy being in these communities, and while this does not inherently make me better at researching them, it does explain why I have been able to delve into their histories and their structures for such a long time: the delving has been fun.

Isolation has started seeping into my writing. I am now drafting my methodology, and I have found myself writing long paragraphs about how exactly I will ensure that my bedroom will be suitable for conducting interviews. How much of myself am I willing to expose? It seems very self-centred, and yet because I am working away from other researchers and from my potential participants, the self and my immediate environments have been at the forefront of my mind. These are aspects of my research that I have the most control over and that I am immersed in on a daily basis. Regardless of what the final product will be, the process so far has not felt as communal as I hoped it would be.

With academia famously characterised by high competition, burnout and stress, it feels naive to say that I am angry that I won’t get to enjoy the more community-based aspects of my research. It feels like I’m laying claim to a lost joy that one is not supposed to expect from academia in the first place. At a time where so many people are grieving real losses of their loved ones, isn’t it unreasonable to complain about the loss of a research opportunity? But I can’t stop myself from feeling saddened at the thought of all the people that I won’t meet, all the communities that, in my imagination, I will now not fully become a part of. Like a toddler throwing a tantrum, I find myself thinking that I just don’t want it this way. I don’t want self-contained, one-off, bubbled interaction.

It is an empty anger, because of course it cannot be directed at any one person, as no individual can be blamed for a global pandemic or charged with fixing it. I will find connections in different ways - if there is anything that we have proved over the past year, and that LGBT+ communities have proved since their inceptions, it is that people will keep connecting and interacting with each other, even if this is not according to ‘conventional’ ways. In the same way that the self-contained unit of the household is an illusion, my frustration with being a self-contained researcher is just a narrative that I need to overcome.

[1] For a more expansive exploration of the household and precarity, see Baker, E. and Ring, A. ‘Now Are We Cyborgs? Affinities and Technology in the Covid-19 Lockdowns’, forthcoming in Lockdown Culture: The Arts, Humanities and Covid-19, co-edited by Stella Bruzzi and Maurice Biriotti

[2] Weston, K. (1991) Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] Woolf, V. (1929) London: Hogarth Press.

[4] Stonewall and YouGov (2018) ‘LGBT in Britain - Work Report’, 25 April. Available at: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/lgbt-britain-work-report

[5] I use the word ‘luck’ consciously here, rather than ‘privilege’ or ‘opportunity’. As someone who rents their room, and who can’t afford to live by themselves, I am acutely aware that my choice of living space and cohabitants is to a large extent constricted by my financial situation, and that it is indeed mostly the luck of the draw that has meant I am cohabiting with lovely people.

[6] Ahmed, S. (2019) What's the Use? On the Uses of Use. Durham: Duke University Press.

[7] Coffey, A. (1999) The Ethnographic Self: Fieldwork and the Representation of Identity. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

About the author

Pippa Sterk is a first-year PhD student at King's, in the department of Education, Communication & Society. Her research focuses on the experiences of LGBT+ volunteering communities in Higher Education. Pippa is a freelance writer, and her work has appeared in The F-word, PinkNews, Gay Times, and Salty. Her writing is available on pippasterk.contently.com/ and she tweets on @PippaSterk

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Pippa Sterk

Pippa Sterk

MPhil student in Language, Discourse and Communication

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that uses gender as a category of analysis or…

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