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Coronavirus closed down colleges – now some LGBTQ students fear an abusive "war zone" at home

Colleges across the United States have kicked residential students out of their dorms in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But for 19-year-old John, who is transgender and gay, losing student housing has left him with a difficult choice: Go back into the closet or be forced to live on the streets.

John, who did not want his name used in fear for his safety, said he is now stuck in a small, rural Kansas town where he continuously gets death threats for his gender and sexual identity. His parents, who he said are aware of the threats and continuous harassment, refuse to use the name and pronouns he goes by, and regularly threaten to kick him out if he doesn't hide his gender identity and sexual orientation. 

When they suspected him of being transgender a few years prior, he said they forced him to go to church. They do not want his gender identity to be public because it puts their jobs at risk, he said.

"They told me that they thought the devil was yanking at my chain," he said, adding that there was also a threat of conversion therapy, which is still legal in the state. 

"I don't know what unconditional love feels like. I thought that they love me, at least enough to help me through this," John told CBS News. "I didn't think [their] love was conditional, but it is. It's entirely based on whether or not I am who [they] want me to be."

John said he was able to come out and find support when he was away at college, but now that he has had to return to his hometown, the only support system he has is friends who are many miles away and a therapist he has to have whispered conversations with on the phone. 

Hundreds of colleges have switched to remote learning and are limiting people on campus to reduce the spread of coronavirus, which has infected more than 653,800 people in the U.S. But for many of the thousands of LGBTQ college students in the U.S., "home is not a safe place," says Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

"With all of the closures that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, you have fewer resources than ever for transgender and LGBT students and youth who are looking for support and for resources," she told CBS News. "...It's really no laughing matter that people are being forced back into the closet, so to speak, just to be able to survive this pandemic."

Those who are LGBTQ are more at risk than the general population of having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and nearly half of transgender adults have considered suicide in the past year. Studies have found the lack of family support and ongoing harassment play large roles in this trend. 

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Li Cohen

John told CBS News he has attempted suicide and has been hospitalized because of how his parents treat him, and college was a way to escape. 

"It just really, really sucks to have to come back and battle with mental illness and having to basically go back to the war zone," he said.

In rural areas, LGBTQ help and resources are significantly more scarce. 

According to the report "Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America," rural states are more likely to have discriminatory laws and less likely to offer transgender-inclusive protections. The report found 43% of transgender adults living in rural areas said they'd experienced anti-transgender violence or harassment between 2018 and 2019. 

John wants to leave home but can't afford it. He said he applied to dozens of jobs while in college but never got past two job interviews, during which he was upfront about being transgender. Any money he had after his first semester went towards living expenses, and because his parents claim him as a dependent on their taxes, he is not eligible for a government stimulus check

Pervasive discrimination has contributed to a homeless crisis within the LGBTQ community, particularly for youth and young adults. 

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, roughly one out of four homeless LGBTQ youth have been forced from their homes because of their sexual and/or gender identity, and a majority suffered from family abuse or have a history of mental health issues. 

Once they are homeless, studies show they face increased rates of harassment and sexual assault, both on the streets and in shelters. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, they are also likely to be more susceptible to COVID-19 because of the lack of available shelter, and many, including John, suffer from chronic health issues. 

If John gets kicked out of his family home before he has the money to leave, he told CBS News he will have no choice but to live in his car until his college allows students to return. He tried to get permission to stay in his dorm, but he said they will only let student workers do so. He said he has no family he can turn to, and when push comes to shove, he is unsure if his friends will be willing to take him in. 

"It's really, really scary," he said, "... and I don't want to be a burden on somebody else." He has no idea when he'll be able to return to campus.

Though the pandemic has added another type of threat to the safety of the LGBTQ community, Ezie stressed that the issues they're facing are not new.

"All of the groups and all the communities that were vulnerable, that were discarded, that were neglected in America prior to this crisis are the ones that are going to continue to suffer and suffer most immensely," said Ezie. "Every single demographic that was basically being impacted by structural inequality prior to this epidemic is feeling the brunt of this crisis to an exponential degree."

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