At the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, the University Health Center began providing comprehensive LGBTQ+ medical and mental health services that are critical for some students. One such student was Cal Poly alumn Autumn Ford, who at the time, emphasized the importance of having a safe space for students to access care — without having to worry about it being “taken away” from them.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is the unexpected barrier pushing some people away from the care they once had, but staff and students are pushing back.
When the Health Center established their Gender Affirming Care team in 2019, the first item on the list of 16 initiatives was to offer hormone replacement therapy (HRT) — a resource rare to come by in San Luis Obispo County. The therapy includes estrogen prescriptions for feminization and testosterone for masculinization.
Student Affairs Health and Wellbeing Assistant Vice President Tina Hadaway-Mellis said that HRT-related prescriptions are still available for students living locally, but there’s now an access gap for students living outside the area, especially those out-of-state.
To fill this gap, the Health Center tries connecting students to providers in their area to ensure their HRT care is uninterrupted, Hadaway-Mellis said.
“You know, it’s a really difficult time and I think it’s just even that much more important to continue to talk about these issues, continue to share resources,” Hadaway-Mellis said. “Those resources are there for them, and the community is here for them.”
With the university mental health and medical providers in high demand in response to the pandemic, the plan for campus LGBTQ+ care has been set back, according to LGBTQ Campus Life Lead Coordinator Samuel Byrd. While providers have adapted services to a virtual platform with “the utmost care,” many initiatives have been halted for the time being.
Hadaway-Mellis said the university’s hybrid of in-person medical care and telehealth — which are virtual health services — has run smoothly since the spring quarter adjustment period. Still, COVID-19 has simultaneously “exacerbated disparities,” according to Byrd, who highlighted the inaccessibility to basic needs and the increased risk of health complications for the LGBTQ+ community.
These disparities are seen in real time at Cal Poly, where Byrd said the team directs students to the Dean of Students website for Basic Needs Support.
“Overall, we have seen an increase in numbers of folks applying for support through CP Basic Needs Initiative,” Byrd said.
Gender Affirming Care Physician Dr. Jennifer Bobell said she has seen firsthand the challenge of students having to be away from their supportive campus environments. Byrd added that the isolation and disconnection weigh heavily on the already vulnerable community.
“Once they have to move home, or if their home situation is less supportive than their friend network or their campus network, it’s been a little bit more stressful for them to stay engaged,” Hadaway-Mellis said. “Students have expressed just the increased stress living in less supportive environments compared to when they’re living in the SLO area.”
“Once they have to move home, or if their home situation is less supportive than their friend network or their campus network, it’s been a little bit more stressful for them to stay engaged.”
However in some cases, there’s a silver lining.
Political science junior Ila Moncrief, who works as a Pride Center student ambassador, said that virtual outreach has an added “safety aspect” that has made some students feel more comfortable.
Moncrief said that during their freshman year, they wanted to get involved with the Pride Center but was hesitant since they didn’t yet have a sense of community on campus. But with a virtual platform, university staff and student ambassadors are more likely to reach students without having students reach out first.
“Personally I wasn’t feeling like I was involved enough to be there, so it was kind of stressful,” Moncrief said. “It’s hard to think that I had to enter a room or go to a specific area to get engaged when I wasn’t really sure of myself yet with that.”
Access to telehealth and HIPAA-compliant Zoom counseling has also helped foster a safer environment. Byrd said virtual access provides greater anonymity for people still in the process of navigating their identity, including managing coming out, family issues and more.
“In my area, I have noticed that students who are in earlier stages of identity development or questioning have found that virtual appointments are less intimidating and more comfortable than accessing physical spaces where folks may see them accessing services,” Byrd said.
“In my area, I have noticed that students who are in earlier stages of identity development or questioning have found that virtual appointments are less intimidating and more comfortable than accessing physical spaces where folks may see them accessing services.”
For the Health Center overall, Hadaway-Mellis said there’s a new care delivery system used by mental health providers that has enabled a quicker response to students and greater appointment availability.
“We’ve been able to do a lot more and meet folks’ needs in a more timely fashion than in the past, when there was the real feeling that there has been a long wait or inability to access,” Hadaway-Mellis said.
Byrd said LGBTQ Campus Life also made strides in reinvigorating their efforts with local partners. One such effort is the push for greater participation in this year’s annual Central Coast Pride event. Moncrief, who serves as chair for the event, said that while it will mostly be virtual, some in-person activities such as a car caravan may be included. This year it will be held May 21-23 with a goal of getting more engagement from the Cal Poly community before summer break.
The SLO Community Foundation is also putting $300,000 toward providing grants to local nonprofits to develop new initiatives supporting LGBTQ+ residents.
“I honestly think we are still moving forward,” Byrd said. “We have some other goals that were more long-term and we continue to keep those in mind.”
Hadaway-Mellis added that across campus services — whether it be Career Services or the Disability Resource Center — she’s seen a wave of creativity from both students and campus staff.
“The strain on individuals’ mental health and well being – it’s real,” Hadaway-Mellis said. “I know that there are a lot of committed individuals and students who are really wanting to do whatever they can to support each other.”