From personal experience, living away from my dog—who is with family due to travel restrictions during the pandemic—has been just one among many difficult losses over the last year. This is Julia writing; I’m a new volunteer at Berkshire HorseWorks, and I want to share a study about LGBTQ+ young adults and the animals in their lives. Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work is looking at the impact that pets have on the lives of LGBTQ+ young adults (aged 15-21). The study began in 2018 and has evolved during the pandemic to include the ways in which pets have affected participants’ time in quarantine.
Interviews for the study are ongoing, and they offer a chance to gain more understanding about how young LGBTQ+ community members are uniquely impacted by their animals. A peripheral glance at a greeting card aisle or YouTube’s home screen is enough to reinforce the huge part pets play in our society. Accordingly, I was surprised to find out that almost no studies look at the specific experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals. The limited amount of research concerned with the intersection of animals and members of the LGBTQ+ community has been in relation to middle-aged/older adults.
Coming out to one’s family and friends is an experience that can range from affirming to traumatic, and many LGBTQ+ individuals have legitimate concerns over their safety and losing family members. Even if you don’t worry about negative reactions, finding someone capable of being both nonjudgmental and supportive can feel impossible. That’s why—as I know from experience—having a dog (or cat, fish, horse, perhaps a pet rock, etc.) can be so helpful. For some, the pandemic has provided a unique (and perhaps frustrating!) amount of time with their pets. Without access to larger communities of queer young adults, animals can provide at least some support despite the tremendous loss of in-person connection.
In the midst of struggling with my identity and how to articulate it, being with my dog gave me a break and an all-too-rare experience where someone cared more about who I was (or what treats I could offer…) than anything else. While being around people can sometimes feel fraught with tension or danger, spending time with animals offers a space where you won’t be judged for your pronouns or choice of partner.