The Pandemic is Trauma for Trans Disabled People

There are four main responses when faced with trauma — fight, flight, freeze and appease. But the virus is a threat that isn’t tangible — you can’t see, taste, touch, hear, or smell it, but you know it’s there. It isn’t something you can flee from since the pandemic is global, nor is it an abuser that you can appease to. So I’ve found myself fighting. Fighting to protect my health as an immunocompromised disabled person, and ultimately fighting to stay alive. I can honestly say I’ve never fought this hard for my life.

I struggle to imagine the long-term future, but I can also adapt to a new situation pretty well. So when I hear people saying “when this is all over”, I can’t imagine a different reality than the one I’m living in right now. Once the pandemic hit, I gave myself a mental time frame that it would last for a year, a length of time I continue to extend as the situation plays out. It’s my brain’s way of coping with a trauma that I have no control over.

It’s been hard observing others not taking the pandemic seriously enough by not wearing masks and not social distancing. It was also difficult to see people rushing to get back to normal as if the pandemic had magically ended. This has made disabled people feel as if we’ve somehow imagined the pandemic as we’re carrying the weight of others’ irresponsibility. We’re stuck in our homes watching other people go about their lives unburdened of any social responsibility trying to justify their carelessness. As the TikTok goes, the pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it.

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that makes a survivor second-guess their reality and sanity. COVID-19 gaslighting has included hearing people deny the existence of the virus, accusing others of taking too many precautions, insisting quarantine is over, trying to convince you that only old people get it, and trying to persuade you to hang out. As someone who has a neurological disorder that makes me feel detached from my environment a lot, hearing such statements has been detrimental for my recovery.

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Almost a quarter of all homeless young people are LGBT+, and having experienced homelessness myself, I know this figure must be higher for trans people. As job losses have led to evictions, COVID-19 has forced some trans people — who are often in precarious housing situations anyway — to move back in with transphobic families.

That was the experience of a university student I spoke to who wished to remain anonymous: “I had to move back in with my family because of the pandemic. Before COVID-19, I was doing full service sex work to pay my bills, but that’s quite risky now. Adjusting to a different living situation has been really difficult — I get almost no privacy as both my parents are currently working from home. It’s also been tough no longer being in an environment that’s affirming of my gender identity.”

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The trepidation I feel leaving the house whilst trans has been very similar to leaving the house during COVID-19: they both involve donning extra fabric for safety. The threats might be different but the need to protect against any potential trauma is the same. With both threats, I psych myself up with upbeat music and take a deep breath once I close my front door. Having resisted the temptation to give myself a quarantine haircut, my thick black wavy locks now sit just below my shoulders. Longer hair coupled with a face mask that conceals most of my facial hair means I am now read as a cis woman and therefore misgendered as such when I manage to leave the house. I desperately miss being around people of various genders and no gender at all and having my gender identity validated.

I have heard numerous stories from countless trans people on the appalling state of trans-specific healthcare in the UK with two-year minimum wait times before a first appointment. Others simply cannot wait that long due to overwhelming gender dysphoria and opt to go private by crowdfunding the associated costs. Some Gender Identity Clinics (GICs) have shut down completely due to COVID-19 whilst others are offering video call consultations. These measures mean trans people have to wait even longer to access gender affirming healthcare, with some trans people part-way through their transition. Bucky, a non-binary individual was recently offered top surgery last minute but believes they were treated differently due to being trans and disabled. “I wasn’t allowed to have anyone with me in the hospital despite needing a carer or a friend with me. My surgeon refused to give me any pain relief after surgery because I already take some analgesia for my fibromyalgia. If it wasn’t for the anaesthetist, I would’ve been discharged without any pain relief,” Bucky said. “Due to COVID-19, I was supposed to have my drains removed at home in order to minimise the time I spent in hospital, but the district nurses they sent had no training on how to remove them so I ended up having to go back into hospital anyway. This meant I had my drains in for twice as long which caused me to be in more pain. I also wasn’t given any physiotherapy post-surgery exercises.”

Like many trans people, disabled people everywhere strive for independence in our daily lives. We have to grapple with being vulnerable to ask for and receive help with certain things and balance that with holding onto the things we are still able to do independently, and these things can change over time as disability isn’t static. The pandemic took away my ability to do my grocery shopping for myself, which in turn meant that the autonomy of being able to personally choose the foods I nourish myself with was suddenly stripped from me. As an individual who still struggles with disordered eating, ensuring that I eat something on my bad days is really important, and as a disabled person, having access to easy foods is also really important. Whilst the rest of the world was baking banana bread and making dalgona coffee, disabled people were struggling just to feed ourselves.

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At the intersection of being trans and disabled is grief. We are in a constant state of grief for our past selves, as well as a state of trepidation for the future. As for the present, we are just trying to constantly adapt to our situations, manage the expectations of others, and ultimately, survive. Many trans disabled people are made to feel like a burden, as Aisling, a trans disabled activist shared with me: “The commonalities between being trans and disabled — you’re medicalised. Everything is made about something medical, you’re a freak, you’re different, you’re weird, you’re trying to make things difficult for people whether it’s about access or trying to get people to gender you properly. I feel like the biggest thing for me is people act like you’re trying to make things difficult for them when actually you’re just trying to fit into the world.”

A huge common denominator for disabled people in general is isolation, which particularly applies to disabled folk who are housebound or have few people around them for support, but it’s a spectrum we can all place ourselves on. The pandemic has only acted to further increase the isolation that disabled people already experience because we can’t leave the house. Loneliness is an experience that trans people share too. It’s important for trans people to be able to meet and connect with other trans people and just be around like-minded people who get it. Taking this into account, trans disabled people are doubly marginalised and isolated from their communities.

At the moment, trans disabled survivors are undoubtedly experiencing unexpected amounts of re-traumatization, and we’re having to draw on our previous experiences of trauma in order to survive the pandemic. We’re taking our lives one day at a time just to make it through. We’ve had to rapidly adapt to being met with and continually process huge waves of new information, statistics and restrictions from our governments, all the while having no time and space to adequately grieve our losses.

The issue with trauma is that you cannot process it properly whilst it’s still happening to you if you are to survive it. The hindsight and healing can only happen once the body’s sympathetic nervous system is deactivated. Constantly being in survival mode is exhausting yet necessary when faced with trauma. The challenge with COVID-19 is that we have no idea when the pandemic will end, all that’s certain is that we’re in this for the long haul. Whether you contracted COVID-19 and are recovering from it, or are now experiencing the symptoms of long COVID, or you’re a trans disabled survivor, the reality is that the majority of us will not be exiting this pandemic unscathed.

Noorulann Shahid is a non-binary disabled Muslim dyke of Pakistani heritage. They are interested in abolition, decriminalization and liberation for all marginalized groups.

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4 Comments

  1. “The trepidation I feel leaving the house whilst trans has been very similar to leaving the house during COVID-19: they both involve donning extra fabric for safety. The threats might be different but the need to protect against any potential trauma is the same.”

    Oof. Thank you for this.

  2. As someone trans and disabled, I am thankful that social isolation is the only real issue that I have to deal with. That I have past experience with, and can deal with. Doesn’t mean I don’t miss my life before this, of course. The masks and other precautions are just mild annoyances, no different than anyone else has to deal with right now. The occasional dangerous idiot isn’t gaslighting my experiences, they’re just being a dangerous idiot, and at least I can see what they are and avoid them. I’m aware that some other people have things much worse right now, but feeling guilty about relative privation doesn’t do anyone any good, so I try not to feel bad about being thankful.

  3. Immunnosurpressants are keeping me “able” for now,but it’s a bummer to have to be so cautious. I also have a son with a learning disability, and schools in our area are closed while restarants and bars are open. If everyone stopped traveling and eating out and took more precautions, maybe cases would go down enough in our area to open schools, which kids with learning disabilities so desperately need. I hate howhard school is for him and that it doesn’t have space for kids who learn differently. I obviously have a different experience as a queer cis mom and a lot of this essay resonated with me. Sending everyone strength.

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