feature image by Zachary Drucker via The Gender Spectrum Collection
Suffice to say that we’ll all be coming out of this pandemic different people than we were before — for better or for worse. The stress might grind some of us down. But there’s even more of an opportunity to find our best and truest selves. So much isolation naturally gives people the chance to find out new things about themselves, or accept parts of ourselves that have been slowly blossoming. For many people, however, being in isolation is providing the opportunity to explore their sexuality and gender in an intimate and unprecedented way, and reassess the relationships they have with themselves and others.
Within the first two weeks of isolating at home in March, two friends who previously identified as cisgender told me that they don’t think they’re cis, and one friend who has identified as queer but cis until now told me they were ready to come out as nonbinary. As the weeks have worn on, I’ve heard from more and more people about their sexual or gender awakenings. Suddenly, with so much time to think about our identities, desires, and needs, and with time to be alone and out of view from those who might judge or discriminate against us, many people are able to not only realize they’re queer, transgender, or nonbinary, but also to experiment with how they present, speak, act, and treat themselves.
“I began coming out to friends as nonbinary or gender fluid at the end of 2019, around my 25th birthday,” an anonymous person tells me. “I do think being on lockdown has forced me to kind of confront some of the gender feelings that have been so easy for me to put on the back burner when life gets hectic,” they explain. And there’s something freeing about going about your life without any exterior gazes. “Some days I put on the crop top I bought at World Pride but have always been afraid to wear. Some days I bum in leggings and a T-shirt while I ‘go to work’ on the couch. Some days I put on some short-ass overalls and water my plants. Or I tie a handkerchief around my neck. Or practice putting on a full face of makeup.”
In lockdown, there’s no need to worry about how other people will receive their experimentation, because they’re able to focus on: “What am I comfortable in? What makes me feel cute and happy? Oh, that’s fishnets? That’s heels? Cool, I’ll wear them this weekend while I vacuum.” While isolation might be lonely for them, the same way it is for most of us, it’s given many people the chance to learn about themselves and find small comforts in knowing themselves better. Other newly out queer people I spoke with affirmed similar sentiments.
While Dani, a queer person I spoke with, explains they had already discovered they’re bisexual years ago, prior to quarantine they had considered themselves possibly agender, but were still questioning. “I asked folks to use they/them or he/him pronouns for me, but the entire time I was undercutting myself, feeling like I was just a cis male who was looking for a way out of masculine expectations,” they say. “I was certain that I didn’t want to be a man, but didn’t know what I could be.” When quarantine began, however, they started feeling more comfortable presenting as more outwardly and explicitly feminine. “I currently identify as gender fluid, but I am fairly confident in saying I am a trans woman. I just want to take more time and see if anything changes,” Dani says.
Among other things, it was the isolation and comfort of being at home that helped them. However, it was also feeling like capitalism is dying and having to go without a paycheck that’s allowed them to let go of the fixation they’ve had on being a “masculine bread winner” and therefore the attachment to the idea of being cisgender at all. “When the shutdowns started, I realized I don’t need to fixate on work and the future and the plan. There is no plan, and when I let myself accept that then I suddenly had the mental strength to push through dysphoria and try shaving, try leggings, try dresses,” Dani says. “And it just makes me feel so much better about myself, I regret that I didn’t know before. And now every day I just keep realizing other signs from my childhood, how long this has been simmering.”
Another person who has newly realized they’re nonbinary during isolation, Sawyer, says that because of the lack of external noise (even the simple things, like listening to podcasts on the commute to work and running around all the time), they’ve started to gain some clarity. “Sitting with yourself and your thoughts while a global crisis grips us all, kind of puts things into perspective. It’s a kind of clarity I also felt when I had a cancer scare. That kind of thing makes you really confront your own mortality and how you exist and how you want to spend your time alive,” says Sawyer.
Why is all of this happening from a psychological perspective? It actually makes perfect sense, says somatic trauma therapist, Andrea Glik, LMSW. “Most of us don’t have the time and space in our busy schedules and within capitalism for self reflection. This time is offering us that,” she says. “Additionally, as we call into question larger questions about the world (who serves us, what does the future hold, what is even certain anymore) it leads us to question ourselves and the way we have been living, sometimes forcing us to face our truest selves.” Ultimately, trauma holds up a mirror to us and our lives and asks us what’s actually serving us, working for us, and supporting us, and what definitely isn’t.
“Many people will make many changes to their lives after this collective trauma as they see the ways they have been living haven’t allowed them to be fully alive,” Glik explains. That’s also why now is a great time to get connected to a queer or trans affirming therapist to discuss and process this new identity or other new realizations, if you’re able to access those resources, or get help finding someone right for you.
Kel, who was raised strictly evangelical, is just finishing up a philosophy and theology degree at a conservative Christian university while quarantined at their fiance’s parents’ place. Being raised by conservative evangelicals, Kel was burdened with guilt about their identity and chose to repress it, but after going to college, Kel rejected that upbringing and became openly affirming towards queer people. In recently becoming involved with queer students on campus and organizing them to push for changes to the school’s homophobic and transphobic policies and practices, they realized that the group of people they organized with, many of whom they didn’t know before, made them feel like they had a space where they didn’t have to perform masculinity just to avoid ridicule.
Going into the pandemic shutdowns and a necessary isolation period, that kinship made them realize they must be true to themselves as a nonbinary person. Now, spending extra time alone at home has resulted in new experiences surrounding gender dysphoria and navigating their identity in regards to gender presentation and pronouns.
“I winced when I called myself ‘he’ the other day. My partner is supportive and lent me some makeup to experiment with, and other friends have given me advice and helped me find inspiration for the kinds of gender presentation I want to try. Isolation has given me the change to try new outfits, to alter clothes, and to read stories of nonbinary and trans folks whose experiences resonate profoundly with my own,” Kel says. “I’m hoping that even after quarantine ends I still find ways to be true to who I am.”
Paul, a married femme nonbinary person in early transition, says that while she’s known she “didn’t fit the Cis Guy Mold since at least the middle of high school (circa 2003), possibly sooner,” actually claiming “queer” as a label for herself has only happened in the last year or so. Since beginning to claim her identity for herself, her presentation has continued to be in flux, but she’s been able to find femme blouses and skirts, and a few fancy dresses to wear that validate her identity and make her feel most herself. “Having the time and pressure of performing for other people taken away, I can experiment and not have it be Wrong In Public, which is really important to me,” Paul explains. Being isolated at home has given her the power to choose how she looks all day, not just “wedged in a couple hours between the return commute and bedtime.” While at this point Paul is out to just about all of her friends and family, she isn’t out at work, for fear of upsetting her and her family’s financial situation. Although the silver lining is that while isolated, her partner, who she describes as “a very good seamstress” has helped to make a large portion of her new wardrobe.
Along with others who were already questioning their identities before the pandemic but didn’t know how to present or carry themselves in the outside world, Jon, too, a young bi-gender person from Brooklyn, has been able to “rediscover” their gender in isolation. “Quarantine, with its vast swaths of space, time, and anxiety, has given me several new insights about my gender,” they explain. “I’ve struggled with pronouns for a long time (what am I?) and usually I dismissed ‘they’ as an option. But then I had a dream a couple weeks ago where someone called me ‘they’ and I smiled in the dream, and that smile was real. I felt it. So that means something,” they say. “Quarantine has given me the space to realize I should be insistent on what pronouns I want, and not shy away from them for fear of inconveniencing others.”
Even in quarantine, they put off “getting into girl mode” and shaving, putting on makeup, and dressing up because they told themselves it was “only worth it if I could go to events and be seen by people.” After gender dysphoria slowly built up, they dressed up and put makeup on just to go to the farmer’s market the other week. “Most people were in masks and sweatpants, and here I was all done up just to get some potatoes. I got a lot of double takes and stares,” they say. “But it felt good. That helped me remember that it’s not just about being seen as a woman by others. Deep down, it’s about embodying femininity, even if I’m completely alone.”
Derrick, who began questioning their identity as a kid but who was raised in a religious Southern family was already struggling coming out as gay before the pandemic. They didn’t have the energy to explore another identity on top of that. “For the longest time, I kept finding excuses for why I couldn’t be nonbinary: I still used male pronouns, I never experienced any dysphoria from identifying as male, maybe I was just a feminine guy, things like that. After seeing trans and nonbinary people growing platforms across social media and talking about their experiences, I realized that there isn’t a set of rules I had to follow or requirements I had to meet,” Derrick explains. “It took me a while to work through my doubts and insecurities, but during this quarantine, I finally came to terms with myself and my identity.”
Having so much time on their hands was a big part of this, but it wasn’t the sole reason why they came to this conclusion. Like Sawyer, Derrick says that the biggest factor was having to deal with new emotions and anxieties surrounding COVID-19 and this quarantine. “There’s something about a pandemic that makes coming to terms with your gender identity seem easy. I’m not even sure what prompted my realization. One day, it finally felt right to me and it all just clicked into place.”
*Names have been changed for the safety and privacy of the sources.