You Need Help: Gender Feels in Quarantine

feature image by Zachary Drucker via The Gender Spectrum Collection

Q:

I have been having such intense gender feelings since quarantine started. I have been sorting through some gender stuff — first my gender presentation, and more recently my gender identity — for a little while now, but in the last few weeks it feels like the ground has been pulled out from under me. I am raw and tender so much of the time, and when I reflect on my feelings, it often comes back to stuff around my gender. I’ve found a non-binary therapist I’m going to start working with and I’m sure that will help, but I am just feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by how much space and energy this is taking up in my life all of a sudden, especially on top of everything else going on right now. Any advice about how to find a balance with this, and how to extend compassion to myself around it?

A:

That feeling you describe, like the ground (not just the rug! the whole ground!) has been pulled out from under you is profoundly familiar. Is it like, suddenly things you took for granted your whole life have faded to sepia and there are these flashes of technicolor strangeness catching in the corner of your eye? That’s how it was for me, when I was minding my own damn business and suddenly I didn’t know how to have a body in the world any more.

Crises of such intimate dimensions hardly ever show up at a convenient time, but social isolation during a global health crisis seems particularly inopportune. Everything is heightened under quarantine, whether it’s conflict, intimacy, or delirium. The stakes feel so high. At the same time, many of us have more space and time and quiet than we’re used to. It’s not so surprising that the quieter parts of your inner self would be attempting to fill some of that void.

I’m going to give you two contradictory suggestions, so please bear with me.

When it comes to balance, I wonder if it might help to give yourself some very structured time to focus on your gender feelings. Say, every day from 1-1:45 pm, you’ll write in a journal or talk to a friend or take a walk or meet with the therapist you’ve found and get all your feelings and thoughts out of your brain and into the world where you can look at them and give them room to breathe. Sometimes that will help it feel like this thing is not taking over your entire life, but you have the peace of knowing that you are making time for it. When you find it starting to envelope you, you can soothe it with the knowledge that its time will come. You can choose any time frame, any outlet, and I hope that you can create space for it, as well as space from it. It deserves its share of energy, but you also get to save your energy for other things like literally surviving a pandemic while the “economy” “reopens.” If you need to, you might create an accountability system, whether it’s checking off a star chart you make or having a trusted friend check in with you.

When it comes to compassion, I hope you will let your gender exploration take up as much space in your life as you need it to. There is no such thing as too much as long as you are staying as well as possible and not harming yourself as others. You are not too much. Pull all of your clothes out of your closet and do a fashion show for your pet! Grab any make up or accessories you have lying around and put them all on at once and take selfies and post them on Instagram or destroy them immediately. Look in the mirror a LOT. Cover up all the mirrors in your house. Talk to the trans and gender non-conforming people you know (or find some trans and gender non-confirming people to know!! We are all over the internet and we love you already). Ask about how they came into self-knowledge and self-compassion and self-endazzlement. Ask about the things that still make it hard to get up and face the world. Let yourself breathe through this, and trust that it is not a waste of time to devote your energy to the work of becoming. You are not stealing time from something or someone else that is more deserving. We live in a morally bereft culture of fakery and bullshit, but you, my friend, are real and powerful and worthy.

Your rawness and tenderness is a primal signal that you are alive. It’s exhausting and there’s no way to turn it off. It’s like when you get a wound and your brain keeps sending pain signals there as you scrounge around your house for a bandage, and you’re like “yes body I know I am working on it!!!” Yes body, we know! Everything is bad and we can’t make it better, literally all we can do is stay in our houses! But our bodies are raw and tender, sending all these signals in hopes that we’ll notice how much care they need right now. I hope you will find ways to sync up with your body in ways that feel clarifying without being too horribly overwhelming (though sometimes it will be overwhelming).

The strange thing about gender dysphoria in isolation for me has been realizing what parts of my gender identity and expression are entirely, or at least somewhat, dependent on how I see other people reflecting back what they are getting from me — and what parts are intrinsic to the ever-boiling soup of me, even when the only people who see me for weeks at a time are my trans spouse and my dog (who does not have a gender identity). I don’t mean to set up a hierarchy by any means, because both are important and valid; gender is something we construct in community and in relationship and in society. I’ve just never had such a clear sense of what parts of my gender come from my guts and what parts feel most true when other people notice them.

Let yourself notice things you’ve ignored. Let yourself take space from noticing. Try not to make any major decisions while we’re still in full on crisis mode, but also maybe don’t feel like you have to wait until things are back to “normal,” whatever the heck that’s going to look like. I can’t tell you what balance and compassion look like for you, but I promise you deserve both. Sometimes they simply aren’t compatible, and so you have to choose. I personally hope you choose compassion in such moments. Balance has a way of presenting itself in its own time.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a divinity student at Vanderbilt University. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 145 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! I’m not the asker but I relate to having long-simmering gender feelings come to a head during quarantine, and I feel like I’m having to rediscover my resources a bit given how much daily life has changed. So this was timely and I really appreciated your words :)

    • I strongly second the journal idea. When it happened to me, I kept having doubts and was struggling to feel at peace when it felt like everything was constantly moving. By writing a journal, I could see how my feelings mapped onto time, and felt like everything became much clearer.

  2. Much love to you experiencing this in the middle of an already emotionally heightened, chaotic, unclear time! Gender feelings can be like the whole world is upside down even under the most regular, mundane of circumstances. When I first had my “oh shit, oh fuck” moment where suddenly I wasn’t in my body, I got metaphorically struck by lightning, and then I knew down to my bones *I’m not this gender I always thought I was,* it was honestly more than I could deal with at the time. I spent about half a year in quiet desperation and confusion, before finally retreating back into the Closet Of My Brain because I just wasn’t equipped yet to deal. But eventually, those feelings crept back out, gently demanding that I feel them and sort them out and relearn how to connect with myself. It’s been a long and up-and-down process, but you get there.

    Be gentle with yourself. You don’t have to figure it out immediately. There is no deadline. Also things are really whacky right now and that adds a whole ‘nother layer on top. It can be so all-consuming and overwhelming and difficult—and even more when our emotional bandwidth feels limited and there are serious external stressors going on—so that’s all the more reason to be compassionate with yourself about what you’re feeling and experiencing.

    It sounds like you’re taking good steps already—sounds like you’ve got a great therapist, and you’re reaching out for community support! One thing my therapist picked up on immediately when I started therapy for anxiety and adamantly NOT for my gender (lol) was that I didn’t make a lot of choices for myself. I got really deep into routines and structures and it was like being on autopilot, instead of asking myself the question “what do *I* want? what would feel good right now in this moment?” I’ve found that to be the most important question I can ask myself about all the myriad little pieces that comprise that thing we call gender. Just dump it all on the floor (metaphorically) and pick up the bits that make you happy and keep them, while trying out new things for aspects that feel bad (or just “meh”—you don’t have to loathe something to want it to be different).

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