The coronavirus lockdown was incredibly difficult for many of us, but it presented particular challenges to young queer people. A recent study exploring the mental health of LGBTQ people during the pandemic found “high levels of stress and depressive symptoms, particularly among younger and transgender and gender diverse respondents”.
And at one point during the pandemic, LGBTQ helpline Switchboard experienced a 42 percent increase in calls from people who identify as trans or gender non-conforming. Co-chair Natasha Walker says many got in touch to discuss “the difficulties of being in lockdown within transphobic families, often being misgendered and a lack of access to or a pausing of gender treatment”.
The strictest stretches of lockdown left many LGBTQ young people cut off from their queer support networks, especially if a lack of privacy in the family home or poor WiFi made online conversations tricky. But for some trans and gender non-conforming people, there’s also been an unexpectedly liberating aspect to life during the pandemic.
On 22nd August, Twitter user @fuglibetty tweeted: "the amount of ppl coming 2 terms w gender identity over lockdown really proves how social interaction is inseparable from gender performance like… the moment ur isolated from constant promotion of gendered behaviour u have the space to question what it even means for u."
This tweet has now been liked 87,000 times. Dr Jeffrey Cohen, a clinical psychologist who leads a virtual therapy group for young LGBTQ people at Columbia University Medical Center, says it reflects the experiences of some of his patients.
"Some trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming young people have been able to explore and better understand themselves and their identities during lockdown," Dr Cohen explains.
Bolstered by “family and peer support”, these young people have benefited from greater self-confidence and in turn, become more willing to experiment with how they present to the world.
“For instance,” Dr Cohen says, “a young person who was previously afraid to cut her hair short due to fears of rejection occurring in real life may choose to cut her hair during lockdown when those she’s in lockdown with affirm and support her.”
Eddie, a 24-year-old trans-feminine non-binary person from south Lincolnshire, agrees with this. They explain that "in multiple ways, lockdown has been a big turning point in my transition". Eddie, who earns a living working on two local farms, came out in March 2019 and began taking hormones the following October. But for them, the changes they’ve made during lockdown have been "more noticeable" and also more enriching.
"I always present feminine now rather than strategically presenting in masculine or feminine ways," they say. "And I've pursued making online trans friends because the physical distance and stuff seems sort of irrelevant now. Recently I've made a whole group of friends online and I feel a lot more like I’m part of a trans community. Whereas before, I was kind of lonely in that regard because I only had one trans friend in real life."
Elliot, a 28-year-old non-binary person from Birmingham who uses both male and female pronouns, says she's benefited immensely from not having to "sort of perform" in the office environment.
"People at work have always been open-minded towards me, which is good,” she says, “but there's also been a lot of heteronormative conversation and a lot of assumptions made about gender. When the office was open, I'd often hear something and think 'Well, that’s completely narrow-minded and just not true at all'".
Having more time to herself outside of the workplace has also enabled Elliot to explore her gender more completely. "I call myself a 'clusterfuck of gender' because sometimes I feel like a man and sometimes I feel like a woman, but most of the time I feel like both at the same time," she says. "I've spent a lot of lockdown by myself because I live alone and I’ve kept socialising and generally going out to a minimum. I think not being around people has definitely allowed me to continue to veer further away from cis heteronormative ideals and really think about my feelings towards gender as a whole."
In turn, this has allowed Elliot to embrace her drag alter ego, ElliXia, "as more of an extension of myself rather than this separate person".
Coming out as trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming can often be an ongoing process, but Phil, a 31-year-old university lecturer from Worcester, finally felt able to take an important first step during lockdown. "I had always identified as queer and had a complicated view of my gender, but I came out as enby [non-binary] during the pandemic," they say. "Having that space and not feeling publicly judged by anyone due to lockdown allowed me to recognise my true self and be more expressive and vocal about it".
Phil says it would be misleading to call lockdown a "catalyst" for their coming out as non-binary. Instead, it helped to clear a pathway for them to confront feelings they hadn't been given space to process before.
"It enabled me to reflect and realise that I truly do not identify on the binary. I always felt like I couldn't be enby without at least some form of gender dysphoria, but now I know that's untrue," they say.
At the same time, strict social distancing gave them a kind of protective barrier from other people's ignorance and discrimination. "Before I would always have negative experiences from people around me who confused gender expression with identity – for example, I got comments about having a beard and not necessarily being 'androgynous', which often caused me frustration,” they recall.
Now, with social distancing rules more relaxed, Phil says they're "very open about my gender identity" and have more confidence presenting their authentic self to the world.
Everyone I speak to acknowledges how fortunate they've been to have experienced personal growth during such an exhausting, frightening and confusing time. “I live with my family and they’re supportive so I've been in a safe environment. And my work has carried on basically as normal so my life has remained pretty secure," Eddie says.
Still, it’s genuinely heartwarming to hear the positives they’re all drawing from such a testing experience. "I'm not exactly sure where I would be with transition if [the pandemic] had never happened,” Eddie says, “but I really feel that it's pushed me into changing in ways that have been good for me.”