For Téa Roe, a 23-year-old photographer, it started with a haircut.
They cut their hair short for the first time in January. Roe used to identify as a lesbian, but when they visited their first lesbian bar in February with the new look, they realized that they didn’t “feel like a lesbian.” In fact, they didn’t even feel like a woman.
When it came down to it, none of the labels they used ever really felt right.
“It wasn’t necessarily that I feel masculine most of the time,” they said. “I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion that I think I might be nonbinary.”
Soon, the pandemic took hold over the United States in March, prompting stay-at-home orders throughout the country. Roe, who lives in San Diego, used their newfound free time to join online communities for nonbinary folks, where they found the language to describe their relationship with gender.
“I have masculine and feminine sides, and I kind of like to combine them sometimes. Some days, I feel more masculine, some days, a bit more feminine, but most of the time, I’m just me,” they said. “I don’t really like being called ‘girl’; I don’t like being called ‘boy.’”
For many queer folks like Roe, self-quarantine has provided an opportunity to explore their gender identity and expression, perhaps for the first time.
Briana McGeough, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare whose research focuses on improving mental health services for the LGBTQIA+ community, said that isolation likely insulated people from social norms and allowed them to think about their identities in a new way.
“Usually in our day-to-day, we’re out in the world and getting lots of messages about what our gender means and how we’re supposed to present based on our sex assigned at birth,” she said. “I suspect that as folks have been isolating more, that has given a little bit of distance and freedom from some of those gender norms, as well as providing a little bit more time to reflect.”
McGeough also said that being home so much has freed up more time to explore online communities. Her research indicates that the Internet is an important tool for transgender and nonbinary folks because they can meet people who share similar experiences and learn terminology surrounding gender and identity.
That was exactly the case for Asher, a teenager from New York City. Before covid-19, they briefly considered that they might be a transgender girl or maybe genderfluid but usually repressed their feeling that they’re not cisgender. While they’re still questioning their gender, the additional time and space in quarantine helped them start to explore nonbinary identities.
“I jokingly refer to my identity as ‘confused’ or ‘gender-spaghetti,’” said Asher, who asked that their full name not be used for privacy reasons.
Like Roe, Asher found community online that helped them with the difficult questions they were trying to answer. Asher experimented with gender-neutral pronouns on a forum for nonbinary folks and came out as nonbinary there. They joined group chats and made friends in the LGBTQIA+ community, which helped them grow more comfortable with their identity as a non-cisgender person.
“I also applied to an internship which was LGBTQ+-friendly, and I use my pronouns there,” Asher, an aspiring computer programmer, said. “I built a short video game and interactive novel about gender and used this as a code sample for my application. I feel like the Internet has been crucial in both figuring out and becoming comfortable with my identity.”
Asher hasn’t felt ready to come out offline yet. Roe similarly feels that most people in their life wouldn’t understand. While some of their family members accept Roe’s partner, a transgender woman, Roe worries that they wouldn’t be as accepting of them because they identify outside the gender binary.
Zuva Seven, 24, came out publicly as nonbinary on Twitter in August.
“Some days I love my body but most of the time I don’t feel it represents me as a person,” they wrote.
Seven is editor in chief of An Injustice!, a publication centering on marginalized voices, and a gender studies student based in Leeds, England. They say they have questioned the gender binary and gender roles from a young age.
Growing up in a conservative Christian household, they felt compelled to identify as a cisgender woman but never grew particularly attached to the label.
“[It] was definitely spearheaded with the lockdown because you have a chance to think. You have a chance to stop. You stop wearing makeup, you stop wearing bras, you stop doing all this pretense. … It really gives you time to sit with yourself.”
Because lockdown freed Seven from physical gender expectations and gave them time to reflect, they came to the realization that they’re much more comfortable being labeled as nonbinary.
Seven says it has been good for her mental health, too.
“Now I just do whatever I want. I wear whatever I want. If I want braids, I’ll get braids and then rock my hair short again, because there isn’t anything that I feel like I’m allowed or pressured to do. I just do me,” they said. “There are a lot less things to think about now, just because everything feels so natural.”
But during a pandemic that requires social isolation in an era of increasing transphobic vitriol, some of those mental health benefits may be negated for many newly out trans and nonbinary people, according to McGeough.
“Currently, we’re seeing anti-transgender laws getting more attention and, you know, really transphobic things being discussed in the media,” McGeough said. “That’s something that maybe a trans person isn’t experiencing directly on an individual basis but can still have a big affect on mental health, as well.”
“It makes you question your identity more,” Roe said. “It makes you think ... that this is wrong, because everybody’s trying to push that down your throat.”
For now, they’re taking it one day at a time. They try to ignore the dirty looks they sometimes receive and the comments they hear from strangers criticizing their gender nonconforming appearance.
McGeough said that in addition to experiencing blatant transphobia, many trans and nonbinary people have lost access to gender-affirming social support during the pandemic, which can also negatively affect mental health. For example, students who had to return home for distance learning when their colleges closed may no longer live with people who know and respect their identities. A lack of social acceptance is associated with heightened risks of depression and anxiety in transgender folks.
The pandemic itself may exacerbate preexisting health and economic disparities among the LGBTQIA+ community, as well. Trans and nonbinary people face transphobia in the health-care field, which can cause them to forgo treatment. The National Center for Transgender Equality reported that in 2015, 23 percent of trans and nonbinary people chose not to see a doctor when they needed to due to fear of discrimination.
Additionally, trans folks are less likely than cisgender people to have health insurance and are more likely to struggle financially. The Center found that nearly a third of respondents lived in poverty compared with 12 percent of all U.S. adults. Trans people also face higher risks of homelessness, violence and HIV/AIDS infection, and a 2020 New York Times report suggested that they have already been disproportionately affected by loss of income or jobs under the economic downturn.
Still, Roe said that finally understanding their gender is ultimately a positive development.
“No matter how bad I feel, I know that I’m trying to be true to myself,” they said.