Trans During COVID: Isolation and Culture War Crossfire

By Grace Williams

While many groups have faced exacerbated isolation since the pandemic started, none have felt its effects quite like the transgender community. Already isolated beforehand, COVID has brought a new wave of discriminatory legislation, inaccessibility to health care, and inability to interact with like-minded peers. Lockdown in March of 2020 brought unique challenges to these people, as many young transgender individuals found themselves stuck at home with parents who don’t understand or downright reject their child’s identity. Gary, an anonymous Tulane student whose name has been changed, had much to say on this topic. “By April, I had been misgendered so much that I felt like I was forgetting who I was. Initially it feels like pangs on your chest, like little burns, but after a while you just go numb to it, which makes everything so much worse.”

A picture of the transgender pride flag

               Another anonymous Tulane student, Megan, had similar sentiments. “All in-person support groups were shut down too, which for many are vital resources. The most challenging part of the pandemic, however, was being unable to leave a home in which my parents were initially unreceptive about my being trans, over which we clashed constantly. When lockdown eased, so did tensions, but being stuck in the house together for two weeks in a highly combative environment was difficult.” These two students’ experiences are indicative of a larger reality in the transgender community wherein individuals are hurt by those closest to them, and perhaps part of this is a base misunderstanding of their identity. 

“Transgender” includes a wide range of identities and loosely can be described as identifying with a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth. Many identify as either a man or a woman, but others may identify as no gender, multiple genders, or a nonbinary gender. Gender comprises of many elements, such as physical presentation, social patterns, and your internal world – if can be hard to discern and even harder to define. From the year our society has spent alone, there’s been a apparent increase in the number of people who identify as nonbinary in certain queer online circles, a “she/they awakening” as it’s become known on social media sites such as TikTok. Gary had something to say on this topic, as he used to use she/they pronouns as well. “I think a reason this could be happening is that a lot of gender can be boiled down to performance. You act a certain way to meet other people’s expectations, so they perceive you in a way that feels right to you. But when you don’t have an audience, like in lockdown, you have to look inward to find that validation and really ask yourself, do I act this way because I’m told to?”

He goes on further to say “Femininity especially relies heavily on the male gaze for validation, so when you can’t go out to bars and dress up and wear makeup, you lose a part of what makes you feel attractive as a woman. It’s really interesting the number of young people, especially lesbians, coming out as nonbinary recently.” A difficult aspect of being nonbinary, however, is that it isn’t recognizable to the general public, so these individuals constantly find themselves not fitting into the social roles placed on them. Furthermore, a lot of nonbinary identity is forgotten when talking about transgender issues in general. “Transfeminine people are usually the first thought, but they’re treated super poorly because of transmisogyny and fearmongering. Transmen and nonbinary people are usually forgotten about. I’m not sure which is worse,” Gary said with a laugh.

               While our country’s division grows, the trans community finds itself in the crossfire of the culture war more and more. Megan gave some insight to her thoughts on this, saying “Trans people have become a focus in the culture war for a number of converging reasons: the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 and subsequent political prioritization of anti-trans rhetoric, the social-conservative perception that trans people are a ‘new’ phenomenon (fueled by trans erasure) and thus an indicator of modern cultural ‘degeneracy,’ and the notion that transness or LGBT identity are strictly ideological and not viscerally experienced as essential predestination.”

“It is important to realize, though, that culture war discourse surrounding trans people typically falls into 3 categories: sports, bathrooms, and Caitlyn Jenner, while earnest discourse surrounding trans issues typically revolves around health care and civil protections. But of course, like anti-gay attitudes, anti-trans attitudes are rooted in fear and disgust. As conservatives find the idea of two men kissing gross, so too are they disgusted by an AMAB trans woman expressing her femininity or an AFAB trans man expressing his masculinity.” And yet, when asked what effect this has on her, she said “To be honest, the current political environment does not particularly affect my day-to-day life as a trans person. What does affect me is years of (pardon the overused term) internalized transphobia by which I learned to despise my own trans-ness.”

Gary felt a similar way, saying “I mean, yeah, I grew up watching Family Guy and other media where trans people are the butt of the joke and treated as disgusting liars. It’s hard not to internalize that messaging, that you’re wrong and what you feel isn’t even an option. I didn’t have a clue until I was 19 what I had been going through my entire life, and that’s an incredibly painful realization. Sure, it’s easier now than it had been in the past, but trans activism still has so much further to go before my identity is normalized.” He emphasized the significance of positive representation in the media, saying “I don’t know if I would have ever figured it out if it weren’t for TV shows with trans characters or online trans communities and influencers. It makes a world of difference to see people like you represented positively.”

Nowadays, though, it is impossible to go on the social media of trans influencers without seeing dozens of mutual aid funds on their stories. Titles like “Help Gray with his top surgery fund!” or “My girlfriend and I need $500 to escape a toxic living situation” have become increasingly common since the beginning of the pandemic, as the economic strain hits hardest on the already economically marginalized groups. Many members of this group struggle with discrimination in the work force, and despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in June 2020 stating that employers cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many states have retaliated in recent months by proposing increasingly cruel and unnecessary legislature, mostly aimed at young transgender girls.

The LGBT pride flag in Uptown, New Orleans

Louisiana has not strayed from this trend in the southern states, as in early April, the Louisiana State Legislature proposed a bill that would ban transgender girls from participating in athletics in public schools. Similar bills in neighboring states go further to ban puberty blockers in teenagers. This misunderstood, life-saving treatment simply prevents puberty until the person is ready to either go through with their assigned sex’s puberty or start hormone replacement therapy – no surgeries, totally reversible. In fact, the number of hoops one must go through to get HRT would surprise those who believe the conservative narrative that the practice is given to anybody who wants it.

Megan started transitioning in March of 2020, but after many setbacks with her doctor, she had to start HRT months later in May 2020. “One day before I was supposed to begin HRT in March, the clinic with which I was planning to work shut down indefinitely to assist in Washington D.C.’s fight against COVID. I was able to find a new provider, but it took months to sort out and the process was very hectic.” Beyond the struggles to find a hormone provider, she faced other difficulties in getting the help she needed, specifically with mental health. “Mypsychologist dropped me from treatment after I told him I was trans. He helped me get set up with another psychologist, but I was not expecting when I came out the sheer number of medical professionals who know absolutely nothing about trans healthcare. The only reason this was not an absolute crisis for me is because I am on my parents’ insurance which is pretty comprehensive, which is not the case for many trans people who are navigating their transition without parental financial support.”

Following this sentiment, Gary has not started medically transitioning, as he does not have his parent’s support. “I’ve been out to them for two years, but they always call me ‘she.’ Recently they’ve started correcting it to [name before transitioning] but that is barely any progress after this many years. When I told them my medical plans, my parents asked me to wait a decade, fearing I’d regret it or change my mind. I’m at a crossroad. I can choose to start my life before they’re ready, distance myself from my family for a few years until I reintroduce myself, and lose my lifelong connections with extended family, or I can live a painful, unsustainable lie until I have their blessing, which may never come.” While the pandemic has brought so much heartbreak and isolation to everyone alive, it and the political fallout of 2020 have shown a light on the struggles the trans community has every day to prove their humanity. “It’s hard, but it’s my and so many other people’s reality.”

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