Since the pandemic began, I’ve changed my Instagram bio 12 times. A year ago, it read “lil andro idiot in coveralls *lipstick emoji rainbow emoji cartwheel emoji* - she/her.” I wrote this because it was true; it explained who I was and how I expressed my gender. It felt like a comfortable way for me to describe myself on the internet. And then, the pandemic hit. I mostly stopped wearing coveralls and definitely stopped wearing lipstick. Instead, I lived in sweatpants and cropped T-shirts. When it was cold, I added a sweatshirt and fuzzy socks. Looking in the mirror, I saw a version of myself that had never really existed before — a me who stayed inside 24/7, with a makeup-free face and a paint stain on my high school swimming sweatpants; a me who stopped putting effort into my appearance.
A lot about my life changed, all at once: I left Brooklyn for the first few months of the pandemic to stay with my parents in their suburban home. Instead of going to an office or out to see friends, I suddenly didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to see besides my immediate family and immuno-compromised wife, and so I leaned into what felt natural and comfortable. I bought a lot of sweatpants and learned to do a headstand. I watched my roots grow out and my red hair fade to blonde. I occasionally left my parents’ house, but the furthest I went was to visit a nearby pond, where a pair of swans guided their newly hatched chicks from shore to shore. I wouldn’t say I stopped caring about my appearance, but I stopped putting effort into it in a way that felt freeing at first — and then felt deeply imprisoning. I remember waking up one morning last July and seeing that my previously chin-length curls had grown past my chest, and my once broad shoulders had softened without access to my typical exercise routine. I stared at my reflection and saw a kind of femininity that made me deeply uncomfortable. I briefly considered shaving my head. Instead, I changed my Instagram bio: “Just a gay trying to get through. She/her.”
(This caption did not age well.)
I wasn’t alone in my discomfort. As we’ve been pushed inside, other queer and trans people have found themselves losing touch with their gender expression, too. “I haven’t put any thought into my gender expression. I feel disconnected from it since I barely see anyone,” Danny, a man of transgender experience told me in an email. “That being said, I stopped caring about my style at all. One time I took my dogs out and realized mid-walk I was wearing two different shoes.” He also found that, though wearing a mask has allowed him to experiment with different facial hair, it has led to people misgendering him more often. “I feel less comfortable in how I'm perceived,” he said. “I'm a fairly small person and people can’t see my masculine facial features behind a mask.”
Like Danny, Alyza Enriquez, a transmasculine non-binary producer in New York, feels that masks have led to misgendering. “I operate from a place of transmasculinity, but I fear being read as a man in public,” they said. “When I’m wearing a mask and all bundled up, I look like a regular Max on the street and I don’t like that. When I go to the grocery store now I get dressed up. I put on all my chains and bracelets and rings to combat being read as male.” Alyza, who has been microdosing testosterone for years, has taken this time to explore their femininity as a non-binary person. They’ve tapered their dose down further, spent their weekends putting on makeup with their partner, and made a series of polaroids exploring what it means to be feminine, “Femininity has definitely become more prominent in my field of vision during the pandemic, which I wasn't expecting.”
For others, quarantine has eased certain milestones in gender transition. Finnegan Shepard, a trans man and founder of Both& Apparel, used a public men’s bathroom for the first time during the pandemic. “I was on a road trip with my parents, we stopped in Kansas, and I needed to use the bathroom.” Shepard explained. “Ironically, Kansas is a pretty dangerous place to be trans, but wearing a mask actually made going into a public restroom so much more comfortable. I started at that first stop and then used male bathrooms across the country — COVID really allowed me to dive in head first.” Shepard started hormone therapy in September 2019 and had his top surgery scheduled for March 16th, 2020 — though that was canceled. While he waited for a new surgery date, Shepard shaved his head as a dare on Zoom. “After I shaved my head, I started to be read as a man by the FedEx guy and the Instacart guy.” Shepard said. “Pre-top surgery, having short hair really helped.” And when Shepard’s surgery was rescheduled for late April of last year, going in for it alone was a blessing in disguise. “I didn’t have time to be afraid, I had to be calm and ready,” he said. “It truly became an almost archetypal hero arc where I had to face my fears alone, the upside of which was that emerging out the other side was all the more empowering.”
By the time autumn rolled around, I had noticed another phenomenon, having spent enough time on gay TikTok to see hundreds of young people discovering their gender during the pandemic. They cut their hair; they started binding; they asked the internet to use they/them pronouns in the comments. I fell deep down the rabbit hole of she/they discourse and, without my baggy jeans and Tims to ground me, I began to have a gender crisis of my own. Now, I am not a teenager — I’m 27, came out at as queer at 19, and already did all this exploration a long time ago. For years, I have identified as a genderqueer woman who uses she/her pronouns and presents androgynously. I stopped wearing dresses in 2017 and started sporting button-downs and Dickie’s every chance I got. I wore blazers and red lipstick when I wanted to feel powerful, and played with glitter and eyeshadow in my free time. In February 2020, I felt like a gender euphoric version of myself. But by October, I was panicked. I started to edit my Instagram bio to say: “Queer, androgynous, she/they,” but deleted it before I pushed save.
I didn’t change my bio — and didn’t even tell anyone about what I’d thought about doing — because it felt fake. I still have a note on my phone that says “talk to your therapist about gender you coward” (sorry, therapist, if you’re reading this), but I never brought it up. Instead, I cut my hair into a short curly shag and put some Ginger Overtone on the last wisps of blonde. I posted a picture on Instagram and for a brief moment felt the kind of gender euphoria I had spent years carefully crafting. The photo got 400 likes and 73 comments and felt like the kind of gender expression validation I so desperately craved. People saw my haircut and said: This is you, this is the real Hannah. And I believed them.
The holidays came and went. I spent another month at my parents’ house. It was cold and I only went outside twice, once to build a snowman. I got glasses and chose a rather masculine pair of tortoiseshell frames. My TikTok algorithm kept me updated on all things happening in the she/they universe and I watched as everyone from my good friend to my favourite podcast host added she/they to their Instagram bios. I became so invested in other people’s gender journeys that I convinced myself I must still be on my own. Identity is fluid, it changes all the time, I’d tell myself. I convinced myself I must be in flux, that my desperation for androgynous presentation was actually a deeper cry of gender confusion. I read some of my old writing from the Game of Thrones era and then pulled out my phone. I changed my Instagram bio to “My gender is Brienne of Tarth.” I deleted the pronouns and pushed save. Ten minutes later I changed it again, “Associate editor, she/her.”
For some queer people, quarantine has been a time of gender euphoria. For 28-year-old Allie, a trans non-binary person, the pandemic has allowed for space to explore gender identity and presentation. “I realized I was nonbinary about three to four months into the pandemic and started asking people to use they/them pronouns for me.” Allie told me. The pandemic coincided with Allie being single for the first time since they were 15 years old. That new freedom and the isolation allowed them to explore their gender expression without the immediate need for labels. “I remember right before quarantine, I kept trying to ‘label’ myself to the woman I was dating.” Allie explained. “The few labels, words, or phrases I was playing with were femme dirtbag, soft butch, chapstick bisexual, or tomboy femme. But honestly, I’m not sure what any of those really mean to me.” Now, they have had time to find their gender expression and self-confidence in a comfortable way, “I feel my most gender euphoric when I dress a bit more ‘masculine’ and then throw on neon eyeliner or a bright blue lipstick,” said Allie. “I recently got my hair cut into a mullet, and — abolish the carceral system, but: It’s really a crime that I’m not out meeting other gays IRL with how hot I look now.”
Similarly, Chett D’Angelo has been able to explore new ways of feeling masculine. After getting top surgery just days before the U.S. went into its first lockdown, D’Angelo has taken this time to explore all sides of his masculinity. He let his curly hair grow out — at first because salons were closed and then intentionally — and walked on a virtual runway in a dress covered in flowers, which he eventually removed to show his brand new chest. “Before quarantine, I felt myself clinging to gender roles,” Chett explained. “I feel like the pandemic helped me realize parts of myself that I wasn't paying attention to. [When we go back to regular life], I think this will show up in my style. I don’t want to present feminine, but I want to explore how something traditionally considered feminine can be masculine.” I asked him if Harry Styles was his style icon and he responded, “Yes, exactly. My style can be fluid while still identifying as a man.”
The end of my gender panic began the same way it started: in coveralls. It was an unusually warm Saturday this February and I decided to go for a walk. My therapist told me it might help my depression to get dressed when I go outside, so I peeled off my sweatpants and forced myself into a real outfit. I slid into my favourite pair of olive green Dickie’s coveralls and a men’s leather jacket I hadn’t touched in a year. I pulled my Tims on and put on a full face of makeup — including a bright red lip that would stay hidden behind my favourite Adidas mask. I messed with my shag until each curl sat perfectly askew, and I walked out the door.
I took in the Brooklyn sunshine and felt the pavement on my boots. I felt the familiar stiffness of my coveralls and basked in the metal sounds of my jacket. I passed an empty shop window, catching a glimpse of myself, and felt a feeling that I hadn’t dipped into since the first time I donned a button-down for an important event in college. My heartbeat slowed and my lips parted into a smile. I tilted my head, stared at my reflection and stood briefly in the feeling of seeing an exterior version of myself that felt exactly like the interior version. It’s a feeling I can only describe as euphoria, and suddenly, a calmness fell over me. I threw my head back and laughed, skipped to a coffee shop and tipped 200%, and raced home. I greeted my wife and then, before I even took off my mask, I pulled out my phone and opened Instagram. I swiftly updated my bio: “She/her/gay/androgynous *lipstick emoji rainbow emoji cartwheel emoji*.”
As I reflect on this past year, I am so acutely aware of how being forced inside, being forced to be unseen, threw my head into a whirlwind. I’d felt so comfortable in my gender and my gender expression, that I didn’t realize how much of my conception of myself was based on being perceived by everybody but myself. Then, in 2020, the only place I had to be perceived was the internet, and so I obsessed over an Instagram bio that hadn’t been changed in years, hoping to find a new way to be seen, in order to better see myself. If all goes according to plan, later this year we will emerge from our hiding places — some with shiny new pronouns or new haircuts or completely new TikTok-inspired wardrobes. But for me, I’ll emerge nearly the same. Only now, I’m a little bit stronger and a little bit more secure in who I am when nobody — and everybody — is watching.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.