“I really feel like this is the start of my life. And the last 10 years have been just me figuring it all out.”
Saoirse, 26, is a digital marketing manager based in Dublin. While she has, to some degree, known that she’s a lesbian since her early 20s, she’s only truly accepted it and started talking about it publicly in the past year. “Before the pandemic I was still nervous telling people I never met, or telling people at work, or telling anyone!” she says. “There was this constant fear of not aligning with who they want you to be.”
For Saoirse, the time spent in lockdown has been revelatory. “I think [the past year] allowed me to really become more introspective about my life, and who I am,” she tells Refinery29. “I started to realise that my own integrity is more important than being liked. I think that was why I always struggled so much before — I'm a little bit of a people pleaser.”
These physical spaces and the community they bring have an integral role for marginalised people — they can shape your understanding of identity, desire and politics, while offering a crucial lifeline: a space where, for once, you are not the minority. For many in the LGBTQ+ community, these spaces have been essential to them recognising and celebrating their own queerness instead of ignoring or repressing it. The loss of these spaces and what they would have done to queer life trajectories can feel inconceivable, especially if you came out years before.
But for many people who have had to do without over this past year, like Saoirse, the isolation has turned into a blessing in disguise.
There are many societal norms and structures that dictate and restrict our understandings of gender and sexuality. There has been a growing awareness, especially in queer spaces, of how cissexuality and heterosexuality is assumed and expected, and that the gender binary is not rigid but imposed through gendered norms and conventions. Recognising these systems, however, does not mean they go away. They are perpetuated through social interactions and how people are expected to move in public spaces — making negotiating them an unavoidable fact of life. Learning to reject them takes time, education and a constant awareness. Unless, of course, the world goes into lockdown.
For 28-year-old Sophie, a photographer based in London, the space to look at their life objectively without the need to be constantly ‘doing something’ enabled them to understand themselves as non-binary.
“I knew I had always been gender nonconforming but had never really labelled it or even verbally acknowledged it,” they told R29. “But all of this newfound time allowed me to really think about it and ask myself questions… There was none of that external influence to make me second-guess myself. No dickhead you overhear at the pub, spouting misogynist bullshit, no visits to older family members who remind you of the strict binary that operates almost everywhere outside of my home.” Sophie used the space provided by the pandemic for self-reflection and, after trying to work out which gender they felt more aligned to and why, they realised that they were trying to fit into categories that just didn’t work for them. “I felt happy in neither of the two options and asked the people I was living with to start referring to me as they/them,” they say.
There was none of that external influence to make me second-guess myself. No dickhead you overhear at the pub, spouting misogynist bullshit, no visits to older family members who remind you of the strict binary that operates almost everywhere outside of my home.
The separation from external influence has helped people divorce what is expected from them from what they actually want, feel and need. Emily, a 19-year-old student from Germany, moved away from family and her cis male partner in September 2020. The separation allowed her to recognise that she had been primed to see men as potential romantic partners without questioning it.
Before the pandemic, Emily identified as bisexual. Although she and her boyfriend had already been dating long distance, the added absence of any social gatherings gave her a unique opportunity to reflect — and she began to realise that she wasn’t actually interested in men. “I really think there was always this heteronormative aspect of why I thought I was also attracted to men,” she says. “I was being primed to always look for men, always scanning crowds in public or at parties and seeing who I potentially found attractive.” The time she spent away from crowds helped her identify that instinct for what it was in her case — socially constructed, rather than authentic.
While physical spaces were mostly off limits for the majority of the world over the past 15+ months, digital spaces came to have a new significance. Levy, a 20-year-old musician from the Netherlands, came out as trans (using both he and they pronouns) to his loved ones first, and soon after posted about it on his social media. “I got a lot of positive reactions, especially on TikTok. I didn't expect it to have that many views! Three million people know about my existence and I don't know about them. So that's a little bit weird.”
While the time spent in lockdown gave Levy the courage to take important steps like going to the doctor and getting referred to the gender clinic, the support of his social media friends and following has made what could be a very isolating process hugely validating.
“Social media has been really, really important actually. I think it is with a lot of people in my generation,” he says. “I just put it out there so that people won't misgender me — not necessarily to get views or anything. Then those 3 million people saw my video and actually most of them were all positive reactions! Obviously it's important that people around me are supportive but social media is just a big plus,” he adds. “It's big for this generation so [if] people are supporting me on there, that's everything I wanted. And it's nice that I got that.”
For Jamie, a teen demi-boy in Canada who uses he/they pronouns, passing the pandemic time online, especially TikTok, was an educational experience. “I learned a lot from TikTok, and watched lots of videos of people coming out, and explaining different LGBTQ+ things I hadn’t known before. Then I started looking it up on the internet and found a great resource called the ‘gender dysphoria bible’ that describes exactly how I felt, and how to tell people close to me, and found it extremely useful."
Social media can be especially affirming when your queerness explicitly isolates you from the culture you live in. Maria, who’s based in Texas, has known since she was in middle school that she’s bisexual but wasn’t out to her socially conservative parents. She says that she made the decision on the spur of the moment to have a conversation with her parents about her sexuality; she also recorded a video of the conversation and posted it to TikTok, saying that the pandemic gave her “the courage to post her coming out video in the first place.”
“Sitting down at the table with my parents and pouring out about how much it hurts that they don’t support me changed things — a lot. It wasn’t just the attention from the media but also the way it made me realise that the depths of one's parents' love for their child can only go so far. It made me really confused hearing them basically not accept me as their daughter,” she says.
The support she gained from social media and her friends took this emotional, isolating experience and made it positive. “It made me realise that I’m not alone,” Maria says. And she now finds strength in her experience.
There’s pain in oppression, but in the roots of it there’s a common trait called resilience. I wish to hold on to that trait and face my sexuality no matter what anyone, including my parents, has to say about it.
“What I’ve realised is that there’s something beautiful about being the minority — in my case an Asian American LGBT woman,” she says. “Yes there’s pain in oppression, but in the roots of it there’s a common trait called resilience. I wish to hold on to that trait and face my sexuality no matter what anyone, including my parents, has to say about it.”
Despite the positives people coming to understand their identity have found or created for themselves amid the pandemic, no one wants this era to last forever. The world reopening comes with unique excitements and anxieties for everyone, including queer people.
For some, like Levy, excitement about being able to begin physically transitioning is dampened by the fact that the gender clinic said he has to wait two years to start hormones because of the pandemic, an experience echoed by trans people across the world attempting to access healthcare. “I need a year of therapy and counselling to prove to cisgender people that I'm really transgender. I think that's a weird, weird thing to do,” he says. However, he’s excited to discover how his body will change. “I just want my appearance on the outside to really look like a man. I'm going to grow because of hormones, and I'm looking forward to that! I really want a beard – I hope it's in my DNA.”
Others, like Sophie, feel anxious about relearning how to exist as a trans/gender nonconforming person outside of the security of their small network. “I have found re-entering the world as a trans/GNC person really difficult. My world suddenly got so much bigger and I was reminded that if I wanted to be truthful to myself, I was going to have to allow myself to be seen and understood by so many more people. It made me doubt if I was ready and even doubt my transness,” Sophie says.
Despite these apprehensions, there’s an underlying optimism about restarting life with a new perspective. For many, including Saoirse, the reopening of queer spaces will mean the world.
“At the moment, I'm literally the only gay girl in my friend group,” she says. “Although I am loved, and I enjoy them so much, it would be really nice to involve myself in spaces where there are more people like me. I could discuss these things and have fun with them and socialise and just be around people that have experienced the same difficulties,” she continues. “I think not having those places to go to and not being able to surround yourself with people that align with your values has been really tough.”
And for LGBTQ+ people who have been forced to isolate with parents, caregivers or roommates who are explicitly queerphobic, the optimism about the end of lockdowns will be far more explicit. After months of hiding themselves to avoid harassment and abuse, as reported by the BBC, an end of lockdowns will give people like Maria space to be welcomed by friends and loved ones who embrace her identity.
Coming into your queerness is a revelatory experience – it can feel enormous, like you are suddenly floating after carrying a rucksack full of bricks; or it can be a small, validating sensation, like a puzzle piece that finally clicks into place. You may change how you present or who you date or even your name, but the only change that actually matters is how it can help you finally begin to feel comfortable in your own skin.
In the time we have spent apart, the parents and loved ones who perhaps don’t fully accept someone’s coming out have not been able to see the newfound happiness, or have perhaps refused to see it. But as we begin to build our new post-pandemic lives, chosen family and community, both on- and offline, will be integral for LGBTQ+ people. Because there we can see the happiness and relief, even if we never knew you before.