The challenge: recreate an album cover.
People often told Theresa Yonash they resembled Bob Dylan, so they put together an ensemble to recreate Dylan’s “Hard Rain” album cover to compete against other college students around the U.S. in a social media game show called “The Game: Hurricane.”
Yonash used makeup to sculpt a “more masculine-appearing face” and facial hair. When they drew a mustache above their lip to complete the Dylan look, something clicked.
Yonash, 20, who uses “she” or “they” pronouns, always enjoyed dressing in androgynous clothes. They didn’t mind whether someone called them “sir” or “ma’am.”
But during the pandemic, the time they could spend alone with their thoughts allowed them the space to further interrogate their gender identity.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think of so many elements of my life, of society (and) it felt like womanhood was something I needed to move on from,” said Yonash, who lives in a small town in Wisconsin. “I was starting to really feel like this was something I could finally embrace without feeling like I needed to fit in the binary mold.”
Elements of the pandemic are permitting people to delve deeper into the concept of gender, and experiment with how they express their identity. Some people find support in niche online spaces. Others are breaking free from gender-specific clothes they felt they needed to wear out in public. Still others feel free to experiment with how they wear their hair — or what parts of their body they shave. And wearing masks in public makes gender-diverse people more comfortable, because they’re less likely to be misgendered.
For young people exploring their identities, living away from their families or staying out of their workplaces has benefited their gender exploration.
“The pandemic has given me this wonderful cushion,” said Noah Rosenzweig, who decided to make their medical transition early because of the pandemic. “It’s allowed me to pretty much avoid any hard conversations.”
Why isolation made exploration comfortable
Drs. Melina Wald and Julie Woulfe, psychologists at Columbia University, found that the pause has allowed people to take steps they might have hesitated about before isolating.
“We’re sort of forced to really contend with our lives and what our goals might be,” Wald said. “That has led a lot of people to rethink. If they’re hesitant they may be more emboldened.”
Rosenzweig, 23, said they have never seen so many people “define themselves outside the gender binary” until the pandemic. Rosenzweig, who uses “they” pronouns, believe pandemic factors sped up a lot of people’s processes to figure out their identity.
Rosenzweig planned to start their medical gender transition after graduating from college. But stuck in their Washington, D.C. apartment, they felt like there was no point in waiting. They started a testosterone regimen one month before graduation, in spring 2020.
Required to avoid in-person interaction during the pandemic, people typically only see each other from the shoulders up in tiny video chat squares. That emboldened Joey Dagher, 22, to experiment with clothing.
They noticed female colleagues on staff video calls dressed professionally, while men often wore hoodies. Dagher thought if they wore more casual clothes, they’d get reprimanded because they typically appear feminine at work.
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Dagher eventually considered these virtual meetings “time to shine” and started to wear androgynous clothing that felt truer to their identity.
“I was just so busy with school or work so I didn’t pay attention to how I looked,” Dagher said. “I feel like quarantine has given me this time to have this inward contemplation into what I want to be.”
Dagher also started to wear their hair tied up more often after feeling free from societal pressures to wear their long hair loose.
Other people, like Enrique Zúñiga, 20, experimented with styling their body hair. Zúñiga let their hair and beard grow long but shaved their legs, given the freedom to try out a look they felt no other environment allowed for.
Like Dagher’s work video calls, virtual spaces encouraged people to explore or accept their gender identity.
Yonash has connected with many LGBTQ creatives through their large following on TikTok. They learned about gender and sexuality, as well as creative processes, by collaborating with diverse people they couldn’t access as easily in person, even before the pandemic.
Searching “gender fluid” on TikTok presents more than 500 million results, many of them created by young adults.
Younger adults are more likely than older adults to identify as transgender, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles.In 2016, researchers estimated 0.6% of adults in the U.S. identified as trans, and found that 0.7% of 18 to 24-year-olds are trans.The CDC also estimated in 2017 that 1.8% of high school students identified as transgender.
Social media allowed people to publicly share their newfound identities in subtle ways. Zúñiga said realizing they are nonbinary over the summer “was a bit anti-climactic.” Nonbinary people do not identify exclusively as male or female.
They simply changed their pronouns and “it just felt right,” Zúñiga said.
Yonash quietly updated their Instagram bio to include that they use she or they pronouns, a change they made while quarantining.
Other pandemic factors gave people a sense of privacy that made them feel more comfortable trying out new ways to express their gender identities. The Columbia psychologists said wearing masks can make people feel more comfortable in their chosen genders.
Along with often required mask-wearing, COVID-19 kept people from visiting at-risk friends and family, like Rosenzweig who has not seen their family since January 2020. Recently, they’ve made physical changes that align with their gender identity.
Eventually, though, Rosenzweig and others won’t be able to avoid conversations about their identity. People will return to offices and schools, and leaders need to plan for a “new normal,” said Stephen Russell, a University of Texas at Austin child development professor.
But because business and school leaders have had those conversations, Russell said they are “primed” to incorporate conversations about identity.
“If you want the best talent, you have to create a space where people can be authentically themselves,” Russell said. “There are plenty of normative people who are just going to fall back into the same old thing, but I think there will be a lot of people who are ready to imagine a different way of being.”
Wald and Woulfe suggest people who identify differently than they did pre-pandemic start preparing ahead of time for possible discriminatory experiences they may face living as a gender diverse person.
“For people who have had queer physical changes where people might notice or comment, I think there’s a lot of value in … helping them prepare for potential experiences of misgendering or harassment and really ensuring that there are some coping strategies or identifying some affirming people in [their] spaces,” Wald said.
Dagher said one thing quarantine made them realize is that LGBTQ people are “never going to be done coming out.”
They are not sure where they’ll end up with gender identity, or how they’ll proceed in an in-person world, but they plan to express themselves in virtual spaces or wherever else they can.
“It’s OK to be in transition, it’s OK to realize you’re not sure who you’re going to be,” Dagher said. “Quarantine has made it easier because I’m not pressured by everything else around me to choose what I want. The concept of waiting and accepting growth has helped with quarantine.”
Contact Claire Thornton at (210) 316-0483 or [email protected] Follow them on Twitter at @claire_thornto.