The pandemic has both removed and generated barriers for underserved and privileged students alike. The peak of abnormality between March 2020 to spring 2021—when routines dissolved into Netflix shows and viral recipes—was a window into the buried struggles of transgender youth that had only been whispered behind closed doors. This time allowed for internal identities to shout louder when everything else in our lives was silenced. For some transgender students, or those who were exploring the idea of that label, social isolation felt like an awakening to their identity.
Jenn Burleton works for TransActive Gender Project, an organization connected to the Lewis and Clark College Graduate School of Education and Counseling. TransActive supports the holistic needs of transgender young people and their families through support groups, advocacy of transgender human rights, professional development training, and addressing needs through connection with schools and social service agencies.
Burleton describes the impact of the pandemic on transgender students: “It isolated many trans youth from being able to have access to whatever affirming or supportive peer environments they had been able to create, or in some cases it isolated them from inclusive environments at school where their gender identity or gender expression may have been being recognized or respected where it might have not been at home.” For other transgender students, the pandemic created the opportunity to discover a new way of presenting on the outside what has always been true on the inside. “If they did happen to be in families that were supportive, it gave them a little cocoon in which they could safely explore expressing their gender identity, maybe even doing a social gender transition,” Burleton says. For some transgender youth, their supportive place may be their own home, but many others have to look elsewhere for affirming care in more intentional environments for transgender and queer youth.
The pandemic sparked new curiosities around social movements, creative outlets, and identity for many. For some transgender youth with or without affirming settings at home, social isolation was a period in time for gender transitioning. Perhaps it was the anonymity that was opened up through online school, increased spare time to sit with self-reflection, or the fact that a life-threatening disease was reminding people to not waste any time by being someone you are not. However, the return to in-person school from comprehensive distance learning has brought on new challenges for those that have returned to school with a different gender identity. “There are some kids that are going back to school presenting as a different person than they were when they left school and so for them that is kinda like, ‘I have to address this now all over again, I did my transition in my house and I am having to once again explain to everybody [at school],’” Burleton describes. Logan Lebold is a student at Franklin High School who identifies as trans masculine. He describes what returning back to school for him looked like: “There is a long period of so many people not being in contact and then suddenly telling a bunch of people [I am trans] all at once.” He continues, “When the pandemic started I was not out to my family; I was only out to my friends, so being at school or other people’s houses helped me feel more like myself because those were the people I was out to. Being at home constantly when I was not comfortable being out yet was really stressful.” Lebold mentions knowing several other people that came out as trans during the pandemic: “When you are stuck at home, you are alone with your thoughts and I think that resulted with a lot of people investigating their identities more.”
For Lebold, being isolated from supportive environments brought on a set of benefits and disadvantages. “In classes [during online school] no one saw my face, no one knew what I looked like,” he says. In most classes, being allowed to keep your Zoom camera off was an opportunity for students to remain anonymous. Although teachers struggled to teach and talk to blank screens, having the opportunity to learn anonymously was in some ways really powerful for transgender students. Anonymity was a chance to learn without fear of judgment based on students’ appearance. On the other hand, Logan explains how being isolated from those supportive environments that he was out to affected him: “You are very much alone with trying to deal with whatever you have going on, and if you are in a situation where at home you don’t feel safe, it is exponentially worse. You are trapped in a place where you don’t feel safe.”
On December 1 of 2020, Juno star Elliot Page announced to Instagram, “I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows, and the more I thrive.” Although resources and affirming legislation for transgender people may have not increased in correlation with the pandemic, events like Elliot Page’s public announcement have opened up a conversation. Logan points out, “A few significant things have happened [during the pandemic] in the trans community, for example Elliot Page came out [as transgender].” Seeing someone in the spotlight such as Elliot Page take a courageous step to publicly transition and come out can be really impactful to other transgender people.
As Burleton says, “Affirmation saves lives. That improves the quality of life of transgender, gender diverse, non-binary, and also cisgender kids.” Burleton explains further, “Teachers, administrators, school districts, they have to live, eat, and breathe implementing these civil rights and human rights that not only benefits trans, non-binary and queer students, but benefits all students.” Gender inclusive bathrooms, affirming environments and courageous yet difficult conversations around transgender rights are opportunities for transgender visibility. TransActive offers support for transgender young people and their families; if you are looking for support you can access it through their website: https://graduate.lclark.edu/programs/continuing_education/transactive/