A grid of black rectangles with people inside each, doing different activities. In the center, a woman cross-legged.
Physical distance has gender consequences.

Gender transition in a pandemic

I came out as trans 7 months ago. Before that big social reveal, I’d started lots of other kinds of gender transitions—physical, emotional, relational—but starting the social transition that came with telling the thousands of people in my life about my gender was probably the most acute and momentous of all of them. It has been extremely stressful, intellectually draining, and emotionally exhausting.

But it was also exactly what I needed. Especially in the past month, I feel like I’ve reached a new, more peaceful phase. I don’t wake up every day hating myself. On many days I see a woman in the mirror, which makes me giddy. My body feels more like mine every day, partly through modern medicine, partly through self-acceptance. I’m happier with my voice. All the strange things that come with being a woman are starting to feel more routine. There’s still plenty that unnerves me—encountering people who I haven’t come out to yet, dealing with my conservative extended family, fearing misgendering everywhere I go—but life has felt like its approaching a kind of normalcy.

Then came the virus.

Now, first, a disclaimer. All informed predictions suggest that COVID-19 is going to wreck many lives, whether directly through health, or indirectly through economics. And as with all crises in the largely anti-government United States, most of this suffering is going to fall upon people in fragile health and economic conditions. People in poverty, people in hourly jobs, elderly people without stable homes or health care, the homeless.

I am not one of these people. Now should be a time where people with my privilege use all the energy we can spare to protect our most vulnerable from the worst fates that come with destabilizing events. As an academic leader at a large university, my efforts are currently focused on the thousands of students looking to me and others for guidance, support, and stability, and of course, my daughter, my wife, and my friends and family. As some one who has a regular salary, who can work at home, who doesn’t have young children, who has security of employment through tenure, who owns a home, and who is healthy, this is the least I can do.

All that said, I’m suffering in my own unique way. As I wrote about last week, there are so many little routines in life that are no longer possible. But there are also many aspects of the social part of a gender transition that just aren’t compatible with social distancing.

First, I see my therapist every other week. This is perhaps the most essential part of my care. She’s helped me recognize my fears, helped me overcome irrational beliefs, shown me pathways I didn’t see, and helped me love myself more. But there’s something about being in the same physical room as a therapist, a comfortable 6–8 feet away that seems really important about sharing your deepest secrets and fears with someone. My therapist is moving to online video chat therapy, and I’m a bit terrified. Will the same level of trust be possible through a camera? Will the intimacy of video chats become a barrier? Where will I do these chats and still have privacy? There’s a whole new skill to learn here that I never thought I’d have to learn.

Video chats are also a big part of my work life now too. The 5–6 hours a day of conversation I used to have in my office or in conference rooms is now all through a camera. And often, due to bandwidth limitations, I disable video and it’s just my voice. This puts a great deal of added pressure on my voice as a gender cue, which still makes me extremely self-conscious. The worst part is when someone isn’t using a headset, and I hear my voice echo in the background, gravelly and masculine. I can’t tell if it’s just the compression algorithms, or if that’s how I really sound to them. Instead of advising Ph.D. students, giving feedback to an undergrad, or making an administrative decision about our COVID-19 response, I’m obsessing over how I sound.

My Spring was full of 6 trips to conferences and workshops across the world, to reconnect with friends on colleagues that I haven’t seen in person since coming out. Now that all are canceled, I won’t be giving those mentoring talks to graduate students, I won’t be seeing friends at my big conference in Hawaii, I won’t see friends at my other big conference in South Korea. The future of the conference I’m planning in New Zealand in August is uncertain; the retreat in Germany I’ve helped plan for 18 months may be canceled. Losing these trips made me realize how much I was counting on those reconnections to close a chapter in my transition—to hear all of those acquaintances say, “Amy! You look great! It’s so wonderful to see you” face to face.

Social distancing has also shown me how dependent I still am on all of the little gendered interactions with strangers in the world. Whereas the first 6 months of my transition were full of wonderfully affirming ma’am’s and misses, and unwanted yet validating glances from men, now I spend most of my days at home or in my office alone. There’s no one to see me, and reflect me back to myself. I don’t think I’ll need this kind of superficial validation from strangers forever, but in this point in my transition, where I’m just barely accepting myself as a woman, all those little interactions have been key to nudging me toward self-acceptance. They’re mostly gone now.

Many of the little social signals that I’ve come to enjoy to about the insecurities of womanhood are also gone. Who do I show my cute new clothes? Who’s going to praise my bobby pin game? Do I even get haircuts anymore? A lot of the shallow things that define womanhood in western society have less currency in a fully digital life. Most of my gender performance has been for me, so this isn’t a huge loss, but that little part I depend on from others is mostly gone.

Perhaps the biggest consequence of social distancing is just that I’m alone more. I’m alone with my thoughts, alone with my body. Much of the daily noise that distracts me from the deep despair of gender dysphoria have been silenced by social distancing. What I have left is my work and my family and a foreboding and uncertainty. It turns out a sense of dread doesn’t do much to keep my mind off my gender plight.

What is working, however, is focusing on my gender joys. I’ll dress cute even if no one’s looking. I’ll do my modest makeup even if I’m the only one who will see it. I’ll cherish my less frequent encounters with strangers a little bit more than I used to. And when I do see people I know, even briefly, I’ll complement them so they might complement me. The virus has slowed my transition but I refuse to let it pause.

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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