Content warning: This article contains mention of a homophobic slur.
Julián Pérez—or, a pixelated approximation of Julián Pérez—appears in a video box on Zoom. We “meet,” or rather, both of our faces populate my laptop screen. This is just the way things are now. Normally, I could notice the subtleties of our interaction—their body language, clothing choice, the setting—and describe them here. But all I can see is what anyone could see of Pérez in a driver’s license photo. Pérez sits (or stands, or reclines) in front of a plain white wall. The camera only captures their head down to the tops of the shoulders. I only know that they are in their Columbia dorm room because they tell me so. Pérez and I, like so many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, are isolated from each other, but for Pérez, that might not be such a bad thing. Isolation during the pandemic has given Pérez an unprecedented opportunity to explore what gender means to them.
Not long ago, tucked away in their Bay Area home, Pérez, a Columbia College sophomore, was fervently questioning their gender identity. They had never given their gender much thought before the pandemic, although a general unease about their masculinity underscored their daily life. They came out as gay in high school and, eventually, gender-nonconforming but ultimately left it at that. That changed when a partner posed a critical question just before Columbia students were sent away from campus in March 2020: “Dude, are you nonbinary?” With that question reverberating in their head, they spent isolation “spiraling” for months: reading, thinking, and talking about gender.
Pérez rehashed the dysphoria—feelings of incongruity with one’s gender—that, as they came to realize, punctuated many of their memories as a gay man. They remember that “I had never really felt comfortable in gay male spaces ever, especially white gay male spaces … and I had never understood why … but at that moment I was starting to think, ‘Wait, maybe it’s because I am not white, not gay, not a man.”
The reflection culminated in a total self-reappraisal. Pérez, now back in New York City, identifies as nonbinary and prefers to be referred to with they and them pronouns. A nonbinary identity, to them, means that their gender encompasses “everything and nothing.” They cite the pandemic as a major factor in their transition.
Pérez is not the only person who has challenged their understanding of gender during the pandemic. Even in isolation, Pérez realized they were not alone in their experience. “As I was parsing through these parts of myself, I noticed that everybody was doing so. If you would go back into my finsta around that time, I would post something related to my gender identity … and literally half of my friends would say ‘You’re not the only one feeling this. I’m feeling the exact same way,’” they say.
If the pandemic year could be summed up in one word, “reappraisal,” “reckoning,” “reinvention,” and “revelation” would all be strong contenders. For many people on my social media feeds, and even myself, pandemic-induced reinvention manifested in the petty aspects of routine life: a newfound dedication to the art of sourdough, a sudden urge to cut bangs, a never-before-felt disapproval of mostly B-list celebrities singing “Imagine.”
This sense of renewal seems to have manifested in bigger ways, too. As the year dragged on and Americans repeatedly confronted the nation’s systemic flaws, my social media feeds flooded with criticism aimed at oppressive structures that uphold normative American culture. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the consequent Black Lives Matter protests around the nation, critiques of racial injustice and class inequality flooded my feeds. During the summer, it seemed that the people in my digital bubbles were all at once recognizing the systemic flaws of present-day society. One of those flaws happened to be traditional conceptions of gender. Tiktoks and Instagram infographics critiquing gender norms and their harmful consequences captured widespread attention. The people on my social media timelines seemed to be realizing the harmful implications of society’s genderedness and finding ways to subvert them. Although what I was seeing may have been the result of clever algorithms on social media, I could not shake the feeling that perhaps many of us were edging closer and closer to the brink of an irreversible reconceptualization of our gendered selves—in part because of isolation.
There is no telling how many people transitioned to new gender identities during, or as a result of, this period of pandemic-induced social isolation. At present, coverage of the topic is sparse and relies on only a few narratives at a time, but several Columbia students who transitioned during the pandemic credited isolation in their stories.
Joan Tate, a Columbia College junior and transgender woman, had an experience similar to Pérez. Tate knew that she was trans before the pandemic, but she had not taken steps toward transitioning. After returning to her hometown in Virginia last March, she knew that life would not return to normal anytime soon, so she wanted to use her time in isolation to devise a coming out plan. “I kept to myself; I went for a lot of walks. I hung out in a graveyard a lot ‘cause I’m a poet, and I just read a lot. I gathered myself, and I read a lot of resources online,” she says. “I looked at what the trans community has to say about coming out and just prepared and took my time.” During isolation, she began to present as the woman she wanted to be. She chose the name “Joan” after Joan of Arc, came out to her family on May 30, the saint’s Feast Day, and began hormone replacement therapy, a critical step towards physical transition.
While isolation gave usually busy or distracted students like Tate the valuable time to contemplate their gender identity, experts speculate that isolation also radically changed the way that many could conceive of gender in the first place. This hearkens back to the idea of gender performativity, a concept coined and popularized by Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble. According to Butler, “The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality.”
In plain English: People become gendered only by seeing and being seen, and one’s presence in social contexts—most contexts—motivates and perpetuates gendered behavior. “Act this way, not that way, if you want to be feminine. Act that way and not this way if you want to be masculine.” Widespread lockdowns and stay-at-home orders during the pandemic largely disrupted “normal” modes of socialization that performance depends upon. So, the pandemic has left some people wondering who they are when nobody is around to witness them.
When Columbia students were sent home last March, they were not only rushed away from their friends but also from the gendered expectations that dictate collegiate life. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, found the isolation liberating. For the first time, they felt free to try new modes of gender expression. Over the summer months, they spent nights experimenting with more feminine presentations. “I started to sometimes go into the bathroom late at night and try to make my face and head look like a woman’s with my mom’s jewelry, and I was doing that basically every night,” they say. Before that moment, the student remembers that they had only thought of themself “more or less as a straight man up until July” of 2020. Experimenting with femininity for the first time changed something for them. “I tried on one of my mom’s dresses, and I was just dumbstruck by how much I liked it and how fitting it was,” they say.
Although the isolation gave students the space to explore their identities in relative solitude, life moving entirely online also altered the social landscape. During the pandemic’s initial wave in the United States, online platforms became an important stage for Noa Weiss, a Barnard senior, while he was actively exploring his gender identity.
Weiss came out as a transgender man via email to mentors and professors, and he used Instagram to share the news with friends. Navigating his transition and coming out process online helped insulate him from potential adverse consequences. “I didn’t have a lot of outside things to worry about … like: ‘If I come out to this person, and they talk to this other person, am I going to have to deal with it,’” he says.
Generally, though, the Internet and social media provided people with a space to connect and build community with one another. Creators like Fran Tirado (@fransquishco on Instagram) and Monét X Change, a drag queen who runs a podcast called “Sibling Rivalry,” hosted conversations about gender during the pandemic, which helped give Pérez access to different ideas about their own identity. Pérez also found the online “ballroom” community and was exposed to entirely new ways to play with gender. This ultimately opened more doors for their own self-expression.
Weiss found different transgender men online who were transitioning in both “conventional” and “unconventional” ways. Some trans men decided to get “top surgery,” a procedure that removes their breasts, while others did not. Some decided to undergo hormone replacement therapy in order to present as more masculine in their day-to-day lives while others did not. Either way, their audiences were supportive. Regardless of how they transitioned, these trans people, their unfiltered stories, and the online communities celebrating them represented to Weiss the vast possibilities available for his own transition. Most importantly, the representation of transgender narratives on social media and the broader Internet gave him hope for his own future as a transgender individual in the world.
“Seeing trans people living their lives without adversity, it’s just really liberating. It makes you think that maybe it can exist in the real world,” he says.
Transgender and nonbinary people are more visible than ever. Elliot Page recently graced the cover of Time magazine this year and credited, in part, isolation as a formative time for discovering his trans identity. Page’s story, like those of Pérez, Tate, and Weiss, points to a growing awareness of and discomfort with normative conceptions of gender. For these three students, personal shifts in gender identity during the pandemic triggered a shift in their general conceptions of gender. All three agree that gender is what you make of it.
“Nowadays gender and sexuality feel like something that’s much less rigid, much less defined … less important to who I am. The more I get into being trans, the more I realize how little it matters to me—what other people kind of see me as—'cause it’s very self-affirming. It’s all about my own internal struggle,” Tate says. “And if I can define that for myself, I don’t need anyone else to really tell me if I’m valid or not.”
These revelations, and the pushback against traditional, constrictive conceptions of gender that they represent, are certainly a welcome change. But, given their contingency on the pandemic, it is unclear whether these ways of reconceiving gender will stick once society emerges post-pandemic. The implications of non-normative gender identities are often undesirable and sometimes dangerous in the public world. Tate remembers how those long, contemplative walks in her hometown were punctuated by cars whizzing past her—calls of “faggot” slapping her like mud kicked up from the tires. Pérez recalls the frustration of waiting for their mother to understand their nonbinary identity. When asked to talk about how his parents reacted to his transition, Weiss politely, tellingly, declines.
The prospect of returning to normative social spaces after COVID-19 is not entirely relieving for students like Pérez, Weiss, and Tate. For Tate, the prospect of a post-COVID-19 existence triggers anxiety. She worries about how she will be perceived by others as an out trans woman: “Do I pass? Am I pretty enough? Do my outfits work?” However, she remains hopeful, knowing that the comfort of finally being in touch with herself outweighs the discomfort of not knowing how the world will receive her.
“I’m excited to go out as myself because I’ll finally be out as who I’ve wanted to be. And that can be uncomfortable or dangerous with rhetoric how it is in the world, but it’s certainly far more comfortable than being who I was told I should be.”
Weiss is confident about navigating the world after COVID-19. “I think the time in quarantine allowed me to build up my confidence and resilience in my identity, so now going out in the world and getting gendered/misgendered doesn’t matter as much,” he shares in a text message. Pérez knows that “people will always have their opinions so when it comes to my identity and how I express it, I don’t really need to worry about what anyone thinks besides me.”
The world maintains its reservations toward transgender individuals, and the Columbia community is still making gains in understanding members of the trans community. As life begins to return to normal, time will tell if reconceptualizations of gender will remain part of the post-pandemic landscape.
Enjoy leafing through our Eighth Issue!