Affirming, reevaluating, and reimagining gender performance and identity in the time of COVID-19

Features

Six gender-diverse people discuss the relationship between identity and the pandemic 

pronouns photo
Photo via Pixabay by Sharon McCutcheon.

In her famous work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler writes, “there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” In other words, Butler identifies that above all else, gender is a performance. But what happens when suddenly we have no one to perform to?

During the isolation of the pandemic, people have been able to take a break from the constant demands of social gender performance. For some, this let them step back and take a unique opportunity to reevaluate their own gender and gender expression. For others, it affirmed a gender nonconforming identity that they had discovered before the pandemic.

The Martlet spoke with six individuals that have felt that the isolation of COVID-19 helped them experiment with, rethink, or strengthen their gender identity. Some found that this alone time gave them ample opportunity to explore their gender expression in a safe space, while others explored their relationship to larger online communities or gained a deeper understanding of the relationship between race and gender. 

Though their experiences varied, the people the Martlet spoke to found the isolation of the pandemic to be a catalyst for self-reflection. The opinions presented here are not wholly representative of trans, nonbinary, or gender questioning experiences during the pandemic or at any time.

Self-isolation with me, myself, and I

The complete absence of physically interacting with others meant that Elliot Mears could reexamine their long gender journey. Mears (they/he) is an artist and a trans man who has further explored the fluidity of their gender identity during the pandemic.

“I identify outside of the colonial binary that’s been forced upon us,” they said. “However, I am very comfortable in a male physicality and a male role. So that’s sort of where my gender is sitting right now.”

Last year, after coming out as a trans man, Mears settled on he/him pronouns and the idea of becoming a man, in large part to ease their medical transition. They thought at that time that they wanted to fit in as a white cis man — the “true neutral” in our society.

However, the pandemic afforded a sort of social safety net because they didn’t have to be regularly perceived by the world and try to fit themselves in non-inclusive spaces, like public buildings without gender-neutral bathrooms.

“Being able to not think about what gendered space I’m entering is such a lift,” they said.”I’m no longer a boy [or] girl. I’m just Elliot going to the bathroom.”

In the spring they even started ordering groceries to avoid leaving home at all, but continued playing around with their appearance. 

“My gender is part of my art, because my art is part of my being. So I like to express, I like to perform, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I want people to see,” they said.

The isolation period allowed Mears to, “literally just sit, and not police myself, and just allow whatever intuitive things come up. I can wake up and if I wanna run around in a skirt in the house, I can. If I wanna wear pants, I can, and it doesn’t have any effects. It’s cool.”

Mears found this freedom helped them distance themselves even further from binary ideas of gender. “I hate feeling like I have to be one way or another. I hate feeling like things are good or they’re bad, or they’re boy or they’re girl. So when I perform stuff it just helps destroy the binary that’s been ingrained in me.”

Likewise, Makaila Wenezenki found that the intense period of isolation led them to realize new parts of their identity. Wenezenki (they/she) is a genderqueer settler of European ancestry currently pursuing a Master of Community and Regional Planning at UBC.

“I always flirted with the idea of my gender being a little bit different,” said Wenezenki, who identified as gender questioning pre-pandemic.

While being entirely isolated, Wenezenki started a new university program and has had the opportunity to rethink how they want to be perceived by new acquaintances. They said that reintroducing themselves in online settings has changed how they see themselves.

Around September, their visual identity became more important to them, and they began unboxing some gender norms they realized they had been internalizing. Wenezenki began a streak of small body modifications, including new piercings and tattoos.

“Even though sometimes it looks very similar to before the pandemic, it still feels like a reaffirmation of my identity,” they said. “These modifications could appear to align with cis-gendered roles of being assigned female at birth. But, for me it felt like a very genderqueer moment.”

Wenezenki attributes isolation to much of their re-evaluated gender identity. They were surrounded by a queer community pre-pandemic and felt freed from gender norms. However, once they were separated from anyone’s outside eye, they “started realizing what me means.”

Gender expression in a time of isolation and masks

Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

For others, the period of isolation allowed the freedom to explore their biological sex (eg. male, female, or any variation of intersex), which is separate from gender. Gender identity refers to how someone feels inside (eg. woman, nonbinary, nonconforming, trans, etc.), while gender expression is how someone performs their identity and usually relies on traditional indicators of femininity, masculinity, androgyneity, etc. Sexual orientation is also separate from all of these, and indicates who someone may be sexually or romantically attracted to.

Gord Gordon is a 71-year-old former UVic graduate physics student that used the stay-at-home orders and mask mandates to experiment with growing out his facial hair and dressing how he wanted to for the first time.

Gordon began to grow facial hair in his 40s, but quickly shaved it away. Before the pandemic he didn’t know whether he would just sprout a few scraggly hairs, or much more.

He discovered a whole beard, and liked what he saw in the mirror. “Once you come out like that it’s like a snowball going down the hill, it’s all or nothing. So I thought to myself, it’s time to come out.”

The pandemic has also allowed Gordon to reintroduce himself to people over the phone, and at his own pace. “When you see people all the time it’s hard to one day come in the office or something and say ‘oh hey, call me mister,’” he said. 

Gordon grew up in a time where social attitudes and gender norms were more explicitly enforced than they are now. In the 60’s, he remembers that women could dress androgynously on college campuses, but were not allowed in certain athletic clubs unless they wore a skirt. So when the time came to attend a function at the New York City Athletic Club, he was forced to buy articles of clothing that weren’t previously a part of his wardrobe. “I guess I never wanted to make waves. I just wanted to fit in,” he said. 

It was only in March 2020 that he found what made him most comfortable.

“It’s very late in my life to be doing this, but I certainly applaud the younger people who know what they want and they say it,” said Gordon. “I certainly envy youth, that pretty much have their whole life ahead of them […] where they don’t have to feel like I did, that I don’t fit in.”

Similar to Gordon, Caroline Allen, a graduate student at UVic, found the isolation gave room for her to explore the relationship between sex, gender, and sexual orientation in a safe and personal environment.

“The more I become comfortable with my sexuality, I become more aware of how I idenitfy with different parts of dyke and lesbian culture, [and] I become more aware of how that estranges me in ways from mainstream womanhood,” said Allen.

Allen has an endocrine disorder that gives her the ability to grow facial hair. Though she never felt comfortable enough to grow out her beard, she had always dreamed of moving out into the woods for a few months so she could grow it out. 

“Within the first week that the pandemic was declared I said, ‘okay, now’s my chance, I’m growing my beard!” 

Allen ended up growing out her facial hair for six to seven weeks in the heart of the pandemic but removed it when things began to open up again.

“It felt more like an outward declaration of a feeling I already had that I am [away] from that standard definition of womanhood […] the privacy of the pandemic gave me the opportunity to explore and to meet that part of myself in a less threatening way, on my own terms,” she said. 

Allen’s and Gordon’s stories demonstrate how often the exploration of one’s gender expression is less a struggle within the individual and more a commentary on the restrictive gender norms perpetuated in our society.  For both, the time of isolation let them take a break from social prescriptions to be themselves.

The intersections of gender, race, and privilege

The pandemic provided a rare combination of privileges that allowed Haneen Ghebari to consider their gender identity for the first time, and how it is inextricably connected to other parts of their identity.

Ghebari is a fifth-year geography student of Lebanese and Palestinian descent, who began to explore the relationship and tensions between their race and gender during the pandemic.

The pandemic provided an unusual time in Ghebari’s life where they were unemployed, not living with family members, financially stable due to government financial support, and had much more time on their hands than usual. This unique situation gave them the opportunity to think more about their gender.

“Gender for me right now, doesn’t feel like it’s in the binary anymore,” they said. “It’s given me a lot of possibility to think about what a gender-fluid world looks like.”

Ghebari has spent so much time understanding their racial identity that it seemed hard to reconcile that they were potentially nonbinary and also a person of colour. “There was never really a community that I could access here in Victoria,” they said, referencing the 13.68 per cent BIPOC population counted in the 2016 census, and the even smaller percentage of racialized queer, nonbinary, or trans people.

Ghebari is yearning to explore what gender looked like in pre-colonial Lebanon and Palestine, and what gender could look like outside of an Islamic lens. “There’s a lot of internalized colonialism within our cultures and it’s not like we invented that, but we have to inherit that in a very violent way.”

“It’s gonna be tough for me, because that’s just how colonialism works. This is how patriarchy works — to withhold the cultural understandings and cultural embodiments of the plethora of genders that my ancestors have been.”

After the explosion in Beirut last August, Ghebari met a group of Lebanese/Arab queer people residing in Victoria. It opened up a novel opportunity for Ghebari to understand their gender and sexual orientation in the context of their body and racial background.

“To me, this community really helped me just, take a breath. And be like, ‘I’m not alone.’”

For Ghebari, a crucial part of understanding their own gender is to be on their ancestral land. “That will be liberating not only for me, but for the land and for my community.” 

However, there has been significant and ongoing damage and conflict on their homelands. “My diaspora is deeply rooted in my inability to have the right to return home. And that in many ways is symbolic of my inability to return home in my own gender.”

Mears says that colonization and capitalism can enforce and benefit from a rigid gender binary. 

“[Gender is] a personal journey that has been taken away from people, because there is a lot of power in it,” Mears said. “But it requires a lot of time, and introspection, and the reality is that time and introspection do not lend itself to our capitalist economy.”

A new virtual reality

Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

The pandemic’s arrival meant a rapid transition to an online life. Pre-existing virtual communities were strengthened, and new ones were created for people exploring new faucets of their identity.

For Toni Scott, a former student at UVic, his sense of trans-masculine non-binary identity didn’t change over the course of the pandemic, but he found the time useful for becoming more comfortable with his trans-mascuinity.

The internet, specifically Youtube, allowed Scott to access a larger community of people who have shared similar experiences to him, while also helping educate him on the complex world of sex and gender. 

“You can experience much more of the LGBT community, and especially the trans and non-binary community, that is currently on the internet.” Scott believes that the isolation of COVID-19 has led to people more actively engaging with just such communities. 

“[People are] exposed to more people on the internet because they are not just in classrooms or jobs,” he said. “It’s kind of odd how previously isolated it is to be in a small town or isolated community and when you’re on the internet you have all these other experiences and things you’re exposed to.”

In the online communities that Scott discusses, memes about gender reevaluation during COVID-19 have become widespread.

“Memes mean that it is a bigger thing because that’s very accessible content that reaches a wide range of people,” said Mears. “And you can look at the shares alone and that tells you how many people are identifying with that.”

Memes are units of culture that’s very purpose is to be shared. By looking at the prevalence of memes surrounding gender reevaluation in COVID-19, Mears has a quantifiable indicator of being a part of a larger community. 

As much as internet culture has provided some with the feeling that they are not alone, others still crave those in-person connections. 

Although the isolation period originally provided Gordon the freedom to come out, he is missing the chance to connect with new people. On top of provincial restrictions, Gordon lives in the rural community of Sooke and does not use the internet very much. He is very much looking forward to meeting other trans and queer people post-pandemic.

Whether exploring different methods of gender expression, or rethinking the labels we use to identify ourselves, COVID-19 has allowed many people the freedom to consider their own gender while there are no eyes on them.

As well, the jump to online connections and virtual communities may provide safe and knowledgeable spaces for even more people to explore their gender identity and find support along the way.

“The opportunity to spend a lot of time alone with yourself and face yourself without distractions […] is a very rare, once-in-a-lifetime experience that we all collectively [got to have].” said Allen. 

The writers would like to thank all the interviewees for their time and their truth.