This is America: Gender expression in a socially distanced world

Have you learned a lot about yourself during the pandemic? Thought deeply about what it means to spend time with yourself, distraction-free?

For some in the LGBTQ community, the pandemic is allowing for more introspection than ever before. Our newly distanced world means trans, nonbinary and genderqueer people are likely to have more space to experiment with gender expression, free from the pressure of others' watching eyes.

It's worth taking a pause to ask: Who am I, when my audience is only me?

I'm Claire Thornton, an audio editor at USA TODAY, and you're reading "This Is America," a newsletter about race, identity and how they shape our lives.

A note before we get started: People who are trans, nonbinary and genderqueer fall under the "T" and "Q," in LGBTQ. These letters refer to the gender a person identifies with and how they express their gender. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

In a year when so much has been stripped away, many are finding it's easier to be honest with themselves in a brand new way. And if you're grappling with gender expression for the first time during the pandemic, I'm here to tell you that you're not alone.

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Important news from the past week, from USA TODAY and other news sources.

Personal identity in a socially distanced world

As a queer person, I've thought about my gender presentation a lot, both before and during the pandemic.

In 2019, I got a short pixie cut. During the pandemic, I went even shorter, with a faded undercut.

Reporter Claire Thornton shows off the new undercut.
Reporter Claire Thornton shows off the new undercut.

Gender identity means being a man or woman, a boy or girl — or some combination or neither (called "nonbinary").

Gender expression is how you show it. "Gender expression is a public communication of your gender identity," said Julie Woulfe, a psychologist who cowrote "The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Transgender and nonbinary Community."

But what does "public communication" mean in a year of social distancing?

Working in person with coworkers, physically attending classes at school or even riding the subway are all public activities that many of us are no longer doing on the regular. While the activities are mundane, the decisions of gender expression in these spaces could be deliberate.

Woulfe and her cowriter Melina Wald, both of Columbia University, told me that trans and enby (that's another word for nonbinary) people they work with have experienced newfound freedom from the removal of social pressures surrounding gender expression.

For better or worse, many of us only see fragments of our coworkers and classmates in brief intervals over Zoom.

What has that meant for me? My faded undercut is bolder and well, more queer, in 2020. If we were all working in person, maybe I wouldn't have made as bold a change.

Sometimes, I don't feel feminine enough to be a "she" at all, and during the pandemic a few of the people I'm closest with started using the gender-neutral pronouns "they" and "them" to refer to me.

It feels different and, well, really good to embrace gender as much or as little as I want to – on my own terms.

Some young trans and nonbinary people say lockdowns feel like a 'break'

The pandemic has given many trans and nonbinary people a chance to experiment with gender expression or begin hormone therapy at home "without having to worry about how others may respond," Woulfe and Wald write.

Pandemic social norms are also giving these people confidence to come out to their friends and family, they say.

As one tweet from August said: "The amount of (people) coming (to) terms (with) gender identity over lockdown really proves how social interaction is inseparable from gender performance like ... the moment (you're) isolated from constant promotion of gendered behaviour (you) have the space to question what it even means for (you)."

One twenty-something friend of mine started growing out his hair, shaving his legs and knuckles and wearing nail polish during the pandemic. He said he's flirting with the idea of wearing dresses.

His family is thousands of miles away in Chile. With the pandemic's travel restrictions, he doesn't have to worry about seeing his parents anytime too soon. He told me he has temporary reprieve from cultural norms.

Not every pandemic experience is the same

This space I'm describing is one that requires the privilege of living alone or among allies, and also requires a job that can be done remotely. These, I know, are big requirements. And they only reflect some experiences.

If you're new to this space, a word of advice: Honest introspection is key. Unfortunately, that can be hard.

When you wake up in the morning, ask yourself: Do I feel like a woman? Do I feel like a man? Do I feel like a little of both? Whatever you feel is the true answer, well, that's your gender identity. What's more, it can change on any given day.

There is no right answer.

And even if you're in a safe mental and physical space to explore gender identity in an empowering way, there are still nuances: My Chilean friend told me that his desire to appear more feminine can manifest negatively. When he looks in the mirror now, he said he wishes he were skinnier and that his 6-foot-tall body could shrink. (I mean, raise your hand if you're a woman and you've been personally victimized by the pressure to lose weight?)

My hope is that when we all get out of this pandemic and can see each other fully, we're more open-minded and inclusive – with ourselves, with those we love, and with strangers in the public world, because policing gender hurts every body.


This is America is a weekly take on current events from a rotating panel of USA TODAY Network journalists with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. If you're seeing this newsletter online or someone forwarded it to you, you can sign up here. If you have feedback for us, we'd love for you to drop it here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gender expression in a socially distanced world: This is America