Trans During a Plague: The Pitfalls and Unexpected Positives of Pandemic Life

For some in L.A.’s trans and gender-nonconforming community, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity. For others, it complicated an already fraught experience

For Jordyn Rose, face masks have been a godsend.

In August of 2020, Rose went under the knife for facial feminization surgery through the Transgender Surgery and Health program at Cedars Sinai. She’d been waiting years for the procedure, but her post-surgery visage came as a shock.

“I looked at my face in the mirror at the hospital and I could have had a stroke,” she says. “I was swollen, black and blue, with staples and stitches everywhere. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I have made my life way worse than it needs to be.’”

For weeks after, Rose refused to look at her face, which doctors told her would take time to heal. She already had a complicated relationship with her appearance: born trans, she’d spent years feeling guilt and shame about her identity.

But face coverings provided her with a socially acceptable invisibility cloak. “I feel like the luckiest trans woman in the world to have gone through my transition while everyone was still wearing a mask,” she says. “I honestly have some anxiety about going into a world where we’re not wearing masks.”

jordyn rose
For Jordyn Rose, masks were a welcome “invisibility cloak” during the pandemic.

Jonathan Lavallee

Rose isn’t alone. As L.A. County further reopens, some trans folks are taking stock of the past year and finding reasons to be thankful for lockdown. For those who were fortunate enough to be housed in safe environments, 2020 has offered an unprecedented opportunity to explore their gender identity away from the prying eyes of the public.

“Some people are really flourishing” says Ash Nichols, a program manager at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Trans*Lounge, where programming has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic.

Quarantine has nudged some trans folks to more fully embrace their authentic gender expression, Nichols says, while universal mask orders have made it easier for others to walk down the street undisturbed.

But the pandemic’s effect on the trans community, like its effect on the broader public, has been wildly unequal. While some have found freedom in isolation, others have found themselves stuck all year living with Fox News-obsessives hostile to their very humanity. Zoom has made it easier for some to connect with strangers around the world, while also heightening gender dysphoria for others. And many medical procedures have had to be either postponed or bumped ahead, adding additional tumult to a process that’s already emotionally taxing.

“Seeing people from all over the world in our online programming just drives home the fact that the struggle is the same everywhere,” says Gina Bigham, another program manager at the Trans*Lounge. “Not only are we dealing with the pandemic but we’re dealing with our authenticity, our identity, our visibility, our access to healthcare… and we’re under political assault.”

The Trans*Lounge, founded in 2015, has offered members a diverse slate of Zoom sessions over the past year, including poetry readings, trans history seminars, memoir workshops, and cooking classes.

The virtual nature of their programming has been beneficial to those not fully out: some members call into Zoom meetings from their cars or communicate exclusively via text. “A lot of younger people are like, ‘I don’t want to be perceived!’” says Nichols.

But while the Lounge tries to pair up roommates, especially locally, Nichols and Bigham are hamstrung in their efforts to provide housing to members in unsafe living situations. Sometimes the trans people who write to them are on the brink of being thrown out of their homes by transphobic relatives or roommates. “There are no housing resources for anyone nowadays, let alone someone who’s trans,” says Bigham. “It’s a very real situation.”

According to The Washington Post, calls to Trans Lifeline, a crisis telephone service staffed by trans folks, rose 40 percent during the pandemic. Murders of trans people have also spiked—44 people in the U.S. were killed in 2020, the most violent year since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking those crimes in 2013.

While some may associate transphobia with red states, it’s a very real phenomenon in L.A.

Paul Pescador, a visual artist based in West L.A., says they’ve welcomed the isolation of the pandemic, which has given them space to heal. But being in public? That’s another story. “People have verbally attacked me on the street, they’ve thrown things at me, someone tried to hit me with their car,” they say. “I’m not sure if it’s the tensions around the pandemic or political anxieties, but I feel like there’s been way more surveying over the past year and I’ve had a lot more instances where I’ve felt unsafe.” They now travel with a stun gun tucked into their fanny pack in case of confrontations with neighbors.

Mase*, a trans man who lives in the Valley, transitioned during COVID, which meant spending weeks recuperating from bottom surgery alone in his apartment. “It was really hard,” he says. “I know I shouldn’t have been on my own, but that was the only option.” He carried his own groceries and managed post-surgery care by himself because his roommates were gone and he wasn’t cleared by doctors to convalesce with his parents in Utah.

Still, the pandemic offered certain comforts: the PPE required by his job gave him an excuse to use a stall instead of a urinal, and he was able to join a virtual queer gym that offered workout classes like “burlesque dance” and “the anti-fascist fight club.”

That’s not to say he’s always felt safe. Mase works at a COVID testing site where he’s had to keep a low profile to avoid uncomfortable or ignorant questions about his identity. “People still don’t see being trans as a real thing,” he says. When the 2020 election was getting underway, he overheard coworkers saying that trans people shouldn’t exist. “That was really scary,” he says. “I tried to advocate but I didn’t want to be out. I just didn’t want to deal with them.”

For others, the forced isolation gave them time to ruminate on past traumatic episodes. T. Bloom, who works in marketing for a local perfumer, says they were thankful lockdown afforded them an opportunity to “hide a little bit”: the pandemic hit right after they’d been humiliated while vacationing in New Orleans. As Bloom tells it, after leaving their Airbnb for breakfast with their partner, they’d returned to find their belongings strewn across the lawn. Apparently, their host thought a new guest had checked into their room early, so she’d chucked Bloom’s jewelry, perfume, and clothes out the window.

“I had to explain to her, ‘I am that woman,’” says Bloom. “And it took a few passes for those words to connect. It was one of the first times I realized there were all sorts of really simple mistakes other people could make that would cost me big.” For weeks after, suitcases showed up in Bloom’s nightmares.

tom blunt
Tom Blunt had a bad experience on a vacation to New Orleans

Courtesy T. Bloom

By the time Bloom and their partner made it back to L.A., everything had shut down and the supermarkets felt apocalyptic. But Bloom appreciated certain things about lockdown: “To not have your face exposed is really interesting because people fill things in with their own imagination,” Bloom says. “I’ve gotten a few ‘ma’ams’ at Target when I’m all dressed up and my face is covered. I don’t aspire to be a man or a woman, so it feels really wonderful to just operate in a kind of mystery area.”

Bloom was also able to keep up with their electrolysis throughout the pandemic, which has always felt essential to them. “I’m not changing my body in a way a lot of people can see or appreciate, but it’s something that I can feel, and it weirdly scratches an important mental itch.”

But while Bloom has been able to keep their job, and has found strength in their relationship, they say many of their friends have fallen apart over the past year. “I’ve kept this worry list of people I’m actively worried about,” they say. “If they start doing better, I put them on the passive worry list.”

“I feel like I’ve just been running around trying to scoop all the baby ducklings out of the incinerator,” they add.

* Name has been changed

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