Exploring Gender and Sexuality in This Period of Universal Isolation

The quarantine has been an avenue for self-reflection for many, and for some, it has become a turning point to discovering their identity.

Stuck at home, we’ve all been given this rare opportunity to sit with just our thoughts for hours on end. For those who’ve endured years repressing their own identity, it’s led them to ask themselves the big questions they may have never gotten the chance to ask before.

As told by sex columnist Anna Pulley of the Chicago Tribune, “Now that we are largely stuck in our homes, we have the space to sit — sometimes uncomfortably — with ourselves for long stretches of time, and such openness can lead to surprising places.”

With a universal sense of timelessness, all the self-isolation, quarantine, and social distancing have allowed people to step away from their usual environment and public personas. While research in this area remains limited, there are still many who have had the opportunity to question their gender identity and sexuality in this era of restricted social contact. Given such unprecedented levels of solitude, the need to repress certain aspects of the self has been diminished at the same time that self-reflection has become physically, mentally, and emotionally inescapable.

Self-Reflection Gives Leeway

Silvia M. Dutchevici, psychotherapist and founder of the Critical Therapy Center, has observed that the unusual silence brought about by the many pandemic-related lockdowns is a key ingredient to all that self-reflecting. “People discover things about themselves that they may have known all along, or were afraid to admit,” she says. Shielded from day-to-day life, people are left to confront the long-ignored parts of their brain.

This is something many from the LGBTQIA+ community go through, especially given their tendency to dissociate from certain aspects of the self. Psychological mechanisms that facilitate separating one’s identity from the rest of their persona can be effected by internalized homophobia, pressure from societal institutions, or conflicting feelings about one’s identity. It’s almost similar to tuning out background noise on a busy street. With the isolation brought about by the pandemic, these dissociated thoughts have echoed unbarred across the four walls of our rooms. Social distractions have been at a minimum as lockdown after lockdown ripped away the barriers of “normal life.”

With the forced but not necessarily unwelcome solitude, many people questioning their identity have started to rethink their preconceived notions and untangle their repressed feelings without social pressure.. This means that for individuals questioning their queerness, they are given the leeway to figure out what being queer means for them.

Dee,* who came out as bisexual during the pandemic, says it best: “It’s not something that should trouble me. It’s not something I should hold a meeting for and tackle one by one in my brain. It’s as simple as ‘I like who I like regardless of who and what they are.’” She describes herself as the “straightest person” throughout high school who always invalidated herself regardless of all her lingering crushes on girls, even after making out with people of the same sex — experiences she used to dismiss as part of a mere phase of “exploring.” Today, she has a lighter heart and an openness in her journey.

Gab* also found herself in a similar situation. Her Catholic background in an all-girls school led her to repress her feelings since childhood, even when she found her first love in a schoolmate during her sophomore year. After a series of boyfriends, breakups, and even some Bumble experimenting later on, however, she found herself alone with her thoughts in the pandemic and finally claimed the identity she’d been rejecting her whole life: a lesbian.

“I learned that, in the end, no one knows you better than you know yourself. Rather than it feeling like something new, being able to come out as who I really am after years of not realizing it felt a lot like finally remembering who I’d always been from the beginning.”

And then there were others who found themselves nudged into an identity shift even while already identifying as queer before the pandemic.

This was the case for Ree,* who, before the pandemic, found themselves overconfident in their understanding of SOGIE. For ten years, they had identified as a cis bi woman, and were already active in several gender committees and organizations. In that time, they never considered questioning that identity. The pandemic gave them the space to be introspective and to realize that they in fact identified as a nonbinary lesbian.

“I think a lot of times we feel pressure to present a certain way and act a certain way in order to fit in, and I think time spent alone in quarantine gave people the opportunity to reevaluate the motivations behind their actions and whether they actually do identify that way or it was just something they projected externally to belong in a group,” Ree says.

Finding a Community Online

A study about social media and LGBTQIA+ youth explains that identity construction is a social process, and cognitive development takes place within social arenas. This means that the social aspect cannot be separated from identity construction as individuals form a sense of self within a social situation and in relation to others.

Identities are impacted by institutional powers and are worked out in many different social arenas, including offline and online spaces. And with nonvirtual social places generally deemed as hostile environments for queer communities, online spaces provide safe alternatives with “invisible,” mostly anonymous audiences that allow one to explore their LGBTQIA+ identity. This has since been heightened in the pandemic as people were left with no choice but to turn to a digital world.

For many LGBTQIA+, it becomes a safe space to express themselves without social pressure and provides them with the chance to interact with others who understand how they feel. These virtual safe spaces allow people to decide when and where they want to communicate with others and how carefully they want to craft conversations. It is there that individuals can maintain control of their conversations and personas.

Six* experienced this during his journey to transitioning. He came to terms with his transmasculine identity and immediately went on testosterone back in late 2018, but it was only in 2020 that he focused on the mental and social aspect of transitioning. “Reaffirming yourself, using a preferred name and pronoun, presenting without being intimidated what people would say” were, to Six, some of the most challenging yet significant parts of transitioning. He later became the head of operations for a trans group, Transmasculine PH, wherein he was able to meet and interact with many other transmasc people. Today, the organization serves as a safe space for Filipino trans men and transmasculine nonbinary people.

We’ve also seen the rise of the queer side of Twitter spaces, Reddit threads, YouTube ‘Coming Out’ videos, TikTok videos, podcasts, and even a web series by drag queens as major influences for rethinking identity. For instance, “Am I a Lesbian?,” a 31-page guide written by Angeli Luz, was initially spread on Tumblr and has since gained traction on Twitter and TikTok. Its sole purpose was to help those left questioning to come to terms with who they are and untangle their lesbian identity away from the lens of compulsory heterosexuality.

The Journey Is Gradient

Each person’s journey toward realizing their identity will always be different. In a heteronormative society, coming out is a process that never ends, especially when powerful institutions continue to oppress marginalized communities like the LGBTQIA+.

“Not everyone and everything is linear. We’re gradient, different, but on the same journey of self and life discovery for peace and happiness. Humans are seriously just curious people, we want to know, and we should,” shares Six.

Beans* felt caught up about finding a label during quarantine since she never got to experience dating prepandemic. Without external stimuli to shrug off, she found herself ruminating in her thoughts a lot in lockdown. Nowadays, she’s most happy identifying as sapphic or as a WLW (woman-loving woman). “Labels for me are fine to be fluid and broader because that’s what I’m comfortable with, and it’s all hypothetical for me anyways,” she shares.

Meanwhile, John* has adopted they/them pronouns but doesn’t feel the need to put exact labels as they are still in the process of reflecting about themself. They cite their gap between graduation and job hunting for their reexamining. As they say, “There should be no rush in defining yourself. And I don’t think there’s really a right or wrong answer when coming to terms with yourself. It is a process, and for sure, the answer won’t come immediately.”

Coming out either to oneself, to close circles, or to the public are all just different degrees of materializing and claiming one’s own identity. Pandemic or not, there is no single way of coming out, and what matters is that it remains one’s own personal journey.

Many LGBTQIA+ people have found freedom in self-isolation to live their authentic sexuality and gender identities, but this isn’t the case for everyone. It’s important to note that Pride is not just about celebrating but also about providing safe spaces and a sense of community, standing in solidarity, and amplifying the call for equality for members of the community, as well as calling for justice against SOGIESC-based violence and discrimination.

Quarantine may not necessarily lead to liberation, but it has helped many to find the time and capability to focus on the things that matter to them. Especially with the level of anxiety being caused by the pandemic, reflections about what’s meaningful and genuine are bound to come up.

Staying in and coming out doesn’t take away the doubts and fears that come with this path, but the chance for solitude has at least cleared enough room for people to breathe. It has helped many LGBTQIA+ people to focus on their needs and cultivate their spaces, which will always be something to celebrate.

*Names have been changed for anonymity.

Marielle Filoteo is a 20-something writer with a penchant for pieces on life and identity, culture, and social issues while also being the biggest pop culture fiend and Stan Twitter user. She mostly spends her days listening to her favorite Kpop idols or binging a new anime.