The Highs and Lows of Gender Dysphoria in Social Isolation

On one extreme, many trans people feel more comfortable in their bodies than ever before. On the other, the dissonance between their physical appearance and gender identity has never been more acute.

For many Americans, self-isolation has already exceeded the five-week mark, and even the homebodies among us are getting stir crazy. But for trans people, being stuck inside at pretty much all times also means plenty of time to stew in our gender dysphoria — or, to totally not do that. Because for every trans person expressing frustration that quarantine is exacerbating the dissonance between their physical appearance and their gender identity, there’s another non-cis person posting about a wholly different experience: Isolation is helping them feel more comfortable in their bodies and gender expression, not less.

As my friend and fellow trans man Isaac points out, the root of these divergent responses to isolation might be that we’re all thinking about our bodies — and our health — more than usual. An archivist and novelist in the Bay Area, he describes what he’s been experiencing as “shut-in dysphoria.” “It’s a time when you’re alone with your body, and you’re thinking of your body as something vulnerable and precarious — something that might kill you, something slightly alien,” he says. “That’s honestly pretty close to what dysphoria feels like; the two feelings are cousins.”

All this time alone is having a similarly significant impact on Jay, a librarian isolating in New England. “I live alone, and you’d think I’d stop focusing so much on dysphoria because I wouldn’t be constantly worried about how other people perceive me. But it’s almost the opposite. It’s only myself, and [there’s] nobody to snap me out of it,” he tells me. For him, the absence of other human interaction means “there’s nothing for me to clock myself against, or yearn after.”

“I have dysphoria when I’m getting ready in the morning and can see myself in my mirrors,” Jay continues. “I have this image in my head I compare myself against. I don’t think about it so much when I’m actually at work because I’m a librarian and most of my coworkers are women, and I’ve never been misgendered once by them. I feel sort of silly, needing reassurance from others, but sometimes it acts as enough proof that it’s all working. And I’m not really getting that.”

A lot of this is probably to be expected. What’s more surprising, though, is that the same social-distancing conditions are apparently the very things that relieve dysphoria in others. “I simply haven’t been ‘excuse me, ma’am’-ed in almost a month, or had to pretend to look ‘professional,’ and wow, what a treat!” exclaims Julian, who’s currently isolating with their husband in Massachusetts. “It’s hard to quantify, but let’s say it’s cut the dysphoria in about half.”

Julian says that prior to shelter-in-place orders, “On a normal day, even when I’m dressed very masculine or whatever, people are just so weird, and I get misgendered constantly.” But now: “I’m enjoying my long hair a lot more! All the boys shaving their heads are fools. I get to put on my skin-tight pink jeans and put up my scrappy bun when I want, and there are zero comments from strangers.”

The lack of pressure, or perceived pressure, to “correctly” display their gender is a common thread among many of the trans folks who are experiencing less dysphoria while social distancing. Iris, who lives in New York City and happens to be my roommate’s partner, says they feel that relief acutely. “Before all this started, I felt pressure to project and present my gender to the world around me. When I couldn’t make that line up or when I didn’t have the energy to do that, the dysphoria would really fuck with me,” they say. “Despite all the ‘You can look however you want to!’ positivity out there, there’s still the very real fact that, in my experience at least, folks will invalidate your gender by using your presentation as ‘evidence,’ even if it’s unconscious. So it’s been really interesting to see just how much the pressure of outside perception influences my levels of dysphoria.”

Relieved of most interpersonal interaction not happening over a webcam, Matthew, a student in California, has been experiencing a virtuous cycle of positive self-perception. “Ninety percent of my dysphoria comes from being observed by other people, and with Zoom calls, I can position the camera so I don’t have to see my chest,” he tells me. “Because I haven’t had to wear my binder, my ribs aren’t hurting so I’m not thinking about my chest, and because I’m not out and about, I’m not thinking about getting dressed while I shower so I’m less dysphoric.”

Overall, Matthew has developed a new relationship to his physical form in isolation. “I’ve spent so much time enjoying a body I had thought was inhospitable to me. Turns out, it’s not! Turns out, it’s having a body that’s moving through observable space, but space without observation is fine,” he explains.

Like the coronavirus itself, the causes of fluctuating gender dysphoria in self-administered quarantine are the same across the board, while the symptoms manifest differently from person to person. Also like COVID-19 (not to torture the comparison further), there’s no apparent cure for those whose dysphoria is worsened by isolation, except perhaps reducing the isolation — by, for example, hopping on a video call with some other trans people. 

Another Julian — this one a student in Southern California — tells me, “I’m more connected to my trans friends now, which helps a lot,” he says. “Making friends with other trans people, especially transmasc people, helps me feel like I’m recognized in the way I want. It’s a way of more fully inhabiting my gender to me, as strange as it sounds.”

Maybe, then, the only good thing to come out of all of this is the friends we made along the way.