Coming out in isolation

Text by Jo Comuyog

COVID-19 is redefining coming out.

The pandemic is deeply informing the experiences of those going through this already-complex process of realization and self-expression, especially in a country with little protection for the LGBTQIA+ community.

As enforced lockdowns diminish access to social support networks, sexual and gender minorities face increased barriers to identity-affirming care and support.

“Isolation isn’t just brought about by the pandemic — but many LGBTQ+ people are socially isolated even before they come to terms with who they are,” says Dr. Mikee Inton-Campbell, a trans academic and activist.

The pandemic has amplified preexisting issues of the community, such as discrimination, lack of safe spaces, domestic abuse, hate speech and attacks, Bela Rivera of UP Babaylan says.

For those recently coming to terms with their identity, COVID-19 is a double-edged sword.

Newly-out and proud

“The pandemic might be the biggest reason I was able to come to this conclusion for myself,” says Andi Mencias, a sports writer, radio jock and podcaster. Adopting the pronoun “they/them,” Andi came out as transgender and nonbinary in the early days of lockdown.

For Andi the time alone was a gift. “The extra space to myself allowed me to consider these feelings as more than just passing thoughts, the way I’d always chalked them up to be.”

Dr. Julienne Baldo-Cubelo, a communication and gender studies scholar, attributes this to the “inwardness” the pandemic brings us. 

“Mayroong pakikipag-one-on-one sa mga truths na marahil nung una ay peripheral, masyadong intimate o ilan lang ang may alam. Pero, at this point, mayroong force that is coming [from] the interior life of one’s person,” she says. 

Prior to the pandemic, Andi faced a month-long stretch of self-reflection following a foot injury and the end of a relationship with a partner who also began to question her sexuality. 

The injury caused them to miss school, wrestling training and sports coverage for two weeks. “It was a lot of self-reflection about what my body and identity mean to me that led to me reflecting on the small things I’ve [known] about myself for a long time.”

From a young age, Andi had always felt detached from their assigned gender. 

“Being a boy was something that I always felt uncomfortable with — not just in a gender roles way, but in a very visceral bodily way,” they say. “In my more private spaces, my being a boy always felt like something I took off, and that my boyhood and my penis were just disposable.”

The early unease was similar for Franki, a college student, “This would happen a lot in my childhood: a few times too often, I would look in the mirror and go, ‘I don’t know if that’s what I am though.’ I couldn’t look in the mirror and say that was a girl. I couldn’t say that’s a boy either.”

They always had “the lingering thought” and questioned their gender identity sporadically throughout grade school and high school. Franki came out as nonbinary in September.

The realization was spurred by a counseling class they took during that summer. Franki was paired with a classmate who probed into their early development, resurfacing questions that helped them come to terms with their childhood identity crises.

Inton-Campbell says that the process of self-actualization is constant and life-long, “It doesn’t happen overnight or even over the span of several months.”

For Franki, coming out was a breath of fresh air. 

“After I came out, people would also come out to me later on. And being able to support them on their journeys felt like I was actually doing something that was bigger than myself,” they say. “You realize they stop holding their breath and you stop holding yours.”

The weight of expression

An important element of coming out is an “inventory” of one’s community. People need to identify who would accept them with this new knowledge of who they are, Baldo-Cubelo says. “Ang takot naman palagi is ‘Tatanggapin ka pa ba o hindi?’

Andi’s coming out was generally well-received, but the fear of rejection remained. As a transgender, their biggest worry was to stop people from seeing them as a boy. 

“It’s not just the acceptance of a new identity, but also the rejection of an old one that people continue to see you as,” they shared.

Baldo-Cubelo says another element of coming out is seeking acceptance for one’s chosen sense of self-expression. This “playful, emancipatory aspect” is performed for a valued or chosen community. 

Andi feels pressured to prove their coming out by dressing and acting differently and by presenting as androgynous for people to believe them. 

“It’s easier virtually kasi I don’t show myself to anyone on a daily basis… and there’s nothing overtly gendered about pambahay,” they say.

Meanwhile, lockdown can also put vulnerable individuals in close proximity to judging or disdainful eyes.

Baldo-Cubelo empathizes with those spending quarantine with people who are not part of their chosen community. Family members, for example, might struggle to accept or understand sexual and gender minorities and give undue scrutiny to different forms of expression.

Such visibility was also a contention for Franki, who was made self-conscious for “looking like a lesbian.” In hindsight, they were able to recognize that their feelings of being comfortable in what peers dubbed as “butch lesbian clothing” was their “masculine side wanting to be okay with coming out a little.”

Likewise, Inton-Campbell also nods to other common experiences of early visibility. “For many of us who grow up as bakla/trans or tomboy/trans man… we didn’t have to come out because we were very obviously queer.”

She takes a critical stand on the phenomenon of coming out, noting, in contemporary times, that coming out is a “middle/upper class, homonormative” practice and western import that’s “become a rite of passage for young, urban, middle class queers to appropriate.”

Coming out is easier for people with the privilege of timing, says Baldo-Cubelo. For people who are less privileged, “Sometimes it is forced out of them.”

LGBTQIA+ individuals have been targeted with violence for their identity and self-expression, with many being physically and mentally abused due to repressive home environments, Rivera says.

“What’s unique about the isolation brought about by the pandemic is that queer people may have become detached from their chosen families or close friends,” says Inton-Campbell, “…and in a pandemic when we’re all isolated away from each other, social media can be a lifeline for many.”

Navigating safe spaces

When the physical presence of one’s chosen community gets disrupted by a pandemic, social media can help keep those connections intact, Inton-Campbell says.

Social media has been helpful to Franki not just at the heels of their coming out, but even as they settle into the LGBTQIA+ community and build their own support networks.

A defining moment in their coming out occurred on messaging platform Discord, as they shared their fears and worries to a nonbinary friend they weren’t close to before the pandemic.

They recall their friend saying “It’s okay if later on you find out you’re something else. … It’s gonna be a process. And no one’s gonna put you down if you realize you’re something different later on.”

However, Inton-Campbell emphasizes that access to the internet can be costly and inaccessible for underprivileged sectors. As with any kind of media, there are affordances that social media both enable and disable.

Online platforms may work for some, but not all dispositions of people, according to Baldo-Cubelo. High-touch persons, she says, may still feel deprived of affirmation and validation in the form of a language that cannot be provided by this medium.

Likewise, Rivera affirms the importance of having a support group amid the pandemic, but also acknowledges greater strides that need to be taken to create truly inclusive and accessible safe spaces in the country. 

These include a national anti-discrimination bill that would protect LGBTQIA+ rights and local ordinances and institutional policies to unlearn “misogynistic, transphobic and bigoted views that centuries upon centuries of ideas have given us.” 

Indeed, the problems faced by the LGBTQIA+ community are not separate from national issues, Rivera remarks.

“It’s especially hard now, as everyone is cautious of the pandemic, but we have to use all available means and mediums to have our voices heard,” she adds.

As the country enters into its eight month of lockdown, many communities remain vulnerable. With an ever-growing number of cases and longest lockdown in the world, it remains clear as day that COVID-19 is not “the great equalizer.”

Editor’s Note: The story has been edited to remove a former name in accordance with Tinig ng Plaridel’s rule to use the name by which the person lived and avoid former names unless relevant.

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