I Transitioned During COVID. Going Back Into The World Feels Unsafe In A Whole New Way.

"For many of us, leaving lockdown means facing the racism, sexism, transphobia and ableism we had found some degree of safety from in our homes."

This essay is part of “Survive. Thrive. Evolve: How Two Years of the Pandemic Impacted Us Around the World,” a global HuffPost project featuring individuals writing about how their lives were affected after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.The following piece originally appeared on HuffPost U.S.

At this point in the pandemic, I’ve spent about 18 months more or less isolated at home, leaving mostly only to get groceries or to pick up takeout meals. Before the pandemic, going to the office, meeting up with friends for dinner and drinks, playing board games in person, visiting family and going to conferences were all normal, but they now threaten exposure to COVID-19.

I recognize the immense privilege of being able to isolate in my home with my partner, but my world has nonetheless changed dramatically throughout the course of the pandemic.

In the past year and a half, I’ve come to think of the outside world as a threat, as a source of exposure. When case rates fall, however, and as I consider the possibility of reentering the world, the outside world has come to feel unsafe in entirely different ways.

Safety, as I’ve come to learn, is a relative concept.

About a year ago, a little under six months into the coronavirus pandemic, I started to think of my gender somewhat differently. Without the many ways that we enforce gender roles and performances on each other in day-to-day interactions, I began to understand how much of the way I thought of myself was a product of that social pressure.

In the comfort of my home, and with the support of my partner, I began to explore my gender and to experiment with how I present. It started small ― wearing some of my partner’s dresses and seeing how they felt on me, trying out different jewelry or using they/them pronouns around the house and with other members of my family. Home is somewhere I can be comfortable as myself, even when I’m not sure what exactly that even means.

More than just that comfort, however, home has also been a place where I am in control. When I am on virtual meetings, I can use my microphone to take control of how and when I am heard. Using my webcam, I can choose how to present myself to my peers even to the extent of using virtual backgrounds and video filters to control how others see me. By changing my display name, I can be sure that the first thing my co-workers see about me is my pronouns. When I am feeling especially dysphoric, I can even turn my camera off.

In the evening, the virtual worlds of Animal Crossing and Final Fantasy XIV provide still more control, with every aspect of my online self under my control at the click of a button. As I struggled with real-life decisions, like whether to start laser hair removal or hormone replacement therapy, control over my virtual presentation was effortless and easily reversible.

In the world of Eorzea, I can look hot as hell as a level 80 red mage without worrying about whether I “pass” to strangers.

It is precisely this control that I do not have when I go to pick up a takeout meal and hear transphobic comments from others waiting for their brunch, when I shop for groceries and wonder if people’s stares are meant for me, when people make incorrect assumptions about my gender or even when I walk our dog around the block and wonder which of our neighbors might view my trans body with disgust or hate.

The intense focus placed on transgender identities both at the national and the local level further underscores that stepping out of my door means stepping into a world outside of my control. Elections are won by stoking hatred, even down to transphobic flyers left in our mailboxes. That this appeal to hate works shows me something of how I am viewed by those around us.

These fears are not new, of course. Misogyny and transphobia did not start or end with the pandemic. Throughout my career as a researcher in quantum computing, I have experienced firsthand the harassment that can come with a hyper-masculinized culture. Many of my colleagues have experienced far worse on the basis of their gender, orientation, disability, race or from intersections of different forms of oppression, while I benefited from the safety of being perceived as male and by the privilege afforded by my whiteness.

In one especially memorable “joke,” a former colleague cross-dressed at a party and encouraged others to sexually harass him, treating gendered harassment as something so trivial as to elicit laughs. I was furious at the misogyny and the transphobia, furious on behalf of so many other colleagues who had been harassed, but the threat to me was at most abstract.

I was able to make my protest known, to leave the party and to sleep in my own bed knowing that I was not personally the target. When I revisit that moment now, that same threat feels much more personal, concrete and immediate.

During the height of the pandemic, the existential threat posed by COVID pushed many of these concerns out of mind, replacing them with the fear of exposure, concern for our loved ones, of stress and panic as even otherwise mundane health issues take on new dangers and risks, and the grief we feel for the friends and family we’ve lost to COVID. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that in the face of such existential fear, the control and comfort of home have become all the more important.

The prospect of reentering the world means leaving that space of relative comfort and control in order to confront threats and fears that I didn’t have before. I’m hardly alone in this, either. For many of us, leaving lockdown means facing the racism, sexism, transphobia and ableism we had found some degree of safety from in our homes.

Still, many more of us face all of the same but without the privilege of being able to shelter in a safe home, whether due to homelessness, the demands of being an “essential worker,” domestic violence or any number of other things that may deny the relative safety of shelter.

The prospect of spending the majority of my day outside of my house means I can’t avoid using public bathrooms as easily. The thought of traveling again brings with it the fear of being intentionally misgendered, groped or even worse by the Transportation Security Administration. I used to take things like getting dressed or shaving in the morning as mundane, but now there’s an urgency to making sure I look feminine enough not only to avoid dysphoria but also to avoid casual hatred from others.

If those of us who can actually do get vaccinated, get our boosters and continue to wear masks and practice social distancing, then maybe that care can also bring with it the hope of seeing friends and family together in person again. It may bring the hope of travel, of eating out, of seeing movies in theaters, of attending concerts and plays, of working in coffeeshops and libraries, of tabletop gaming at actual tables, of tweet-ups with friends, of picnics in the park. Even as uncomfortable as it is for me to consider going back into the world as my authentic self, there’s so much to look forward to enjoying with family, friends and colleagues.

It’s easy for being transgender to feel like something awful, threatening or even just awkward, especially given how often we’re made the scapegoat du jour by politicians and celebrities looking to rile people up. It’s easy, but it’s not true — for me, being transgender means having the agency to define my gender in a way that reflects who I actually am. I have an opportunity in front of me not just to reenter the world but to do so as my true and whole self.

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