Pride in the pandemic: For many people, COVID was the final kick out of the closet. Here’s why.

·12 min read
Celebrities, including, clockwise from top left, Tinashe, Elliot Page, Niecy Nash and Donald Glover, were among those to have come out during the pandemic. (Photos: Getty and Instagram)
Celebrities, including, clockwise from top left, Tinashe, Elliot Page, Niecy Nash and Donald Glover, were among those to have come out during the pandemic. (Photos: Getty and Instagram)

Erica Frazier’s coming-out story began over 28 years ago, when she first came out to her wife as transgender a few years after they had met. At the time, discussions about being trans were limited to mostly biased and often harmful rhetoric in society, not to mention within the medical community. 

Still, though Frazier made a giant step early on, she felt the timing wasn’t right for her to come out as trans to friends and colleagues so she chose to bury her true self from the world. 

That is, until the pandemic offered her a new opportunity. 

In July 2020, Frazier, who took it upon herself to find another job that she felt would support her transition, came out publicly to everyone in her life. Given that her office was mostly remote last year, the Maryland-based business professional says the self-isolation and lockdown provided unique ways of disclosure.

"Because I could not come out to people face-to-face, I chose a very carefully crafted coming-out plan using personally written letters and emails that were sent to every member of my family, including my parents, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, long-term friends and business associates," Frazier tells Yahoo Life. "While I did lose some in the process and fully expected that to occur, the vast majority of everyone stayed at my side."

Erica Frazier. (Photo: Courtesy of Erica Frazier)
Erica Frazier. (Photo: Courtesy of Erica Frazier)

Frazier isn’t alone. As it turns out, when the pandemic interrupted our work-life balance (in both good and bad ways), it created channels of introspection that encouraged us to reassess our realities — from career choices, where we live and, yes, our own sexual and gender identities.

"This is very common,” Cary Gabriel Costello, associate professor of sociology and director of LGBTQ+ studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, explains to Yahoo Life. “Everyone has a tendency to avoid dealing with difficult issues, and in the U.S., a favored tactic for avoidance is staying busy. It is socially lauded for us to work long hours, leaving us limited time for personal lives that we jam-pack, then rush through chores and fall into bed exhausted. Suddenly the pandemic lockdown interrupted this for the majority." 

People who live alone, especially, didn't have the choice but to self-reflect. 

"There are only so many hours a day one can Zoom," Costello says. "This meant people wound up facing things about themselves they had been avoiding thinking about — including the fact that they were queer, trans and/or nonbinary.”

The realization of our own mortality was also a factor. "When confronted by the possibility of our own deaths, we have been urged to get our affairs in order — to attend to pragmatic issues such as ensuring we have a will, but also to attend to emotional and relational issues. Have we told our loved ones how much we care about them? Have we confessed secrets we always meant to get off of our chests and told truths to people that we need them to hear?" 

Many folks opted to choose that they did not want to "die in the closet," adds Costello. After all, "if they were going to come out before they died, why not do it now, while, they could hope, they'd still have years of life to actually enjoy living their truths?" 

The rising support for LGBTQ equality in recent years has also helped. According to a recent Gallup poll, due to increased social acceptance, more young people are describing themselves as trans — 1.8 percent of Gen Z compared to 0.2 percent of Boomers. 

More broadly, 5.6 percent of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ. Of that group, 54.6 percent of LGBTQ adults identify as bisexual, 24.5 percent identify as gay, 11.7 percent identify as lesbian, 11.3 percent identify as transgender, and 3.3 percent volunteer another nonheterosexual preference such as queer or same-gender-loving. (It should be noted that respondents can give multiple responses when describing their sexual identification; thereby, totals exceed 100 percent.)

For people like Ivy Astrix, a Vancouver-based activist working in the cannabis industry, it was a psychedelic mushroom trip that emboldened her to understand she had been living a false gender identity her entire life. 

Before Astrix’s mushroom trip, she says she was aware that her gender expression was that of a woman. However, the weight of negative perceptions about trans people in society at large kept her from doing the proper amount of soul-searching required to understand how that applied to her. 

After the trip, she says, the negative perceptions shifted to more positive ones — especially in terms of her own confidence. 

Ivy Astrix. (Photo: Courtesy of Astrix)
Ivy Astrix. (Photo: Courtesy of Astrix)

“More than just the physical circumstances, the sense of 'this might really be the end of the world' really served as a catalyst to start thinking about things in a very big-picture sense,” she says of the early days of the pandemic. “And also thinking about how I would want to show up in the world after things returned to the new 'normal.’”

Though for decades the coming-out experience has been largely enacted in physical spaces — be it group meetings, clubs or other queer safe spaces — in the last 20 years, a good deal of that has been online.  

Many people use social media as a lifeline. For trans women, especially, who deal with more street harassment than some gender-conforming cis gay men, online communication has become a lighthouse to share their stories. 

"In many ways, it is easier to come out on social media," says Costello. "You don't have to tell all of your friends and family member individually, face-to-face, in exhausting and stressful conversations in which you have to cope with each person's opinions about your identity, or their awkwardness and embarrassment, or having to educate them about what is means when you say you are pansexual or agender or a homoromantic asexual. Instead, you can do it in a single post to all your social media friends — or to the world at large in a tweet or TikTok." 

Alternatively, Costello says, you can let your photos do the talking. 

"Traditionally, someone exploring their gender identity or expression did so out of the eye of the general public," he says. "First, the privacy of their own bedroom, then, in support group meetings or an LGBTQ club or house party. According to the classic gender transition script, one did months or years of preparation out of the public eye, and then one day flipped a switch, and showed up to work dressed differently, and using a different name and pronoun. In a way, this was protective, as the process of transitioning is often awkward, like any adolescence, and is a lot scarier because of the gender policing it triggers." 

On the flip side, the business of keeping gender transition out of the public eye reinforces an idea that it is shameful, which is also unhealthy. Still, many have found ways around it.  

"You might be stuck at home for months, but the privacy of your own home can be shared online," says Costello. "Plenty of people during lockdown explored their gender expression with clothing or makeup or buzzing their hair off in the bathroom, then took selfies and shared them on Instagram. No formal coming out narrative needed to be written. Friends could just watch from afar and see a person's self-presentation shift. Informally, friends came along for the ride." 

Beyond friends, in 2020, plenty of celebrities decided to come out, adding to the growing level of positive stories to have come out of the pandemic. 

Stars like Donald Glover, Tinashe, Lili Reinhart, JoJo Siwa, Ronen Rubinstein and François Arnaud, as well as athletes such as NFL star Carl Nassib, soccer players Quinn and Thomas Beattie and Alpine skier Hig Roberts, to name a few, opened a door for others to do the same. 

When Elliot Page came out as transgender in December 2020, perhaps one of the most high-profile people to transition publicly since Caitlyn Jenner in 2015, he sparked an international dialogue about the health and wellness of the trans community.

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“I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive,” Page wrote in his coming-out post on Instagram. “To all trans people who deal with harassment, self-loathing, abuse and the threat of violence every day: I see you, I love you and I will do everything I can to change this world for the better.”

Another star, TV's Niecy Nash, did a double whammy last August when she both came out and revealed that she got married to musician Jessica Betts.

"It wasn't like I was living a lie," Nash said in an interview with the Advocate. "I loved the people who I loved when I was with them. Do you understand me? I wasn’t living a lie. And I didn’t want that to be anything that was kept in the shadows or in dark corners even. So it wasn’t as much about me coming out as much as it was about me coming into myself, owning that I allowed myself to not only feel what I felt but then to do something about what I felt. And then to love her enough — and myself enough — to be able to share our truth with the world."

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Roberts, an American former World Cup alpine ski racer who skyrocketed to the top as a member of the U.S. national team, received overwhelming support from the sports world when he came out in December 2020. The first U.S. Alpine Ski Team member and the first male World Cup alpine skier in the world to come out, Roberts argues that the pandemic forced society to "realign and understand themselves at a deeper and more personal level."

"Even amid the turmoil and difficulty the world was facing, there was a prevailing sentiment that we were all in this together and that collectively we had to rely on each other more than usual," Roberts tells Yahoo Life. "I saw this time as a great opportunity to be very deliberate about what it was that I wanted next in my life. And more importantly, finding out who it is that I am and starting to live my truth."

Hig Roberts. (Photo: Kacey Cole)
Hig Roberts. (Photo: Kacey Cole)

For Canadian national team and OL Reign midfielder Quinn, who uses the pronouns they/them and who became the first National Women's Soccer League player to publicly come out as trans last September, sports has always been a means to connect with their body. 

Since coming out, they’ve continued to empower trans youth about the power of staying authentic. Even more inspiring is that their team has made a staunch commitment to let the world know how valuable it is.

“This team is hard to put into words!” Quinn recently wrote on Instagram, displaying a jersey donning the Pride colors as well as a trans flag armband. “They have embraced change and turned into uncomfortable conversations and I love them for it. Taking home this armband because I never thought I’d see this day!!”

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While the pandemic offered many LGBTQ people an opportunity to self-reflect, it must also be noted that it wasn't the case for all — especially those who are most socially marginalized, including people of color, people with physical disabilities and undocumented people. 

"Multiply marginalized queer and trans folk often have precarious living situations that can quickly slide into homelessness," says Costello. "They work poorly paid service jobs, if they can find [employment] at all. Many survive on gray or black market labor, including sex work. There was no lockdown for many such people: They were required to show up to work. I have zero doubt that visibly queer, trans and/or nonbinary multiply-marginalized people died at very high rates during the pandemic. But nobody was keeping track of their high mortality rates. Many states weren't even tracking deaths by race/ethnicity. None were collecting data on LGBTQ status." 

Furthermore, many trans, nonbinary and/or gender-nonconforming students have strained relationships with their families. Adding that level of stress to everything else in their lives created an unfortunate number of college dropouts, according to Costello. 

"All of this is traumatizing and doesn't just evaporate now that states have opened back up," he says, calling for the need for mental health services postpandemic. 

Still, as people start to creep out of their homes and back into their schools or places of businesses, those who came out are now embracing a new life. But, as is the case for anyone who comes out, it's not always easy. 

“I still am working on my confidence and my wife has noticed it dropped from my pretransition time as I tend to avoid larger crowds that never used to bother me," says Frazier. "Looking forward, this is my next big challenge — to begin shopping at department stores and malls. To dine out in crowded restaurants. To go see a movie in a full theater. All things that have been largely shuttered in the last year that I didn’t have to deal with.”

The pandemic, Roberts believes, "will be remembered as not just a virus epidemic, but also a confrontation of the world's deep and structural social epidemics. My hope is that just as the pandemic was a personal growing opportunity, that it also marks a turning point in the progression of uplifting our most deeply marginalized. … The time has arrived for many people who have historically been forgotten or erased, and I really do feel that energy building today.”

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