What did you learn about yourself during lockdown? Besides discovering that I have a worryingly forensic knowledge of Sex and the City’s finest plot details and a surprising talent for line-dancing, I also twigged how much I was on guard in pre-COVID times. The truth is LGBTQ+ people have been staying alert long before it became a lurid yellow and green slogan, and when life began slowly inching back towards something that more closely resembles normality, I realised how exhausting it is.
Skipping the streets of Soho recently, visibly queer once again due to my quite staggering levels of pandemic-date-PDA, the homophobic comments, wolf-whistles and leery requests I unfondly remember from before the lockdown were back in full force. Before the pandemic, I was practically a professional when it came to shooting icy looks at men who swaggered up in the middle of dates to ask if they could “join in” or shoving my hand safely into my pocket after catching a stranger glaring at me holding hands with a woman – these daily interruptions were so routine that it was practically muscle memory. Now, it feels more jarring, because for a few blissful months I’d mostly forgotten that homophobia even existed.
I’m lucky enough to share a flat with a fellow queer, and so my lockdown was completely free of the anxiety that comes with encountering rogue bigots in everyday life. Having that extra space surprised me. I thought I’d just knock together a few sourdough loaves, and puff my way through Couch to 5k with the help of Sophie Ellis Bextor’s greatest hits. Instead it ended up becoming an important place to experiment with how I wanted to express myself.
I’ve always preferred dressing like a especially garish character from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and shopping in the men’s section. But in the past, I’ve deliberately toned it down honestly, to avoid drawing attention to myself. But during lockdown, I sort of stopped caring about what other people think. This was no doubt helped along by months without the pressure of being looked at by strangers. Plus, it’s given me more time to think more about what I actually want from relationships when this pandemic finally ends.
I’m not alone in going through this period of reflection and experimentation, either. For many queer people, it seems lockdown and the pandemic has given them to space and time to think about their identities.
"It gave me a chance to think about queer means for my gender identity”
says Alex*,32, from East London
For years, Alex has worked in diversity and inclusion for LGBTQ+ organisations and has long been vocal about standing up for other people and their experiences. Growing up in Yorkshire, “I always knew that I was attracted to everyone,” they say. None of the labels that people applied to Alex early on felt right and bi and lesbian didn’t fit. Then they heard the word queer, and thought, “that works for me.” Up until recently Alex had only considered queerness in terms of how it related to sexuality. “I never had a chance to think about what the word queer means for my gender identity,” they say. A couple of weeks ago they began using she/they pronouns.
Alex has been living with their girlfriend during lockdown, “and that’s been a really supportive and safe space to have conversations and explore,” they say. “One day I put on my girlfriend’s dress and wandered around the house in that and it felt quite good actually! It’s only through being in the house that I’ve been able to not worry so much about it anymore. Besides, everyone’s queuing for Sainsbury's in their slippers. Nobody’s going be looking at me in a dress.”
Alex reckons that stepping away the bustle of everyday London life – with its sardine-like commutes and endless pub trips – presented a rare opportunity. “It was life without any kind of binary 9-to-5, or binary anything,” they say. “It’s given me a chance to think about life without binary sexual orientation, or a binary gender. You can just be everything, anything or nothing and that’s OK.”
As the strictest restrictions have lifted, Alex has found it jarring experiencing homophobia for the first time in months. Recently a stranger shouted abuse when they were out on a walk with their girlfriend. “My brain has been able to rest from it. I wasn’t on high alert wondering whether we can walk down this street together. It feels a bit like I’ve taken back the time I’ve spent in the past being anxious and feeling edgy. I’ve used that energy to think more about myself.”
"I’ve finally realised who I am"
says Steffe, 34, from Huddersfield
For Steffe, a mum of three who lives in Huddersfield, lockdown has been a difficult journey. Before the pandemic hit, she worked as a nurse in the NHS, but was signed off from work just before the lockdown. Five months ago, her nine-year relationship with the father of her two youngest came to an end. They had been struggling to make things work, and in February they reached breaking point. Steffe proposed on a trip to London, and her ex said no. “I always thought marriage was what I wanted,” she says. “ I tried to put a plaster on my relationship.”
The upheaval led Steffe to reflect on what she actually wanted. “I’d been with a few girls before I got with my ex. I’d always wanted a threesome, but actually I think it was more about me wanting to be with a girl. Now I’ve started to think about what’s actually important, and what my core values are. And loving who you love - that’s a massive core value.”
In lockdown, Steffe found space to experiment. She shaved her hair, and has been trying out different colours. Cut off from LGBTQ+ venues, lesbian accounts on TikTok became an important outlet where she could be herself. “I’ve not got any LGBTQ+ friends,” she says. “So I’m finding it really difficult in the pandemic. I want to have some fun but I’m stuck in straightville. It’s no fun there!”
When Pride came around in June, Steffe decided to come out on social media “I posted that I was bisexual, but to be honest I don’t know what I am at the moment,” she explains. I’m still on that journey. I don’t want to put a label on it.”
She doesn’t view her time in lockdown with rose-tinted glasses. “People say we’re all in the same boat, but really, we’re all in the same storm, in different boats. Some of the boats have a hole in,” she points out. “It has been a really hard time, with a lot of transitions. I had to really figure myself out. But I’ve had time to think, and I’ve finally realised who I am. I know that I can shape my own future now.”
“To feel safe in a space that isn’t your home is worth its weight in gold”
says Bec, 30, from Doncaster
At the beginning of this year, student Bec was just beginning to think more about their gender identity. Before the pandemic effectively bolted the doors of every club in the country shut, they would go to south London LGBTQ+ venue The Chateau almost every weekend. “Being in that space gave me a lot of confidence,” Bec says, “because I was around a lot of people I could see were like me. Not having that during lockdown has been really hard. To feel safe in a space that isn’t your home, that really is worth its weight in gold.”
Earlier this year, Bec lived with their sister and a queer friend in a flatshare in south London. At home and out at LGBTQ+ venues they felt safe, but also felt slightly wary towards other public spaces. “For ages I felt very uncomfortable in the clothes that I owned,” they explain, "but I didn’t know how to swan back into uni wearing something totally different. I think I was worried about feeling noticeable to people.” The extra space afforded by lockdown changed things, Bec says. “I’ve had a shield to be myself, for nobody else but me.” The earlier restrictions around meeting up also “opened up pockets of space,” to speak to friends one-on-one about their non-binary identity and using they/them pronouns.
Around a month ago, Bec ended up moving in with their parents in Doncaster – a financial choice because of the impact of the pandemic. “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have chosen this,” they say. “My mum is White British, and my dad is Congolese. Culturally for my dad, gender isn’t spoken about that much within his immediate family. There’s a religious aspect with both of my parents as they’re Christians. And so there was an added layer of nervousness coming home.”
The first couple of weeks were uncomfortable. Their parents were inadvertently using the wrong pronouns, and Bec wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. Then their dad brought it up over dinner and noticed that they were "dressing very differently.”
“Once it did come up, he responded quite well,” Bec says. “He’s really trying and putting in some work. When he comes downstairs he usually says, ‘Hi girls’. The other morning he said, ‘Hi humans’ instead. We all had a laugh about that.”
Months on from the initial lockdown, our lives remain drastically different – and it’s taxing for many LGBTQ+ people being isolated from their community. Virtually every queer venue in the country remains closed, and any return to normality feels a long way away. But for some of us, perhaps this unexpected time away from the daily grind has also shown how restrictive “normal” life really was sometimes. Forget about the new normal – when all of this eventually blows over, I’m planning on focusing more on the new me.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed
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