In a borrowed dress with a print of birds fleeing their cages, a huge smile spreads across Kyle’s face. Assigned male at birth and raised in Kentucky, Kyle has felt “very outside the norm” since they were a teenager. Back then, they would see an attractive woman and ask themself: “Am I attracted to her, or do I want to be her?” recalls Kyle, who’s now 30 and lives in North Carolina. “I could tell there was some overlap between ‘she’s really beautiful’ and ‘I kind of wish I was wearing that dress.’ ” As Kyle graduated from college and married their high school girlfriend, that question stuck around.
The pandemic pushed Kyle toward an answer, as it has for many others. The time alone — combined with the privacy to try on most of the clothes in their wife’s closet — nudged Kyle toward recognizing that they’re transgender. For now, they identify as nonbinary and use “he” or “they” pronouns, though they are still exploring whether “she” and “her” fit them better and what else their transition will entail. It’s an exploration that could upend their career plan to become a pastor — and their marriage.
While studying for a master’s in divinity, Kyle was already asking themself questions of “How am I? and “Who am I?” in ways they’d never done before. But it took a huge disruption in the outside world to force Kyle to look inward and examine who they really are.
For years, Kyle understood their fascination with transgender fiction, and with trying on women’s clothes, not as gender dysphoria but as a sinful addiction. These interests and impulses “felt like a tumor I wanted to excise from my body, like a diseased limb I wanted to amputate,” Kyle says in a recent Zoom interview.
The space away from regular life helped Kyle explore their gender identity at a manageable pace. Instead of announcing their new pronouns or wearing women’s clothing in public, Kyle started slowly and virtually: attending classes online while wearing a T-shirt paired with skinny jeans and nude heels that no one could see. When Kyle updated their pronouns on Zoom, classmates who noticed emailed to say congratulations; others said nothing. Kyle is not fully out to everyone in their life, so they spoke on the condition that only their first name be used.
There’s no data on how many people have shifted their gender identity during the pandemic, says Phillip Hammack, a psychology professor and director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Laboratory at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Anecdotally, however, he sees the past year as being influential for many.
“We tend to think that we’re in the driver’s seat of our life stories — and the pandemic showed that we are not always,” Hammack says.
The pandemic gave many people the time for self-reflection and the ability to seek out others online with common experiences, Hammack says. It also gave people a chance to reset and say, “There’s this thing I’ve been holding back.” Coming out and transitioning — the process of aligning one’s life with one’s gender — are ways to get back behind the wheel.
That in-between phase can be awkward and exhausting. “I am currently living in kind of two worlds,” Kyle says. “It’s not just male-female; it’s cis and trans. The vast majority of people in my life just kind of assume they know who I am. They really don’t. And so it takes a lot of energy to just keep that assumption up.”
Tessa Astri, who’s 36, had long known she was transgender but never planned on transitioning. Then the pandemic hit, and she thought: “Maybe this is part of myself I need to explore.” Once she started using the name Tessa in online forums, she was struck by how right it felt. “As soon as I did that, I was crushed, but in a good way,” Astri says. “It was too much, it was too right, it was too good.”
That first spark of joy, she says, helped her move forward. Astri connected with other transgender women on Discord, a chat app. Seeing others’ pictures of their transitions helped Astri dismantle her own internalized transphobia. “Wow, these people aren’t weird. This isn’t something that’s impossible. It’s a thing that other people do,” she realized. The group “gave me a lot of hope.”
Emily Rose Reineke, a 30-year-old in Tacoma, Wash., also found the courage to transition with the help of a large group chat on Discord. Reineke had been considering transitioning since late 2019, but at the time she was living in rural Wisconsin, where she didn’t feel safe going public.
Online, however, in a group of about 70 people, she watched as about three or four transitioned during the pandemic. She asked the group for help in choosing a new name; after three hours of conversation, she landed on Emily Rose. A few days later, she had her first appointment at Planned Parenthood to start hormone therapy. “Having the freedom of having an online space where I could think about all this, and process all this out loud, without having to worry about the community around me being potentially abusive, was great,” Reineke says.
Not having to work in an office all day has helped, too. Instead of committing to a feminine-presenting outfit for an entire day, Astri, who works in Silicon Valley, could change her clothes before Zoom meetings when she wasn’t yet out to her co-workers.
Astri came out to her colleagues in October, when she started on hormones. Still, she anticipates returning to in-person work will be a mix of validating and nerve-racking. Is her clothing style professional enough for the office? What will other women think of it?
The idea of using women’s restrooms is also a bit daunting. “I believe that people around me are going to be cool with it,” Astri says. But she’s still anxious about setting foot in one because of the hot topic they’ve become in the battle for transgender rights.
For Kyle, coming into their own is about far more than clothes and pronouns. Prompted by a therapist, Kyle has asked themself: “What of my personality, now and through the years, has been really tied to what I thought a man should be?” When Kyle uses humor as a defense mechanism, or swallows their anger instead of expressing it, is that a learned male behavior or just inherently Kyle? The answers are not easy to unravel.
The conditioning to act a certain way, based on the sex someone is assigned at birth, starts young. The first time Kyle noticed women and men behaving differently with their bodies, they were a young child in Kentucky, mesmerized by how their first-grade teacher tucked her hair behind her ears. “I remember imitating that because … you kind of just do the behaviors that adults do,” Kyle recalls. At some point, they realized: “Oh, I don’t think I need to do that.”
As Kyle reimagines how they want to present themself to the world, the default has been to look to the woman they’ve been living with for the past seven years: their wife. They’ll occasionally go to Target separately and discover they’ve bought the same dress.
The couple have had to figure out what their boundaries are when it comes to clothes. She hasn’t seen Kyle in a wig, for example. And it was a bit unnerving to find out her spouse had tried on most of the clothes in her closet, including her lingerie. Hearing that Kyle knows which of her bras fit them best was “a little bit too much of a violation of personal space.”
It’s a lot of upheaval and uncertainty for one couple to bear. They’ve been together since they were teenagers; it’s the only romantic relationship they’ve ever known. But starting in July, the pair is separating in an attempt to figure out who they each are on their own, and whether their marriage still fits. “When I envision myself married with kids, I envision it with a man,” says Kyle’s wife, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the couple’s privacy. She’s torn, however, when Kyle asks her, “Well, do you envision it with me?”
“He’s still the same person,” she says, “and in some ways, more themselves, but not the person I married. … I’m open to it, but I don’t know.”
Kyle says their wife has been “deeply supportive,” and they both describe each other as their best friend. Still, Kyle acknowledges that separating is the next right step, filled with grief and possibility. “We’re living in the grief, but still giving each other a hug and a kiss good morning and good night.”
Kyle sees this exploration period as a second adolescence, during which they’ve become closer with their female friends. “When I came out to my two closest friends in November, our friendship changed immediately. I felt like one of the girls,” Kyle says. It feels “so affirming,” Kyle says, when these friends call Kyle “girl” or say, “Hey lady, what’s going on?” And their friends have felt comfortable sharing about their own struggles.
As Kyle decides whether and when to start on hormones, they’ve delayed their plans to get a job as a pastor. There are a few examples of nonbinary clergy in their mainline Christian denomination; there’s not a specific transgender policy. Plus, their denomination doesn’t allow clergy to be in same-sex marriages, but it’s unclear whether a spouse’s transition falls under that rule. Still, Kyle is optimistic: “I know there are churches that are very welcoming and affirming of people like me.”
In the meantime, Kyle is searching for a church to attend as a congregant. Their wife is a pastor, and Kyle wants to respect their separation by not showing up in the pews. “I want to go back to a church that loves me for who I am,” Kyle says, “as I’m figuring out who that is.”