How lockdown changed the coming out experience for LGBT people

Until last year, Alayna Fender was a ‘confirmed bisexual’ – a slogan she used on merch for her Youtube channel MissFenderr after coming out to her thousands of subscribers in 2015.

She was engaged to a man and with his support, she explored relationships with women and built a community of LGBT+ friends both online and in real life.

But in March, when the pandemic hit, Alayna’s access to the LGBT+ part of her life was cut off, and with that came a realisation: she was actually gay.

Alayna tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I had kind of compartmentalised that queer side of my life as my YouTube life. Then I had my “real life” where I was engaged to a man, living a hetero normative, straight-passing life. 

‘In a way, I didn’t realise I was living these two lives because my partner was so supportive of my sexuality, of my identity, of the way I wanted to present myself.

‘In mid-2019, I really started to create a queer community in the city that I lived in. That was huge for me. I was like, “Okay, I have it all, I have this partner who I love and who loves me, and we’re engaged, and we’re going to get married and then I have these friends that I feel so connected to”.

‘Then lockdown hit, in early 2020 and that queer side of my life felt like it was taken away from me. Suddenly, it was just me and my male partner.

‘It was that removal that made me realise that it wasn’t just a part of who I am, it wasn’t just something that I wanted as a piece of my life, but it was really what I want for my life as a whole.’

Although she had previously questioned if she was gay rather than bisexual, Alayna would tell herself that she couldn’t be because of her love for a man.

But being unable to go out, and with people asking questions about when they were going to start planning their wedding, Alayna realised that while she loved her partner dearly, she did not have the same feelings for men as she did women.

Six years on from her first coming out video on Youtube, she made another, explaining that her wedding plans were cancelled and her relationship with her partner was over.

‘He is the most wonderful person and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done because not only was I coming to terms with who I was, but it meant I had to end a beautiful relationship with someone I really love,’ Alayna says.

‘I think people had a hard time understanding that – it’s not that our relationship wasn’t real. I did and do love him, but it was just a different kind of love than what I thought.’

With her family on the other side of Canada, she had to come out to them over FaceTime – a very different experience to telling them about her bisexuality in person.

Her family were incredibly accepting, and just wanted to make sure she was ok.

‘I had to do it over phone calls – telling people not only was I coming out again, but my engagement was off and I was turning my life upside down,’ she remembers. ‘That was a lot to deal with over the phone, but that was the only way.’

Once she and her partner split, Alayna was then living alone – and she found not having people around her incredibly isolating.

She says: ‘I was living by myself for the first time in six years, but I also couldn’t have friends over, meet new people or see my family.

‘I did focus on the friendships I already had and I ended up driving for 26 hours across Canada when I could to see my family.

‘Being by myself after this during the pandemic added a whole other level of difficulty.

‘The internet was amazing for me though. I was shocked because I had built so much of my channel around being bisexual and I was so terrified that coming out again was going to reinforce those stereotypes that bisexuality is just a phase or that eventually bisexuals pick a side, but the response was so positive.’

For others, being away from family during lockdown meant a chance to explore who they were without their usual pressures.

James*, 24, also realised he was gay a few months into lockdown, but has so far only come out to friends and his four siblings.

He says: ‘Until late 2019, I was in a relationship with a woman, who I’d been with since I we were 14. For a lot of that relationship, I’ve really struggled with my mental health, particularly anxiety.

‘It came to an end quite naturally – I’m not sure either of us were very happy any more and we were more like friends. 

‘On New Year’s Eve 2019, I met up with some friends and some of their friends who I didn’t know.

I feel like having so much time without the pressure of seeing [my parents] has allowed me to deal with a lot of my own issues surrounding my sexuality, without the pressure of telling them.

‘I started talking to one and we just had this connection, like I’d never felt before. The next day, we connected on social media and kept chatting and I realised how romantically attracted I was to him.

‘I think my thoughts around my sexuality had always been there but I had suppressed and ignored any of them for years because of my girlfriend.

‘Coming to terms with the fact I was gay was like a weight was lifted.’

Having grown up with parents who have strong religious beliefs, James had been told that being gay was a sinful and he believes this contributed to him ignoring his feelings for so long.

In March 2020, James’s relationship with his new partner was just starting out. He was filled with anxiety about having to tell his parents soon – but then lockdown hit.

He explains: ‘Although I don’t speak to my parents much, we have big family occasions every few months for birthdays, Easter, Christmas, a new job or whatever – my parents really love celebrating and they expect me to be there.

‘I was living quite a liberal sort of life in London, far removed from their world, but I felt like I kept getting pulled back into it because I would be heading to see them about every six weeks.’

Because of the ongoing restrictions, James hasn’t seen his parents in person since March 2020. He feels this has been hugely beneficial to his journey.

‘I know that telling them is going to be incredibly difficult,’ he tells us. ‘I feel like having so much time without the pressure of seeing them has allowed me to deal with a lot of my own issues surrounding my sexuality, without the pressure of telling them.

‘I am going to see them in the summer and I’m not sure when I will tell them but I know I will do it in a much more assured way.

‘They are my parents and I love them, but if they aren’t accepting, I have seen how I can live and thrive without them. Lockdown has really changed this journey for me.’

‘I genuinely think if it wasn’t for the pandemic, it might have taken me years to come out.

The break from normal life during lockdown also helped Morgan, 28, come out as a trans woman, after transitioning in December 2020.

Working from home away from the office allowed Morgan to come out to colleagues when she felt ready, after starting HRT.

She says: ‘Looking back, I knew since I was four or five but I suppressed it. I hadn’t accepted it at all and just really pushed myself into work. I’m now head of product and business development for a technology company.

‘When Covid hit and we all moved out of the office, I think we all got a little more introspective. I just started to crack and realised this wasn’t something I could ignore any more.

‘I genuinely think if it wasn’t for the pandemic, it might have taken me years to come out.

‘There were just things that were easier, like I grew breasts fast on HRT and hiding those in an office environment would have become difficult, or when I was growing my hair out, I didn’t have to have those questions about getting it cut.

‘I am in a senior position and everyone knows who I am, so doing it quietly was never an option for me, but as we were all at home, an announcement came out on Slack and then I took a month off and came back. Everyone was incredibly supportive.’

Despite this, Morgan recognises there were many difficulties with coming out as trans during lockdown.

Like Alayna, she had to tell her parents the news in a less-than-ideal way – sitting in a bar, two metres apart, as it came at a time when meeting up at home wasn’t possible.

She says: ‘It didn’t feel appropriate to have that conversation over the phone for me so instead it was this weird alien environment.

‘For everyone else, there was a lot of letting them know with a Facebook message instead of real-life meetings.’

Morgan was able to start hormone replacement therapy after seeking private treatment because of lengthy NHS waiting lists.

‘I actually had a lot of things set up virtually anyway,’ she says. ‘I do GP appointments through Babylon and they actually had a GP who specialised in trans patients. I then used Gender GP, who are an online specialist and they prescribed HRT.

‘I know I am lucky because I have a good career and money to pay for this but I didn’t want to sit on the waiting list for years.’

Dealing with coming out during lockdown

As we come out of lockdown, hopefully for the final time, many of us are very different people compared to 18 months ago and for those who have come out during this time, adjusting to their new normal can be tough.

Psychotherapist CEO of the Recover Clinic and author Emmy Brunner says: ‘One of the most painful things that I’ve learnt from working with the LGBTQ+ community over the last 18 months is just how lonely their journey of self-acceptance and coming out has been.

‘One of the most comforting things about being LGBTQ+ is the incredible community of people that are available to offer support and guidance and this hasn’t be so readily available during the pandemic.

‘For lots of people ‘coming out’ is a gradual process but lockdown has forced a lot of people to move back home and into potentially unsafe domestic spaces where their coming out has felt like more of an urgent or forced disclosure.

‘There has been an increase in cases of mental health problems within this community and ongoing insecurity in employment has fuelled further isolation.

‘For anyone who has gone through this experience I would urge you to populate your life with as much support as possible.  

‘Speak to as many people as you can who have this shared experience and read up on other people who have both endured and overcome the adversity that coming out can entail.

‘Listen to music and journal, provide yourself with as many creative outlets as possible to express all of the emotions that you’re experiencing.

‘And above all, remember that although at times it may feel as though you are alone and misunderstood by those around you….you are not alone, you will be seen and heard and there are communities that will celebrate who you are.’

However, getting treatments such as laser hair removal and hair extensions was not considered medical, and with restrictions constantly changing, Morgan often found things had to be cancelled, meaning many aspects of her transition were much slower than planned.

‘It was just things like getting makeup – I’m sat with a drawer full of foundations because no one was doing colour matching and I had no idea,’ she explains.

‘The laser hair removal for my face got suspended three times. I should be finished by now but I’m only about halfway through.

‘I wanted hair extensions in December because I didn’t feel like I had enough hair at that point to pass. I was contacting the salon owner back and forth because I didn’t know if that would be able to go ahead.

‘I think once you’ve scheduled an aspect of transition, it’s like a train that can’t stop – that was so hard with Covid.’

Her experiences led her to set up a site called TransFriendly, which also helped Morgan connect with other trans people throughout her journey.

‘I set up Transfriendly as a not-for-profit, social enterprise dedicated to helping trans people find the services they need from supportive businesses.

‘That launched six weeks ago and there are already more than 1,000 businesses on there from all round the world.

‘Businesses pay a fee to be listed, and then trans people can search for what they need, knowing the company is trans friendly. The businesses also get a window sticker to display and lots of training and support resources.

‘Through starting TransFriendly, I have met a lot of really great trans people. I feel like I’ve made my own community in that sort of way.’

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