When shelter-in-place orders first rolled out this spring, jokes followed fast and furious. How thrilling for our dogs! Introverts secretly love to cancel plans! Yet now, many months into the coronavirus pandemic, the novelty of it all is history, the loneliness is real (as it has been from the start), and feeling isolated from supportive peers has never been a laughing matter. (Dogs, of course, are still out here thriving)
Getting together in bars, clubs and other community spaces has long been a meaningful way for queer people to celebrate our identities and feel we’re not alone. But social settings can also be a double-edge sword, rife with pressures to achieve a perfect body at the gym or behave a certain way to attract attention. Pressing pause on much of our social lives has been tough for many, including queer businesses and their employees. But quarantine is also a unique chance to reorient how we think about ourselves when we’re less confronted by outside judgement.
Spending this much time with ourselves, alone or with roommates and families, can be boring, isolating, or worse for queer people in non-supportive environments. What can we do to reframe quarantine as an opportunity growth? How can we make the most of this timeout from some of the everyday pressures that follow many queer people wherever we go? We spoke to mental health experts and advocates about strategies to cope with isolation and leverage an undoubtedly difficult time toward cultivating greater self-acceptance.For those who’ve felt the direct impact of the virus, whether on their health, livelihood, or with the loss of loved ones, facing difficulties of self-acceptance may rightly seem a trivial luxury. And in the context of a global reckoning with state violence and anti-Black racism, how we feel when we face a mirror looks much less important than what’s going on outside our windows. But no matter our perspective or experience of this extraordinary moment, there’s rarely been so much impetus and opportunity for self-reflection.
Negotiate Some Control
It may sound obvious, but even in extreme circumstances, there are still aspects of life we can take into our own hands. “The issue becomes: ‘What can I control? And how do I want to do that?’” says Douglas Haldeman, PhD, clinical professor of psychology at John F. Kennedy University. “One thing the research is very clear on is that, likely because of phobic responses to sexual orientation or non-cisgender identities, we [in the LGBTQ+ communty] are more vulnerable” to fall into habits like substance abuse and couch lock in response to stress. Given that staying home is encouraged during the pandemic, this may be especially true now.
There are simple, everyday habits we can control, like when we choose to get dressed and what we put in our bodies. Haldeman suggests maintaining some kind of structure to your day that includes whatever level of physical activity is possible for you. “That is the absolute best non-chemical way to combat stress, by elevating your own production of anti-stress neurochemicals.” Drinking and using other recreational drugs to manage your mood is okay, too, “in very judicious moderation,” Haldeman says. Maintaining connections to addiction support groups has also been essential to folks in recovery. And because eating disorders are often rooted in control, this is an especially important time to seek supportive resources.
Haldeman also suggests that everyone tune into some form of mindfulness practice, be it religion, journaling, or meditation, “that enables you to center and connect with yourself to say, ‘What do I need?’” The more attuned we can be to our needs and how best to meet them, the more compassion we cultivate for ourselves.
Getting out of your head and gaining some perspective is important, too. That could mean doing what you can to support the broad social movement against anti-Black racism, while continuing to care for yourself. “It's okay once in a while to just pull the covers over your head; we all need whatever self care is appropriate,” Haldeman says. “But at the same time, it's important to remember there's something beyond us. The queer community has every responsibility to stand and work in solidarity with communities of color.”
Actively Learn to Love Your Body
When gyms shut down across New York City, I personally wondered whether gay men might finally learn to accept our bodies as they are. I was only half joking. But several weeks into fumbling my way through at-home workouts, I realized I felt better about my body than I had at my neighborhood gym, surrounded by fit, white men who propagate ideals that can feel damagingly out of reach.
“The first thing that I always tell people when they want to learn how to love their body is that it actually does start at home,” says Alysse Dalessandro Santiago, the queer blogger behind Ready to Stare, where she writes about body acceptance. What better time than the present to focus on self-love? “Body image is learned behavior,” Santiago says. “Hating yourself is not something you're born with; you learn to hate yourself as other people tell you you shouldn't like the way you look.”
Quarantine could be an opportunity to deconstruct the critical voices that wind up taking hold in our heads. “Once that outside voice becomes our own,” Santiago says, we don’t need other people to criticize us because we repeat the worst of it to ourselves. Breaking out of that dynamic isn’t easy, whatever the situation may be. But time away from contexts where we feel judged or insecure can remove some of the noise that often drowns out those efforts.
“Just try to focus on being kinder to yourself,” Santiago says. “It's really as simple as going in front of the mirror and just saying nice things to yourself” and appreciating different parts of your body, like the tip of your nose or even your hairline. Silly though it may feel, by now most of us are used to finding creative ways to direct our energy. “Every day try to just say one nice thing, and that's how you start to change the narrative.”
Reorient Your Gender Expression
Not having much reason to get dressed up, or anywhere to show it off, can take a toll on our sense of self-expression. At the same time, quarantine could mean a break from potential rejection, harassment, or worse, especially for non-cis queer people. “Non-acceptance of one’s gender identity is a major predictor of bad mental health outcomes among transgender and gender diverse people,” says Jack Turban, MD, clinical fellow in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, where he researches the mental health of transgender youth. “It makes sense that some may experience some relief working from home, for example, where they may be able to escape being around transphobic voices.”
Just as with body acceptance, a break from public settings can be a chance to tune out other people’s perceptions of your gender identity and focus on what makes you happy. “This is a unique time for us to really dive in and explore what we're doing for ourselves versus what we're doing to please other people,” Santiago says. “The way that you present your gender needs to be what feels right to you, not to anybody else.” For those who may not be able to safely present the way they want to in the outside world, this could be a time to experiment at home. If you live in a safe environment. Haldeman suggests trying out a different way of connecting with yourself, “one in which this is not for presentation or how I might be read — this is just for me.”
Turban also stresses the importance of staying connected to friends and communities that make you feel supported. “Though being at home may remove some of the daily stressors of harassment out in the world, this is also a very vulnerable time for many LGBTQ+ people, particularly young people,” he says. FaceTime and Zoom fatigue are real, but making sure your friends feel loved and affirmed, meeting up in small groups or at protests, and being intentional about your social connections are all important strategies as the pandemic stretches on.
Carry It Forward
When we’re fortunate enough to move about and connect more freely on the other side of the coronavirus crisis, the coping mechanisms we’re developing can be valuable for life. “Everything you’re doing and everything you're learning about yourself, you really should carry on after the period of social isolation,” Haldeman says. That goes for self-care, personal discovery, and the strength of knowing you have the tools to persevere. “The sense of efficacy that you have in the world, the alternatives that you thought of in terms of social interaction, community or political action, contributions,” should all continue, Haldeman says. “There's a lot of positivity that you can take out of this,” and it starts with loving the person you’ll always spend the most time with: yourself.