We’ve seen the changes, whether it be in Instagram bios or on name tags on Webex. We’ve all noticed that the little white text that once read “she/her” or “he/him” now reads “she/they”, “he/they” or “they/them.” We’ve taken note of the miniature rainbow flags now adorning TikTok bios and the new names many have requested to be called by as they gain a better understanding of themselves and their gender identity. Even if we didn’t realize it at the time, we were witnessing many of our peers undergo a transformation, or as junior Mackenzie Sentena put it, “a gender identity journey.”
The Covid-19 pandemic sparked a new wave of realization amongst the Summit student body. The solitary lifestyle that quarantine created gave many an opportunity to think critically about how they saw themselves, especially concerning gender identity. Through the rise of LGBTQ+ online communities, many students gained a richer and more complete understanding of what gender means to them.
As quarantine pushed students from across the country to start spending more quality time with their phones, online LGBTQ+ communities began to emerge. TikTok, Twitter, and Discord groups gained new members as bored teenagers stumbled across their content. Some Stummit students, such as Sentena, found that the smaller communities on Twitter and Discord enabled them to confront their own questions about gender.
“With seeing people talking about it [gender identity] more, I felt more comfortable being able to ask myself those questions,” Sentena said. She explained that quarantine enabled her to meet new friends on Twitter, most of whom were undergoing similar dilemmas around their gender.
Sentena found that these new community spaces allowed many to speak about gender candidly, something she believes many would struggle to do with their non-virtual friends. Through these conversations, Sentena realized that she preferred to go by she/they pronouns- meaning that she prefers people to use either she/her or they/them to describe her.
Junior Emily Birdwell also found that the increasing size and popularity of the LGBTQ+ community across social media sites gave them a new perspective on themself.
“As gender-queerness became more popularized and normalized, I started looking at myself more.” Birdwell said. “One of the biggest sentiments shared throughout TikTok was AFAB [assigned female at birth] people saying ‘I want to look pretty in the way boys look pretty’; I can’t describe why, but this resonated with me and many others.”
They explained that they found a wider community of AFAB people and non-binary people, who were experiencing similar struggles fitting into society’s mold of femininity.
“I think people on TikTok, myself included, bonded over the shared struggle of expressing femininity outside of a binary,” Birdwell said. They described how these virtual friends, as well as their supportive non-virtual friend group, helped them experiment with different pronouns to better understand their gender.
“I changed the pronouns in my Twitter bio to she/they as a test, and I found out I felt far more comfortable with those as my friends started using them,” Birdwell said.
Former Summit student and current Baker Program Early College student, Anakin Gullickson, used a similar style of experimenting with online communities to better understand his gender. Through apps such as Discord and Twitter, Gullickson was able to test out different pronouns with strangers from across the country, helping him settle on he/they pronouns. For him, these online friends were an important element in his gender discovery, especially since he didn’t feel comfortable speaking with friends at Summit or COCC about his gender.
For some, keeping their identities secret by only connecting with strangers has been essential to exploring their genders. Junior Matt Shrader Patton, a long time member of the LGBTQ+ community, explains that some who don’t have LGBTQ+ friendly networks on social media have begun creating secret accounts. On these secret accounts, many students will exclude their names, schools, or any other information that classmates might be used to identify them.
“They can kind of remain closeted in some way,” Shrader Patton said. “It’s just less confrontational than the standard coming out and experimenting under the public eye… under the gaze of everyone at their school or workplace.”
For these people, animosity has been key to their experimenting. With these new profiles, many have been able to post strictly LGBTQ+ content, attracting others and creating a support network for these anonymous students.
These support networks will likely prove essential as students return to in-person learning. Some who have decided to alter their gender expressions, or the way someone physically expresses their gender such as through clothing or makeup, are left wondering if they will be accepted by their peers.
Upon returning to in-person learning, many have been disappointed to find that the rise of LGBTQ+ online communities over quarantine has not translated into school becoming a more accepting and accommodating place.
“I only had one teacher ask us for our pronouns,” Sentena said. “The fact that teachers didn’t ask that… was kinda odd.” Sentena explained that asking students for their pronouns is an easy way to make many, especially those who don’t stereotypically look like their pronouns and are thus likely to be misgendered, feel more comfortable and accepted.
In order to move forward with the momentum that quarantine generated, conversations about pronouns ought to be normalized: students can do their part by being more open about their own pronouns.
“An example of normalizing this kind of thing is having your pronouns in your bio or introducing yourself with your pronouns,” Schrader Patton said. He explained that these steps often make it easier for transgender or non-binary people to announce their pronouns.
By normalizing conversations around pronouns, many hope to keep the questions that were sparked during quarantine alive.
“I hope people will continue to learn to be more comfortable with themselves and find that talking about this stuff isn’t taboo anymore,” Sentena said. Birdwell agrees, saying that building better spaces will help others continue to understand themselves better.
“Fostering a community around experimentation and unorthodoxy is incredibly important for self expression.” Birdwell said.
The reopening of in-person school presents a unique opportunity to take the momentum generated by quarantine and translate it into greater acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. By continuing the dialogues started during quarantine, schools have the chance to make these positive changes stick, thus stepping into a new future where gender experimentation and divergence is welcomed.