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On Transgender Day of Visibility, one woman reflects on how the pandemic helped her grow

Karleigh Webb at the West Hartford Reservoir on March 29, 2022. Webb said that working at Trans Lifeline "can be a difficult job. It bites at you. But I can't think of anything I'd rather do."
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Karleigh Webb says that working at Trans Lifeline "can be a difficult job. It bites at you. But I can't think of anything I'd rather do."

The pandemic brought something unexpected for Karleigh Webb. In February 2020, she moved in with two other transgender people and created a home where she could shut out the cisgender world.

In the safety of her self-described “queer trans fortress,” Webb said she could finally confront her imposter syndrome and gender dysphoria.

“You couldn’t run from it, you couldn’t mask the pain,” she said.

The pandemic gave Webb the time and space to answer the most important question: “Who is Karleigh Webb?”

“I began to learn that in earnest in 2020,” she said. “And it’s just carried over into 2021 and into 2022.

“2020 was the year I truly found my voice as a trans woman.”

COVID created many challenges for transgender people. But it also gave some a chance to explore their identity away from toxic workplaces, disapproving families and the cisgender world. On Transgender Day of Visibility, observed on March 31, trans people are celebrating their accomplishments – and reflecting on living through COVID.

There were some positives in the pandemic for transgender people, experts say.

Time alone was generative for Dr. AJ Eckert’s patients. Eckert is the medical director for the Gender & Life-Affirming Medicine Program at Anchor Health.

“For a lot of us as trans people, it can be really hard to sit isolated and alone and have to deal with your body,” said Eckert, who’s also an assistant clinical professor of family medicine at the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University.

Karleigh hopped up on a rock, threw her arms in the air and said, "This is victory. This is how I felt when I got my first estrogen shot."
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Karleigh Webb hopped up on a rock, threw her arms in the air and said, "This is victory. This is how I felt when I got my first estrogen shot."

The time spent alone during the early days of the pandemic gave some of Eckert’s patients time to confront themselves.

“I’ve seen a lot of people coming in who maybe wouldn’t have, like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to start living my life. This is who I am,’” he said.

Eckert says other positives of the pandemic include how some people felt less gender dysphoria in public thanks to masks; they were less frequently misgendered. Telehealth made it easier for some to access gender-inclusive health care and build trust with providers.

But to Eckert, there was more bad than good. Gender-affirming surgeries, years in the making, were postponed or canceled. Some of his patients lost jobs and then health care. Some support groups and services had to close their doors.

Webb heard about the pandemic’s effects on trans people through the Trans Lifeline. She’s a call operator on the 24/7 hotline. When lockdowns began, the phone lines lit up, she said, and the isolation hit the trans community hard.

“For a lot of these younger people … school is their lifeline, school is the place where they can be authentic, and a lot of those kids are going into environments that are indifferent or totally unsupportive,” Webb said.

Transgender people experience higher rates of suicidal thinking — close to 12 times the rate of the general population, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law. Transgender people also experience food insecurity, chronic disease and homelessness at higher rates than cisgender people.

Then there’s been the rise of anti-trans sentiment and laws passed in various states to restrict trans rights. The Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law estimates that over one-third of transgender youth in the U.S., ages 13 to 17, have or could have their gender-affirming health care restricted due to legislation. Fifteen states have passed or are considering bills.

Eckert is concerned for those who don’t have virtual work options and may be entering toxic workplaces.

“Now we’re looking at, ‘OK, it’s been a couple of years, I really can’t hide this from people,’” he said. “It can be really, really scary to think, ‘OK, I’m going to go back to this job where they know me as this thing I’m not.’”

Over 80% of trans people in Connecticut experienced harassment on the job and a quarter reported losing a job due to their gender expression, according to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Trans people of color, particularly African Americans, fared even worse.

Webb says that’s why Trans Day of Visibility, and the related conversations calling for change, are so important.

For her, it was at an event on Trans Day of Visibility in 2017 when she started to see herself. She’d been planning to come out when she was laid off from her job; she was devastated. But she found herself on an overcast day in New Haven at a vigil, holding a trans flag.

“That was the first day of not living a double life anymore,” she said. “That day I decided I am going to be me full time.”

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She loves hearing what you thought of her stories or story ideas you have so please email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org.

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