After a year of Covid one thing is clear, lockdown is not for the faint-hearted. Many have succumbed to the nagging feeling of hopelessness as unemployment and stress have morphed into a tangible monster haunting our every thought.
For the LGBTQ+ community it has been an especially isolating experience – a recent study showed that during the pandemic LGBTQ+ people, particularly the younger transgender and gender-diverse respondents, experienced “high levels of stress and depressive symptoms”.
Yet, confined in the comfort of their home and away from prying eyes and external diversions, some were able to indulge in curiosities that had always been whispering at them from the back of their mind.
For Olive La Strada, 27, that was cross-dressing.
Prior to lockdown Olive was only known as Daniel Necula – a Romanian videographer from Bucharest. Tall and scrawny most days he alternated between long hoodies and football t-shirts. An everyday guy by society’s standards.
And yet, if it was up to Daniel, he would have been dressed very differently.
“From my first memory, I knew I wanted to wear feminine clothes,” says Olive now. “And, of course, I thought it was a bad thing because society had fixed it in my mind that it was.”
Living in Romania, a famously conservative and religious country, complicated things. At 12, Daniel was bullied relentlessly at school because the length of his hair was too ‘girly’. His fellow classmates even created an entire campaign to get him to cut his hair, getting his math teacher on board.
“Do you like boys?” the teacher had asked him mockingly.
Laughter echoed in the classroom. “No,” Daniel said.
“Then why do you look like a fucking girl?”
He was forbidden to step foot in the teacher’s class until he got a haircut.
It wasn’t until 15 years later, during lockdown, that Daniel started experimenting again – by wearing his girlfriend’s clothes around the house.
“My girlfriend was born in France, she has different perceptions about this stuff but, still, in the beginning I disguised it as a joke.” But Daniel found he liked it. He started wearing her clothes more often and for longer periods of time – until it could no longer be explained as an attempt to make her laugh.
“She was kind of ‘I know what’s going on’ and at one point I finally told her ‘Hey, it’s not a joke’ and she said ‘I know’.
“It was nice,” she says smiling. “I found understanding for the first time.”
But it was the abundance of spare time alone at home with his girlfriend the only one still able to work, that propelled him to dig deeper. He bought a wig, opened an Instagram account under the name Olive La Strada and every day, when his girlfriend went to work, Olive took the wheel.
“I started feeling more comfortable inside. Maybe it sounds weird but I’d put on a wig and I wouldn’t have those problems from the outside world. I feel more relaxed than I usually do. And I wanted to help people understand they are not wrong if they like to dress up like this.”
Over the span of a few months Daniel became a part of an online community that encouraged him to question his identity and be himself – he realised he was genderfluid.
In August 22, user @fuglibetty tweeted: ‘The amount of ppl coming 2 terms w gender identity over lockdown really proves how social interaction is inseparable from gender performance like … the moment ur isolated from constant promotion of gendered behaviour u have the space to question what it even means for u.”
The tweet, which has garnered more than 80 thousand likes, resonates with Daniel. “I was never able to express myself because of my biological gender. [There were] some kind of rules [I had to follow] that put me in a cage for so long. Now feminine clothes are a way of expression for me – I will prefer to wear a skirt than some kind of jeans.”
According to Dr. Alex Iantaffi, author of How to Understand Your Gender, the term cross-dressing itself “is part of binary thinking”.
“Although we often correlate clothes with a specific gender expression, clothes are just clothes,” they say. “The gender connotation we give to clothes comes from us and it is often related
to historical, cultural, and social contexts.”
They explain that people feel comfortable with “certainty and labels” but “if we think in non-binary ways, cross-dressing disappears. There is just choosing clothes we like, in different moments in time, for a range of reasons other than showcasing our sexuality or gender.”
The sentiment is shared by Rosie Levine, 20, a non-binary American who, during lockdown, became one of the faces of the #femboy trend on Tik Tok as posts of them wearing feminine clothes and make-up went viral.
But it wasn’t always like that.
When lockdown forced everyone in New York inside, Rosie was a freshly out of the closet bisexual boy. Their only experiences with feminine clothes had been while jokingly wearing their friends’ dresses around to entertain them. Only, for Rosie, those were stolen moments of exploration.
When lockdown came into place, having dropped out of college a month before and grieving their father’s recent death, they jumped into Tik Tok to pass the time – and they were met with an entire community of people questioning and redefying the gender norm.
In June, inspired by Pride, Rosie decided they wanted to explore their feminine side more. “I did a special series where every day I would wear an outfit that I wouldn’t have been comfortable wearing when I was closeted. It started out with floral patterns on normal shirts but then I started throwing in a few crop tops in the mix. And then came a skirt. And then a dress.”
The anxiety before pressing the publish button lessened with each post but what helped more was the sudden influx of followers. “In a month I ended up with 40,000 followers and it was huge because it was all these people who accepted me, enjoyed me as a person and wanted to see me for me.”
With the external support, they started to explore what feminine clothes meant to them. They researched, reached out to LGBTQ+ tik tokers and, in the end, realised they were non-binary – changed their name and shed the he/him pronouns for they/them.
On the other side of the pond, Luke Baldwin, 25, was dedicating lockdown to creating his drag alter-ego, Sally Cinnamon.
The English editor from Manchester has been a Drag Race fan since an ex-boyfriend introduced it to him a few years back, but it felt like an unattainable dream for the longest time.
Until, at the beginning of last year, inspired by the premiere of Drag Race UK, he finally got the courage to explore this long-time curiosity and became a member of the Drag society of University of Sheffield, where he was finishing his final year of journalism.
Covid, of course, had other plans.
With lockdown it felt like his moment was lost. If there weren’t people around to guide and encourage him, how could he do it on his own? While he loved cosplaying, he’d never been bold or feminine.
But, with lots of time on his hands as he submitted his remaining assignments, he got curious. He watched make-up tutorials, bought wigs, and when finding fitting outfits online proved a struggle – he learned how to make them himself!
In the beginning, Luke admits, drag was a charming idea but also a medium – a way to help him get on stage and attain his dream of stand-up comedy. “I always get nervous about going onstage,” he says. “And drag offered a perfect way out because I’m not me. If it goes badly I go offstage, take off the makeup, the wig and I’m back to being Luke.”
Yet, as lockdown allowed him to immerse himself in the role of Sally, he found not only that he loved being her but that many of her personality traits he “wished” he had – her flamboyance, confidence, boldness and body positivity – had actually carried over to his everyday life.
Sally became Luke.
Pre-lockdown Luke was self-conscious; maintaining a beard “because I didn’t like my face” and buying clothes to extenuate his masculine features. Now he shows off images of him as Sally to friends and family, heads to the female section the moment he steps into H&M and wears pieces of women’s clothing in his everyday life.
“I take off my make-up now, look at myself and go there’s a cute looking boy under there! And the more I switch between the two I realize everything was always there. I just needed to make the realization.”
His identity as Sally became an integral part of him; being her has seized to be a role. It became a way of life and part of his identity.
In the one drag show he had participated before lockdown he was excited but timid, glad he was shouldered by other Queens. Now? He can’t wait to stride down to a Manchester bar as Sally and ask for a gig, to perform and be seen.
“Because of lockdown, the practice I’ve been able to get in, and the soul searching, I have confidence now,” he says. “I don’t want to share the limelight with several Queens, I can do it by myself.
I will be the star and I’m happy to do that.”