Sophie Kyle Collins ’23 told me about a poem they wrote in ninth grade. In the piece, the speaker describes having relationships with people of all genders. It would be years before Sophie Kyle identified as queer, but that knowledge was already right there in writing.
“It always keeps coming up if you look at the record. It’s something that kept getting written down and then forgotten,” they said. “Like I have this really weird memory of filling out a form my first year at Yale and clicking that I was LGBTQ, or whatever it was.”
For a moment, I forgot that I’m the one doing the interviewing “I did the same thing!” I butted in. “I even requested a PL from the LGBTQ+ resource office. I completely ghosted them after one meeting.”
“Yeah, oh my gosh,” Sophie Kyle continued. “It was so weird, like closing my eyes and clicking this thing on a form. It’s not something I ever could have said out loud. It was like I was glancing sidelong at the truth, but never actually looking at it.”
It’s been three years since Sophie Kyle and I came out to a Yale Qualtrics form. Since then, we’ve held on as life flipped inside out. Before the pandemic, Gen Z was already the most openly queer generation to grow up in the United States. Separated from our peers and our normal routines, some of us found that we could keep our eyes open for long enough to see our queerness clearly for the first time. In an era of TikTok, Zoom, and solitude, young people are telling new stories of queerness and self-discovery.
I spoke with four students who came to new understandings of their sexuality and gender over the past 18 months. Each one of them had been thinking about their gender or sexuality for years, but it took the radical life disruption of the pandemic for them to examine those thoughts head on. “I think the biggest way the pandemic affected my queer journey is just making me sit with it. Without the fast paced life of school and given so much time for self reflection, I was forced to look some of these questions in the face,” said Veronica ’24*.
Bella Back ’21 thinks they’ve known they’re nonbinary since they were a child, but they didn’t embrace that idenity until the past few months. “The pandemic gave me the chance to introspect and really question in a way that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise,” they told me.
The pandemic sped up the questioning that Sophie Kyle was already doing around their gender. “Everytime you’re alone you go into some thoughts,” they said. “And then you get back to other people, and it gets cuts off. It renews the performance. I think it’s unprecedented to go this long without it renewing. You go to bed and you’re alone, and you might let the performance fall away for 12 hours, but we went like 500 million hours.”
It’s shocking to think I spent years working the same thoughts about my sexuality over in my mind. I’ve had crushes on people of different genders since high school, mostly ones I ignored or explained away as friendship. I did not hide this out of shame, more so confusion. These thoughts and feelings were like a painting that was too big to see all at once. I was left cross-eyed stealing sidelong glances at the brushstrokes, never able to make sense of the whole.
The pandemic gave me time and perspective to put these fragments together. One day, probably when I was lying in my childhood bedroom in the middle of a March afternoon, I ended up on gay TikTok. I have no way of knowing what that first queer video was, only that TikTok kept showing me more. At the time, I had a long-distance boyfriend, and I barely left my house. The stakes of exploring my queer indenty felt as low as they ever could. Passive curiosity gave into eager scrolling. Some videos were explicitly gay, clips of couples or comedy bits about coming out. But most showed queer women living slightly prettier versions of my own life. I learned that being queer could mean listening to Girl in Red, or wearing thrifted clothes, or having a picnic in a wildflower field.
Social media helped Veronica feel like she could belong in the queer community, even if they didn’t have precise ways to label and define their identity. It also gave her space to try out new pronouns by switching up her Instagram bio or Zoom name. Bella feels like online posts gave them an early glimpse into the joy of being nobinary. “It’s not an identity I accepted easily,” they told me “Seeing other amazing nonbinary folks on social media helped me to see the identity as a beautiful part of myself rather than something to dislike.”
Perhaps it is privileged and a little silly for queerness — with its history of marginalization and struggle — to be reduced to internet aesthetics. But these posts are also promises of joy and belonging. When I scrolled through the rose-filtered clips on my own feed, it felt for the first time like something good could come of being attentive to my queerness.
Before the pandemic, Daniel ’24* couldn’t imagine telling anyone that he was bisexual. “Growing up, it didn’t feel like there was space for me to not be straight,” he said. “But at the start of the pandemic, as I started spending more time on TikTok, I just started seeing all these people expressing themselves in different ways. I saw there was space for me.”
Sophie Kyle explained that the internet gave them the vocabulary to talk about and understand queerness. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say the internet isn’t the reason I know what sexuality is,” they told me. But unlike many young people, Sophie Kyle chose to scale back their social media use during the pandemic. While exploring their gender, “it was a real vindication, to be logged off social media and away from campus. No adult could accuse me of just being a trend.”
I wish I could say the same. But at this point, it feels impossible to understand my queerness without the context of other queer people and other queer stories. I sometimes feel like I can’t embody this identity without constantly positioning myself for validation, negotiating the right of the queer community to exisit and my own right to belong to it. Maybe this is why I’m writing this as an article, not an essay. Maybe this is why I’m writing this at all. Outside my own mind, the story of how I came to know myself in this way feels too strange to stand alone.
Being back on campus and a few steps closer to normalcy, the whole idea of “coming out” feels tedious. I’m more secure in my sexuality now than I could’ve ever imagined, so much so that I forget some people close to me don’t know this part of me yet. Still, the idea of telling people makes me feel like a confused high schooler all over again.
Daniel shares some of my nerves around sharing this new identity with others. “It’s exhausting to tell everyone in my life,” he said. “It’s still so hard to get over that hurdle. I feel like each time I’ve told someone, though, I get better at that.” Returning to campus after a gap year, he’s worried that he has too high expectations, especially when it comes to being as confident and proud as the queer social media creators he watched throughout quarantine.
Victoria is also anxious about exiting her tight-knit quarantine bubble, where she was able to control how she shared and expressed her identity. They don’t know how they will continue their path of self-discovery and acceptance now that they’re back in classes following a gap year.
After graduating in May, Bella can’t count on the supportive atmosphere of Yale’s campus. “Navigating a workplace that by and large doesn’t recognize my gender identity as legitimate has been particularly challenging,” they said. “but I am so grateful for the last year and a half and the place of self-acceptance I was able to come to before graduating.”
While the re-opening of campus brings some apprehension, it is most of all a cause for celebration. “My whole life, this is something that I’ve been hiding about myself,” Daniel said. “And now I really want to make it a part of my identity. I want people to see it when they see me.”
He told me that his journey with queerness paralleled the stages of grief, a progression from denial to acceptance. But at the end of our conversation, when I asked him what being queer means to him, Daniel defined his queerness as having more to do with joy than loss. “It’s kinda cheesy,” he said, “but earlier in the summer, I saw a quote from Ocean Vuong about how queerness is often thought of as deprivation, but for me, it saved my life; I really resonated with that.”
Emerging from this time of hurt, it gives me hope to think of queerness as abundance, as life, as the opposite of loss. I keep returning to something Sophie Kyle said, that finding a home in queerness is a means of connecting with one’s humanity.
“Becoming authentic, I surely think that is a do or die thing,” they said. Because what is living as only a fragment of yourself? I’d say it’s hardly living at all.
*Names have been changed to preserve privacy.