These Intimate Photos Offer A Window Into Lives Of 8 Trans People During The Pandemic

The word complicated doesn’t begin to sum up the experience of the past 14-plus months. It’s impossible to understate the effect COVID-19 has had on us all, and the pandemic brought up unique challenges for trans people, including difficulties accessing life-saving medical care. Then, amid the public health crisis, lawmakers began to target the very existence of trans youths. But there has been joy too, from the mundane to the profound. And in spite of the last year — or because of the last year — it’s essential to elevate those stories too. 
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Soon after the first wave of COVID-19 cases sent the US into lockdown, photographer Chloe Aftel, author of Outside & In Between, began to plan a project that would center trans subjects. "A big focus for all of my work is marginalized groups — non-binary people, women, poor people. These are the people who are most readily and often forgotten during decent times. So what on earth happens to them in times of crisis?" Aftel says. She ended up exploring, via photographs, video, and interviews, the experiences of eight trans people during lockdown. "I really wanted to convey the beauty, diversity, individuality, and uniqueness of all the different people in the trans community — that it isn't one kind of person," she says. "And I was really grateful to have the opportunity to do it."
Photographed by Chloe Aftel

Celeste Divinity (she/her/hers)

Celeste’s favourite trans-supportive organizations: Trans Defense Fund LA
How has COVID-19 changed your usual routine?
Having lapses in my employment due to the restrictions put in place by the pandemic [was challenging]. Affording rent, groceries, and hormones have been a struggle. COVID… impacted my access to medical care. For about a year, the clinic where I would see my GP was closed due to the pandemic, and I struggled to get the necessary lab work done to keep access to my hormones and PREP (a drug that suppresses the likelihood of contracting HIV). 
[But it’s also provided] me time to pursue some personal interests I otherwise would not have had time to partake in. Over the course of the pandemic, I have deepened my experience in creating films (primarily short music videos and personal projects) as well as skateboarding.
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What's giving you hope during the pandemic?
The increase in compassion I’m seeing for others. The collective work being done to bring down transmission and the hope of mass vaccination makes me hopeful that we will bring an end to the pandemic.
How would you suggest uplifting the trans community? 
Speaking up against transphobia where you see it and having conversations with your cisgender family and friends who don’t understand trans experiences. Change has to come through normalising the existence of trans people and demystifying our lives. We are our genders and we need to be seen as our genders, regardless of how we are perceived. Gender is limitless and has many presentations.
Photographed by Chloe Aftel

Kai Wes (they/he)

Kai’s favourite trans-supportive organizations: The Okra Project; Legal Defense Fund for Shop Enby; GoFundMe for Fifty Fifty LA
How has COVID-19 changed your usual routine?
The exorbitant amount of alone time I’ve had as a result of this period has gone from feeling like and being perceived as a problem to a real opportunity for personal growth. It might sound silly because I expose myself so publicly, but I’ve never quite felt like I had the time and a safe space behind closed doors to experiment with my gender in ways I wouldn’t allow myself to before. And I’m even talking just simple things. Why did I wait so long to start filling in my eyebrows?! (Hey @glossier, loving that Boybrow... By the way, where’s your trans representation? ;)) 
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I think the biggest realisation I’ve had during this time in relation to my transness and what that means to me is that I do indeed want to go back on hormones. Having been away from other folks long enough, I was able to stop focusing on their opinions so much and clarify for myself that, my qualms with masculinity aside, I don’t feel like I was on hormones long enough in the past. I can’t say I’ve fully discovered my gender as a whole, but it’s been settled — I’m going to grow a mustache at least once in my life. And I've accepted that it's okay to change my mind as my horizons expand.
If you regularly access medical care, has COVID-19 made that more difficult? And how has that impacted you?
Unfortunately, I am currently one of those self-employed creative millennial transplants to L.A. that is quickly approaching 30 without health insurance at the moment. Right as the pandemic hit, I had just started to book a few bigger gigs [after appearing on the reality show Are You the One?], which were quickly canceled with the start of the pandemic with the state closures. The entire industry shut down and [I had] no real reliable income after banking on these upcoming projects. I could no longer afford my therapist. My mental health took a hard dip and I struggled to manage my finances and therefore stay regularly medicated while paying for my prescriptions out of pocket. 
However, I am extremely grateful to have the privileges that I do and the digital access I have. I’ve luckily been able to now book more work, and because of that, I was just able to access hormones through a telehealth company called Plume. Plume is virtual gender-affirming care you can do right from your phone, with gender-experienced healthcare providers that truly understand the unique nuances and needs of the trans community. This is the only time you’re going to hear me thank the Instagram algorithm for showing me an ad for something, but my experience with renewing my testosterone with their team was the most positive and comfortable interaction I’ve had with a healthcare provider regarding my transition to this day. Highly recommend — especially for those without insurance, and who are averse to physically going to the doctor’s office or who can’t access local HRT!
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How do you find moments to take care of yourself or access joy during the pandemic?
Curating my space has both brought me a lot of joy and satisfaction (true Virgo here), while also being really healthy for my mental health. I’ve started meditating. I take social media breaks, and when I do engage, I’m more cognizant of who I pay attention to, and where I extend my energy. Being cut off from folks has hugely helped me heal my people pleasing tendencies! And I just have to give a special shout out to my little sister, Morgan. Her and I have spent so many hours on FaceTime and have never been this close. 
What's giving you hope during the pandemic?
Trump’s gone. Enough said. And besides that, my first answer instinctually is the relentless resilience of the queer community as always. 
What are you most looking forward to doing when the pandemic is over?
Regaining a sense of belonging. Community. Flirting without guilt. Dancing in a large space with impossibly loud music and the energy of other bodies around. Kissing strangers. Being able to make banter with strangers not through 4 layers of clothes and plexiglass? Being able to hug my grandma. I guess you could say I miss people and look forward to being able to interact with them in a way that doesn’t feel like we could off each other at any moment. And maybe also no more maskne.
Are there any ways you can suggest uplifting the trans community? 
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If you’re reading this and you’re trans and you’re struggling — hold on. Reach out. I see you. I love you. You’ve got this. If you’re reading this and you’re cis and you’re wondering if your trans friend is struggling — don’t wonder, reach out. Make them feel seen. Tell them you love them and reassure them that you’ll be there to help them get through this. Don’t just donate to major organisations, put your money in the pockets of actual trans people! Don’t just share resources, read them! Don’t be afraid to stick up for trans folks when you’re in a room of only cishets! Don’t be afraid to LOVE us! And please don’t forget to VOTE. At all levels of legislature. You want to uplift the trans community? Help stop other folks from trying to have us legalised out of existence.
Photographed by Chloe Aftel

Bella Milano (she/her/majesty)

Bella’s favourite trans-supporting organizations: CHLA
How has COVID-19 changed your usual routine?
I feel like [the pandemic] kind of created a burden of being more at-risk, if that makes sense. I’m an Afro-Latina woman, and people see just Black. Automatically in their mind, I think people think, Oh, you’re more likely to get [COVID]. If I tell them that I’m trans, it’s almost like it leaves me in a space where I don’t have any ability to access anything or even move ahead in life. 
Because of this pandemic, it feels like things have [gone backwards]. And due to the treatment of trans women, particularly those who are Black and brown — I feel like sometimes other communities pray that I’m dead, and I feel that. Even the comments that I get on social media, “Well, you’re going to be crying when you get [COVID].” Just dreadful things, and it’s like, wait a minute — I have a right to speak my mind and think for myself and who I am shouldn’t dictate access to having a career or having a job. 
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How do you find moments to take care of yourself or access joy during the pandemic?
What's giving me joy has been trying to create safe spaces with some of my sisters and my trans mentors, even though we're in a pandemic where we're supposed to be separate. But still checking in mentally, physically — finding ways to dance, because I’m a dancer, finding spaces to create that. And making a movement of joy and love. And that's really my hope, is that we continue to try to build more love than fighting.
How would you suggest uplifting the trans community? 
My advice to people is to consistently stay open, and also to be more mindful, patient, and a little bit thoughtful — this is someone who is not only making a decision that’s our truth but also living authentically and literally forming into a whole new person we were always meant to be. Cruelty is worse than death. I’ve seen it so many times — through being homeless and throughout my transition. I’ve seen sisters and my brothers who die because they’re being dehumanised or ostracised. And that’s within the community and outside. This really needs to stop because it’s very deadly, especially when we’re in a pandemic where we’re supposed to be separated. 
Photographed by Chloe Aftel

Toni (Vanity) Williams (she/her)

How has COVID-19 changed your usual routine?
Not being able to visit family/friends [was challenging, but learning my strengths and weaknesses [was important]. One of my strengths is that I’m very resilient. Being by myself, I didn’t go stir-crazy or feel the need to go out because I was lonely. And I saw that as a strength. 
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What's giving you hope during the pandemic?
I had to remember all that I still have when so many have suffered and lost so much. I find joy in those around me. The people in my life are positive and we remind each other of the love that keeps us happy. What I most look forward to is hanging out with and visiting my family and friends. Going to the movies… walking around downtown… 
How would you suggest uplifting the trans community? 
In truth I can only say what others have said: to uplift, stay strong, be positive, and never let anyone or anything define who you are… We are all unique and special.
Photographed by Chloe Aftel

Zoey Luna (she/her)

Zoey’s favourite trans-supporting organizations: CHLA, GLAAD, ACLU
How has COVID-19 changed your usual routine?
The best thing that came out of COVID for me was it allowed me to confront my fears of spending alone time with myself. I have felt lonely most of my life and being alone triggers me and [brings up] memories that I don’t want to think about. Being alone to me has always been a reminder of my past childhood traumas. So that’s part of it. It helped me realise that I don’t need to be around anyone just because I can’t feel alone.
[The pandemic] also helped me confront my fear of creating boundaries and standing up for myself, especially in regards to protecting myself and the health of my friends and family. It made me get to a point where I had to learn how to put my foot down and say no, I won’t compromise my well-being.
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But a thing that has been very triggering is that when wearing a mask, it covers a lot of your face and it covers a lot of how people can easily identify you in public. I feel like when I don't have my mask on, it's easy to tell that I'm a woman, but if I'm just wearing [a mask and] baggy sweats, a big T-shirt, and even a beanie sometimes without any of my extensions on, I definitely fear that I will be clocked as a trans person. My fear of life has grown immensely — of being targeted as a trans woman for not wanting to necessarily get up every day and do my hair, but still go out to get my groceries.
How do you find moments to take care of yourself or access joy during the pandemic?
I clean, I draw, and I dye my hair 300 times a week. I write a lot, and I try to get in touch with my feelings and take time to touch base with what I've gone through throughout the day — to basically have little recaps for myself and moments of reflection. So that way, I can be able to move forward in my life and make sure that I'm not just waiting for a pandemic to be over, I'm using it to grow through this time. 
What are you most looking forward to doing when the pandemic is over?
Showing off my new lips. But I also would love to go and take myself out. Just as a trans woman in general, it's very scary to go out on your own and do your own thing. But I definitely feel like if the world's out again, I will be able to feel more safe knowing that there's multiple people out on the street — and that it's not completely irresponsible. And I want to be able to go back to acting and not have to worry about if COVID restrictions are gonna stop me from working. 
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How would you suggest uplifting the trans community? 
I recommend educating yourself and taking time to acknowledge your own inner transphobia. I would also recommend therapy in general, and taking the time to understand how you as a cis person understand your own expectations of gender — and if you ever feel like you have to put on the most extreme version of your gender identity just to feel accepted in this world, to see how harsh it is on you and to try to place yourself in the shoes of a trans person. 
Photographed by Chloe Aftel

Violet Jai (she/her)

Violet’s favourite trans-supporting organisations: The Trevor Project; Los Angeles LGBT Center; The Diversity Center, Santa Cruz.
How has COVID-19 changed your usual routine?
The best part of COVID has been having time for self-reflection. I've had time to think about the past, the present and grow to be more comfortable with accepting the future, whatever that may be.
The worst part of COVID has been that my career hasn't really started. I feel like even in the makeup and social media industry, I have to prove myself 10 times harder because I'm trans and there’s a lack of representation. COVID [also] greatly impacted my social life — Especially with dating. Dating for me as a trans woman has already been hell over the years, so it’s seemed even more impossible and complicated during COVID.  
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How do you find moments to access joy during the pandemic?
I do makeup on myself. It is a total escape for me. I love to be creative when I feel stuck and depressed. [And] doing my makeup and hair, makes me feel like myself. I also FaceTime my closest friends and family everyday. That's honestly what has gotten me through this scary time. 
What's giving you hope during the pandemic?
As simple as it sounds, my small group of close friends and family. They hype me up when I think things aren't looking up or like the pandemic will never end. I will never take that for granted. I [also] just want to thank the trans community for staying strong during this crazy time. It's a really scary time for everyone and being trans is scary enough. Seeing fellow trans people inspire me to be the best version of myself and to keep chasing my dreams.
How would you suggest uplifting the trans community? 
Support trans artists! Support your trans friends! Be sure to know what being an ally means before labeling yourself as one. It doesn't just mean you support us or don't have an issue with us. It means you ask what we need and you actively and publically speak up for us when no one will listen to us.
Photographed by Chloe Aftel

Lana Patel (she/her/hers)

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How has COVID-19 changed your usual routine?
[The best way COVID changed my routine was] being able to enjoy time at home when I'm not working. Being able to see my neighbourhood and meet my neighbours. Being able to bond with my puppy. Not spending two hours driving back and forth to the office everyday.
[The most challenging part was] being away from family. Dealing with my grandmother's death in Florida and not being able to attend her funeral. Three of my four nieces were born during COVID and I was unable to see them. Feeling disconnected from community and friends because everything went virtual — but Zoom fatigue is such a real thing. 
If you regularly access medical care, has COVID-19 made that more difficult? And how has that impacted you?
I was unable to have medical procedures done because of COVID restrictions. Medical appointments were canceled or rescheduled months out, due to priority being given to COVID and high-risk patients. The medical system basically declared that most trans-affirming care was not a necessity, so they canceled scheduled procedures and surgeries with no immediate reschedule date — not understanding that not having access to care could be a life-or-death situation. 
It has impacted my mental health for sure. Trying to juggle work and the needs of the community while struggling to stay afloat has been challenging. Being the face of strength for others while mentally breaking down has been the story of my life this year.
What's giving you hope during the pandemic?
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The amazing communities I belong to. The hope and desire to see friends and family when this is all over and my need to succeed despite the odds. I want to see a rainbow after all of the turmoil this past year. From losing my grandmother to the beginning of COVID, to losing three other family members and not being able to say goodbye, from everything I have fought for leading up to this day; I want to see a positive resolution. 
How would you suggest uplifting the trans community? 
By providing tangible resources. Funding, housing, employment, mental health, access to proper and inclusive medical care. The trans community has historically gotten the shortest end of the stick in all of these areas and I would like to see a change. 
Photographed by Chloe Aftel

Vanessa Warri (she/her/hers) 

Vanessa’s favourite trans-supportive organisations: G.L.I.T.S; Unique Women's Coalition; My Sistah’s House; Sister’s PGH
How has COVID-19 changed your usual routine?
For one, it has been amazing to embrace my homebody energy. Who doesn’t love having access to all the comforts of the space that they call home? If I want another cup of coffee, I can have one. If I need a break from work after that meeting that burned me out a little more than usual I can close my eyes in my bed, or take a shower. It has enabled me to get to know what it means to feel “at home.” I have a history with homelessness and being marginally housed. Now, I get to spend a more intimate level of time with my space, as opposed to just being home to sleep.
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[But] as much as I love and fully embrace the introverted parts of me, I miss people. I miss having organic opportunities to engage with folks — like when you run into your friend you haven’t seen in a while on campus and take a stroll in each other’s general direction to class. I miss getting dressed to the tens with my girlfriends from UCLA and going absolutely wild for the night as a treat for surviving midterms or finals. I miss traveling. All in all, it really challenged my ability to connect to other people. 
I have been grateful, however, to increase my ability to be of service to my community elders here in Los Angeles. All in all, I think it’s really pushed me to be intentional about how I show up in the social setting and to practice finding balance between introverted and extroverted sides of my nature. 
How do you find moments to take care of yourself or access joy during the pandemic?
I find myself dancing around my house more frequently as of late. I used to dance a lot as a teenager with my friends so this has been a great way to reconnect with the younger me and find joy that way. Cooking has brought immense joy, and with social media I have been slowly sharing my love of cooking with others. I’m also a cat mom to a sweet and spunky little calico named Nova who keeps me in the best of spirits always. We will soon be welcoming an addition to our family, a gorgeous little kitten that I have named Tuxedo — we can’t wait.
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What's giving you hope during the pandemic?
Seeing the creativity expressed by (most of) humanity during the pandemic in terms of finding innovative ways to stay connected. I know people who are not all that tech savvy, yet they’re still actively in the Zoom room when it opens, they’re still open to figuring it out to be able to connect. All the social media challenges, all the Live conversations, engaging in complex and deep discussion with my colleagues in the Social Welfare program about how to envision an anti-racist, anti-white supremacist, decolonial, and community-center social welfare discipline.
Seeing folks wearing their masks gives me hope, whether they believe in them or not, because the solidarity of it all means we are capable of great collectivist efforts which we need more of if we are to reverse out of our current course and shift towards a new trajectory for our society.
What are you most looking forward to doing when the pandemic is over?
I want to host a dinner party. Ask any of my friends from back home and they will tell you: “Vanessa loves her a dinner party.” It is just one of the many ways I like to create space for my community. I really can’t wait to go back to campus [too]; there are several of my professors and colleagues in the program that I can’t wait to see in person, sit with and work alongside, grab coffee with.
Now that I got the heartwarming stuff out of the way, I would like to go out and when I say “Cut up” I mean exactly that. It has been too long since I have had a night on the town. I need a dress that’s too tight, a drink that’s too strong, and a beat that’s too loud — yes, God.
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How would you suggest uplifting the trans community? 
It’s so interesting because a decade ago we weren’t even acknowledging the existence of transgender people, now we are starting to have conversations to shed light on the experience of trans people. And still, I observe the overwhelming majority of active conversations about trans people are still held without them. Transgender is not a monolithic experience, it is a complex, rich, wide, and varied spectrum that one person cannot even begin to touch on broadly. In the face of the disproportionate rates of violence that Black transgender people, undocumented and asylum-seeking transgender people of colour, Indigenous transgender people, and the countless intersections of oppression that trans people find themselves at, we must use this same creative energy we see now to find ways to amplify all of these voices. My experience, while real and authentic, is but one of many experiences that exist as a transgender person. In order to paint a full picture of that experience, we need to bring more voices to the table in order to make that happen.
To our allies, use your positions of privilege to create more teachable moments for your networks. Offer up or create some positions, internships, apprenticeships, within your companies that enable trans people to gain exposure to industries they’ve never been invited to access before. Be active about shutting down transphobia when you see it happening, and not just after the incident to console someone. Prevention is always better than treatment.

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