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Transgender and nonbinary individuals navigate isolation and creating virtual support groups during the current pandemic 

Tranz Central Coast Chair Jaime Woolf said the organization's members, much like the rest of the San Luis Obispo County community, are feeling economically stressed and isolated due to the shelter-at-home order.

That isolation isn't new to some individuals who identify as transgender or nonbinary, Woolf said, as many have families that aren't supportive, or they don't have a home environment where they're comfortable being themselves.

"Now they're just isolated at home and many of them are unable to express who their authentic self is," she said.

click to enlarge SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY Transgender and nonbinary youth are feeling the impacts of the shelter-at-home order, but medical professionals and local groups are providing safe spaces. - IMAGE COURTESY OF TRANZ CENTRAL COAST
  • Image Courtesy Of Tranz Central Coast
  • SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY Transgender and nonbinary youth are feeling the impacts of the shelter-at-home order, but medical professionals and local groups are providing safe spaces.

The Trevor Project—a national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people under 25—says that COVID-19 has serious implications for the mental health of LGBTQ youth.

"Although it is too early to fully understand the impact of physical distancing due to COVID-19 on health and mental health, existing research has found that people who do not feel connected to others are more likely to suffer from respiratory illness, report depression and anxiety, and experience suicidality," a Trevor Project report released on April 3 states.

Kris Roudebush, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Luis Obispo who now sees 90 percent of her clients through video sessions—she still sees a few patients in person. She's also considered a gender-affirming provider.

Anecdotally, Roudebush said, unless transgender and nonbinary youth have already established an online community of transgender-affirming groups, then that social interaction is significantly lacking.

She said these individuals who are quarantined at home are now navigating how to express their identity in safe ways. She gave the example of living in a home that isn't supportive and joining the virtual support group that Tranz Central Coast. That individual has to look for a safe space in their home to have a confidential video conference with the group.

"I try to always start a session if I know that's the case, by checking and asking, 'Are you in a place where you can speak openly?' Sometimes it's a matter of just nodding their head or shaking their head," Roudebush said.

Being new to telehealth, Roudebush said she's learned that her clients go to a separate room in the house, go outside, have their session in the car, or go on a walk.

Typically when Roudebush first meets with a client, she said she assesses what their goals for therapy are and what they are hoping to work on—a common thread that connects their time together.

"However, with what's going on right now, I'm really taking every session to check in with clients to see how they're doing day to day, how their life has been affected by COVID-19 related things, and then really encouraging, supporting, and reviewing self-care practices," she said. "Even if we feel 'fine' or slightly more exhausted than usual, it's important to practice preventative self-care. If you are not OK, you're experiencing ongoing overwhelming feelings of sadness and excessive crying spells you can't seem to stop, severe anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, please reach out."

Individuals who need therapy can start during this isolation period. Roudebush said many therapists are offering teletherapy. She also advises reaching out to local organizations like the Gala Pride and Diversity Center, Tranz Central Coast, and other nationwide organizations such as the Validation Station. The Validation Station is a newly established free text service created to share affirmation amid the current pandemic—by providing your name, phone number, and pronouns, an individual gets a daily text validating their identity and why they're great.

Roudebush said she's really trying to assist her patients in processing loss due to the virus—loss of physical social interaction, financial loss, employment loss, or even the temporary loss of scheduled gender-affirming surgery.

Dr. Denise Taylor practices family medicine and provides hormone therapy to adults and youth. Currently, Taylor said that her practice isn't halting hormone therapy, as hormones can be prescribed and check-ins can be done via telemedicine.

She said she has heard a few patients say they were in the process of getting consults for gender-affirming surgery or were scheduling a gender-affirming surgery before the pandemic. Gender-affirming surgery falls under the elective surgery category, which has been temporarily on hold.

"It doesn't sound like people are super distressed about that. I think they understand why and they're sort of rolling with it. I think as long as there's the possibility that it's going to happen at some point soon, and there is a plan in place, [it] does help," Taylor said.

Dr. Lauren Prewitt told New Times she doesn't see the temporary halt of elective surgeries as a huge issue with her patients either. She conducts hysterectomy procedures for trans-sexualism or transgender indication.

She said that many of her patients live with a body that they can't control or are trapped in a body they have no control over. These individuals, Prewitt said, have figured out how to be their authentic selves, and they probably have coping mechanisms and some encouraging words for the rest of the community now trapped in an uncontrollable situation.

"To be honest, I think you're talking about a highly flexible, adaptable, resilient population who has a lot to say to the rest of us who maybe haven't had to do something like this," Prewitt said. Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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