This is one of a three-part series of interviews with trans survivors about their experiences in Coronavirus pods. Pods can be defined as “small, self-contained networks of people who limit their non-distanced social interaction to one another—in other words, they’re the small group of people with whom you share air without using breath-control precautions such as masks.” Further, “many public health experts have recommended ‘quarantine pods’ as an effective way to get our social, emotional, familial, and sexual needs met without unnecessarily endangering ourselves or others.”
Henry is a queer trans man, survivor, and social worker in his early 30s.
Who is in your pod?
There’s me and my partner, who’s in their thirties and nonbinary and trans, and there’s a cis queer girl who is in her late twenties and then the other couple, which is two women. So everyone in the house is queer and there are three trans people.
What’s the origin of your pod?
Well, my partner was already living with three other people and they had an early scare, like March 10th or 11th or something. Two of the roommates who are dating both had pretty classic symptoms, like a fever and a dry cough. And one of them is a first responder, so she was able to get tested, but it immediately kind of changed the culture of there. They were the first house that I had heard of close down access to the house. Like they weren’t even leaving the house. People were bringing groceries and stuff and quarantining that couple in one bedroom, not sharing the bathroom with them, just like, you know, really implementing these best practices that pretty much everyone else would somewhat adopt.
And that meant that I couldn’t come and go from my partner’s house. So I just U-Hauled and moved into the guestroom.
So you do have a first responder in the house whose job is high risk, and they’re exposed to a lot of people. So you could have just gone in the other direction and given up on creating a sealed bubble. But the rest of y’all try to follow pretty strict guidelines. So why have you gone this way instead?
The first responder is the person that got sick first. And so I think that set off our initial culture, which was about centering her being a first responder. Even after she tested negative, she was still very ill. And I think it’s really felt like solidarity in practice. Like, we’re going to be extra safe so that you can keep being a firefighter. And also less deeply, she’s one of two people that are bringing in income in the house. And most of us are broke. So it’s not all out of the goodness of our heart. And even though I have a “real house” quote, unquote, I didn’t want to not have be able to access my partner for this whole time. So I also felt like I didn’t have a choice.
The calculus that I’ve been doing the whole time is like, there’s very little necessary, essential risk that I need to take. And so why wouldn’t I just take as little risk as possible for the security of my pod because yeah, we have a firefighter who’s like going to the living in the fire station half the time and she’s not social distancing cause she’s in a truck with her coworkers getting her temperature checked three times a day. Like why not? I’m not working. I’m living with my partner; I can have social distance hangs. Like why wouldn’t I just try to do as little as possible? And I think that, with varying degrees of severity based on personality, is the gist of what our house culture has been.
So you’re paying rent on the house you moved out of too?
Yes. The one thing that made it possible for me to move into this house is that their landlord is not a company and she cut their rent in half. So I’ve only paid like a hundred bucks or whatever, just like pitching in a little bit. And rent at my old house is really, really, really cheap cause I live in a closet. So it’s just like made it strangely possible.
What are your agreements?
In general we agreed on:
- No one in the house, outside of the pod.
- We don’t go into anyone’s house
- We really try to avoid public restrooms and stuff, but obviously people have been traveling and you have to sometimes
- No dining in at restaurants
- Social distance from others and masks everywhere.
- And we have a quarantine procedure [of isolating the person in their room within the house], if people feel like they’ve been exposed. Like my partner just flew basically halfway across the country and back. So that was like a pretty clear exposure event to some degree.
How does your pod function? What does this look like in practice?
All but one of us is unemployed. So it’s real summer-camp-with-deep-anxiety vibe.
Our food is all communized, which is great because the people who really like to cook get to dream up detailed meals, and the people who don’t like to cook (me) don’t feel guilty about eating and just doing dishes.
I think one key to our success is we pretty much all do our own thing all day and come together for dinner, a walk, and TV at night (if we opt in). There is no introvert-shaming or co-dependency— I often just leave the group and go to my bedroom without a word. People are super mindful of space and everyone feeling included.
What has worked and not worked?
It really feels like a lot of what’s challenging about this is what’s challenging about polyamory. Early on, we, we laughed a lot about like, “Oh, we’re fluid bonded now.” Which like, yeah, like respiratorily, we are fluid bonded. Obviously the context is unprecedented and we don’t know how to handle a lot of it, but it does feel like just classic kind of polyam drama where like everyone is negotiating their individual risk in different ways. And people slip up or aren’t thinking of the pod.
Pretty much all of us have somewhat regular socially distant hangs, and some us are going to demo[nstration]s and stuff. And we have to trust that, like when your partner goes on a date, you’re trusting that they’re not flouting your agreement.
I think things just get looser outside of the house, just from not having the physical accountability of other pod members. Like a while ago, the couple sent us a picture and it was clear that they were like inside their parents’ house with the dog that we live with. And we were like, “huh, I don’t remember them like asking about that, but they were wearing masks.”
And several of us have been the demos. One person got tear gassed really severely with a lot of other people. They had to ditch their mask because they like got gas on it. They quarantined [isolating inside the house], but they ended up testing negative.
I would really prefer to order everything online every two weeks or just go to Costco like once a month or whatever. And we do go to Costco, but for example, someone went to the grocery for the past four days this week from my house. And then today someone went to Walmart and tomorrow two people are going to Costco and there’s not any room for food. And as soon as the stores opened, people were thrifting.
But pretty much everyone, except me is an extrovert. And like truly they’re a part of their like coping is that they can go get a 12 pack or whatever. I think partly my position, like my personality and my positionality as someone who literally needs nothing very little from the outside, like has positioned me as kind of the like germaphobe overlord.
I think over time there has been a loosening of procedures in the pod. And I think my response has been a tightening [of them]. Like the more anxious I have been, the longer this is going on, the more strictness can help me function better. But I think most of the other people, they’re not denying what’s going on, but they’re just like, “I’m exhausted. I just can’t keep up this level of vigilance,” which is real.
And I think given that, like, there’s just like such a dearth of concrete information, I think people keep flip-flopping [on specific boundaries]. It’s messy enough to navigate like STI risk with partners or whatever.
But this is new for everyone.
You know, my partner has been quarantining [because they traveled to a high-risk area] and in the moment sometimes I’ll be like, “oh, you’re wearing an N95, so I’ll walk next to you. Like, I’ll wear a mask too.” And they’re like, “I thought you said you didn’t want to.” And I’m like, “that is true. I did say that. But I’m doing it.”
It sounds like part of the issue is that there’s so many possibilities you can’t necessarily plan for, kind of like with sexual boundaries. What are your thoughts about how the pandemic has affected trans survivors?
I don’t want to generalize at all, but as someone who is a hard butch male, passing is really important to me and I still very much feel like I’m like trying to get back a lot of masculine approval that I’ve missed out on for 30 years. You can say what you will about like that that’s problematic. Anyway, one thing that has come up for me is that I obviously don’t pass in my household because you can’t pass with people you’re out to.
Before the pandemic, I had a super butch, very physically strenuous job where I was like saw many, many, many people a day who were all like, “what’s up, man?” Like I passed 40 hours a week, you know? I was busting my ass. And I was gaining a lot of weight for the first time in my life as someone who has struggled to put on any muscle. Even my hands got bigger. I had this job that was like really gender affirming. And I think particularly for the first couple of months [of quarantining], I know it seems really shallow, but I was like legitimately grieving having access to that space. Because that’s not an experience I get very often.
I just don’t interact with cis men anymore. And I don’t really have any relationships with cis men personally.
It sounds like part of what you’re missing is casual relationships. Like, none of us are having casual relationships right now.
That’s right. Like, if you’re in people’s lives, their lives are in your hands and vice-versa.
How are pod structures well suited for trans survivors?
I don’t get the validation of passing in public anymore, but I felt very perceptibly trans for a long time before I passed, and it still feels extremely restorative to just not be perceived, and for people to not crotch watch me and stuff. That feels legitimately restful. The people in my pod are just treating me as me. And there’s an intimacy and safety in that.