How long until I am forced to shave my head?
It’s only been about two weeks since the coronavirus pandemic confined us to our homes and I’m already worried about my hair.
It’s a very queer concern, my hair. For one, it is an odd reason to fret. It is also queer because this haircut was one of the first ways I marked coming out as non-binary about 10 years ago. I lacked the confidence to explain my vision to my stylist, so I printed out a picture of John Barrowman dressed as Captain Jack Harkness from "Doctor Who" and asked her to make me look like him.
I haven’t updated my look much since then, but if this continues much longer, my appearance will change whether I want it to or not.
Soon, my hair will transition from queer action hero into a Beatles mop top. If I’m lucky, after that stage I’ll look like 1990s lesbian icon Leonardo DiCaprio. Or maybe I’ll look like David Bowie in his choppy chin-length do -- a look my best friend Michelle and I call his “hottest hair period.” More likely, I will develop a queer mullet, a hairstyle with a long and noble lineage. I will wear my queer mullet with pride and dignity, or at least as much dignity as I can muster in a life that takes place entirely inside my own apartment and mostly in Star Wars pajamas.
If the pandemic continues into the summer, my hair will grow long, and the thought terrifies me. The look reminds me of my life as a greasy queer high schooler, the last time I felt trapped in my bedroom.
When will it be safe to let someone gently tousle my brown locks and ask, their lips only inches away from my ear, “What are we thinking this time?” When will I get to spend more money than I should to have another trans person cut my hair, because I know they will understand all that rides on it? I focus my attention on these questions because there are others I don’t want to face: Will my father survive the pandemic? When will I be able to hug my chosen family again?
I joke that I’ll soon have a breakdown and shave my head while yelling, “It’s Britney, bitch.” My roommate says he’ll film it. We laugh, because this era has strange pleasures all its own.
My friend Lena has already solved their hair dilemma. They have shaved their hair into a magnificent mohawk. When I see the pictures on social media, I am jealous, but I long ago accepted my envy over their spectacularly queer hair. So, really, I am comforted.Read Rainbow Rant every other Tuesday. Sign up for our daily newsletter
It’s Lena, of all my friends, who seems most prepared to stay at home in style. They post pictures of their two cats dressed in bow ties to watch the Metropolitan Opera live stream.
Like a good journalist, I call Lena to ask them about their queer strategies for facing this crisis, but I can’t concentrate on the interview. Instead, we joke that our previous bouts of depression have prepared us well for this moment.
We make fun, but this is a calamity queer people know how to weather. We are well-suited for social distancing, my generation especially. In the 1990s and early 2000s, we developed a whole culture adapted to physical isolation. We made zines and mixtapes and sent them to each other through the mail. We joined LiveJournal and wrote fan fiction. We created a queer network that spanned from bedroom to bedroom, a social spiderweb mysterious in its connective power.
Now my friends from college and I gather around our laptops in our respective cities and watch the Indigo Girls livestream a concert from their living room. We promise ourselves that we’ll see one other in person as soon as this is over.
Michelle sends me an endless volley of videos of her cat. I call these cinematic masterpieces queer nature documentaries. She shows me her garden where volunteer crops are already sprouting. We welcome them into the world with enthusiasm, like we are celebrating them coming out of the closet.
We’re joyful, even now, because we’re well practiced in the art of joy. Besides, we’re used to keeping a certain social distance at all times. But we’re scared, too.
I ask my friend Daniel how he’s doing. At first, he describes playing Dungeons and Dragons with his 8-year-old, who is taking on the lofty role of Dungeon Master for the first time. Then he tells me he’s using the extra time at home to study to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner. So far, his work in the hospital hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic, but if this continues, who knows?
We try to keep busy. My friend Nick is writing an elaborate drag queen space opera and I am pouring myself into my dissertation. I’m working quickly, because writing is the only time I feel at peace. I can’t, however, bring myself to write the one article I’m supposed to be working on right now: a discussion of how black trans women organized during the AIDS crisis. The very thought robs me of breath.
As a historian, I know that COVID-19 and AIDS are very different pandemics. Much as he might want to, President Trump isn’t able to ignore coronavirus, unlike Ronald Reagan, who refused to say the word AIDS until years into the crisis.
COVID-19 is not necessarily the death sentence that HIV/AIDS once was, but it’s infinitely easier to catch. That’s a comfort and also a heartbreak, as queer and trans people can’t gather for the protests and parties that sustained us during the AIDS crisis.
There are similarities, however. COVID-19 has become a focal point for anti-Asian prejudice, a kind of stigma that HIV+ people can easily imagine. Furthermore, I keep thinking about how the queer people who survived the height of the AIDS crisis are now of an age to be especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
In my kitchen, I find myself humming the music of queer composer Howard Ashman, half of the songwriting team responsible for the Disney music of my childhood. It’s not “Part of Your World” that I have stuck in my head, though. It’s “Sheridan Square,” Ashman’s heartbreaking song about the empty streets of New York City during the AIDS crisis:
“Some of the boys have panic. But none of the boys leave town. They say, ‘We're on the good ship Titanic, we're gonna sing 'til the boat goes down. And if it ended before it started, well, no one told us that life is fair. And why is it still so quiet, tonight on Sheridan Square?’”
I think about Sheridan Square, empty once again, and I am possessed with a desire to run through the abandoned streets, screaming into the silence. But I don’t, because I know Ashman’s last verse, too: “When you carry a load like we do, what's another few pounds to share? We can make it until the sun comes up and it will, over Sheridan Square.”