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Trans People Experience A New 'Sense Of Isolation' During Social Distancing03:47
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Karen Belmore stands in one of the common spaces at the Trans Club of New England which has been closed in an effort to protect members from the spread of the coronavirus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Karen Belmore stands in one of the common spaces at the Trans Club of New England which has been closed in an effort to protect members from the spread of the coronavirus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Twice a week, a group of people all too familiar with being distanced from society gathers in an unassuming brick industrial building in Waltham. On any given Tuesday or Saturday, there are upwards of 30 people who come to meetups hosted by the Trans Club of New England.

The building's unobtrusiveness is intentional, says club member Karen Belmore.

"It helps members — especially new members," she says. "They worry about what people might say. The fact that nobody bothers them here is comforting."

The rugged exterior of the building, which TCNE calls its clubhouse, belies the homey interior. There's a dining table and drapes with a floral pattern. Belmore says when people are here, there's chatter about politics or the weather or what it's like being trans.

"They'll go in the living room here and put on some music. And you could have a group talking about one thing out here and a group talking about something else entirely different out there," she says, pointing to the dining room. "And sometimes we mix and, you know, it just goes round and round."

But now this place of comfort is shuttered and silent. And Belmore says that's created a void for people who have no where else to turn for support.

"A lot of people get a lot out of coming here and socializing," Belmore says. "And for a lot of people, it's essential for them to have someone to talk with, to answer questions, to help them get through situations that others have experienced."

For now, while people diligently practice social distancing to stave off the spread of COVID-19, support groups like Trans Club of New England can't convene.

For many members, it's brought back familiar feelings of isolation. Gabi Morgan, a newcomer to the club, says she's lost a place to go where people actively welcome her.

She says, in a way, people socially distance themselves from her everyday.

"As a transgender woman who rides the T everyday, you sit there and people don't always sit right next to you," she says. "You still have that aura about you that people still aren't comfortable. So that part really hasn't changed a whole lot for me, unfortunately."

And Morgan's experience is common in the trans community, says Framingham-based Diane Ellaborn, a therapist who specializes in gender identity.

"People who are transgender grow up with an incredible sense of isolation, feeling different and a sense of aloneness that is stronger than the average person's sense of aloneness," she says.

Just because aloneness may be familiar to many trans people, it doesn't make coronavirus-induced social distancing any easier, Ellaborn says. Especially if they've established a community.

"I think it actually is the reverse," Ellaborn says. "It makes it worse. I think it's much much worse for people's moods."

Ellaborn says many of her clients already have anxiety or depression, and this reintroduction into isolation can be hard. It's especially difficult for college students who have to leave schools where they've made community, or older trans folks who aren't savvy with technology. That's why she's encouraging her clients to stay active and to connect with their networks in any way they can, without compromising public health.

At the empty Trans Club of New England clubhouse, Karen Belmore calls members on the phone to see how they're doing.

"I know you're upset that they're not open," she says to one person she called. "Precautions are definitely necessary."

For as long as coronavirus-induced social distancing lasts, Belmore says she'll try to help trans people find the balance between staying connected while keeping a distance.

A sign is taped to the door of the Trans Club of New England telling members the club is closed due to concerns with the coronavirus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A sign is taped to the door of the Trans Club of New England telling members the club is closed due to concerns with the coronavirus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This segment aired on March 19, 2020.

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Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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