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In Michigan, Some Use Quarantine To Explore Their LGBTQ Identity

two people post in front of a street sign in a city. They are crouched down, looking at the camera while wearing masks
E.C. Hagel
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E.C. Hagel (right) relied on her queer friends when she came out as a lesbian last year after previously identifying as bisexual.

This past year of the pandemic has been difficult for many as they've had to isolate and stay away from their communities that make them feel safe and loved.

This has been especially true for LGBTQ+ Michiganders who have not been able to celebrate Pride together since 2019.

But quarantine has given some people like Joseph Newton and E.C. Hagel a chance to further explore or affirm their gender identity and sexual orientation in ways they haven’t been able to before.

Newton is a student at Calvin University in Grand Rapids. They recently had top surgery to flatten their chest. They say they were spurred into action by the pandemic.

"I realized that our plans are uncertain," they said. "And there was this drive that if I was going to make this change, I knew I had to do it now or I might never do it."

I knew I had to do it now or I might never do it.

Hagel is a student at Michigan State University. She had identified as bisexual for many years, but recently came out as a lesbian. She says she faced an internal struggle over the realization that she wasn't attracted to men.

"A lot of that has to do with the fact that the way society is it kind of bases your whole identity as a woman, as someone who is attracted to men. So, you don't really want to realize that's not the case, because then your whole identity is kind of shaken."

Joseph Newton takes a mirror selfie in a bathroom. They are smiling and wear a button down shirt.
Credit Joseph Newton
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Joseph Newton recently got top surgery to flatten their chest to better affirm their identity as a nonbinary person.

Now that the two of them have made changes in their lives during the pandemic, they've both noticed a huge difference. Newton called it "a weight off their chest." While Hagel says they've gone from wearing all-black, more feminine clothing to experimenting with colors and a more androgynous look.

Both of them have also found safety in their queer communities to support them. Newton crowdfunded their surgery because it wasn't covered by insurance. They say they were floored to see people show up for them.

"To have such a tangible, visible way of seeing their support for me, was absolutely incredible, and if anything made me feel closer to my community than I had before the pandemic," Newton said.

Hagel had the support of her closest queer friends when she broke off her engagement to a man she had been in a long-term relationship with before realizing her sexuality. After the breakup, the friends ended up at a gay bar.

"I see gay people everywhere. I see pride flags. I see just community," they said. "And I just felt so warm, like I had finally made the right choice and this is like the right path I was supposed to be on."

This is, like, the right path I was supposed to be on.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered. I’m Sophia Saliby.

This past year of the pandemic has been difficult for many as we’ve had to isolate and stay away from our communities that make us feel safe and loved.

This has been especially true for LGBTQ+ Michiganders who have not been able to celebrate Pride together since 2019. But quarantine has given some people a chance to further explore or affirm their gender identity and sexual orientation in ways they haven’t been able to before.

I’m joined now by Joseph Newton. They are a student at Calvin University in Grand Rapids. Hi Joseph.

Joseph Newton: It's good to be here.

Saliby: And E.C. Hagel, who also goes by Em. She's a student at Michigan State University. Hi Em.

Hagel: Hi.

Saliby: Both of them have found ways to be more queer in quarantine, so I want to thank you both for being here. Joseph, you've made one huge step to affirm your gender identity as a nonbinary person during the pandemic. You had top surgery to flatten your chest, and you're literally recovering from that procedure right now. Why was this something you wanted and why was now the right time?

Newton: I have struggled with gender dysphoria or discomfort due to a mismatch between how my brain understands myself and how my body actually is for a very long time. As long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to get top surgery from when I was like 10, before I knew that it was a thing that I could actually access.

I was really, like, startled into action by the pandemic.

And I was really, like, startled into action by the pandemic, I realized that our plans are uncertain. There's no way to tell what the future holds. And there was this drive that if I was going to make this change, I knew I had to do it now or I might never do it.

Saliby: Em, for many years, you identified as bisexual, but recently came out as a lesbian. Can you tell me what made you realize this part of yourself?

Hagel: It was a really difficult thing for me to come to this conclusion. As you said, I'd been out as bisexual for many years prior to this. From what I've heard from other lesbians, and I kind of agree with this, it's really easy to tell that you're attracted to women. It's not easy to figure out that you're not attracted to men. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that the way society is; it kind of bases your whole identity as a woman, as someone who is attracted to men. So, you don't really want to realize that's not the case, because then your whole identity is kind of shaken.

The pandemic really just kind of accelerated those doubts with the isolation.

I guess the other aspect of that is that I was raised in the [Latter-day Saints] church. I grew up Mormon. And there's a really big emphasis in the church that women, like, your duty is to be wives and mothers. And when you don't have that framework to work around anymore, it's really just catastrophic emotionally.

Saliby: I remember you telling me it took a year between when you kind of came out and realized that for yourself, and to when you kind of more publicly came out and kind of made it more of a public aspect of your life, right?

Hagel: Before I was out, out, I had serious doubts in my sexual orientation for about a year prior. And the pandemic really just kind of accelerated those doubts with the isolation. It just gave me a lot more time to think [and] a lot more time to consider things alone.

Saliby: You both have told me you've noticed changes in your life since coming more into your identities, like carrying or expressing yourself differently. Can you speak more on that? And I'll start with Joseph.

Newton: Since having top surgery, even though I am very much in recovery, it's like flipping a light switch.

It is like a weight has been lifted off my chest.

I spoke to my therapist, and she can tell a difference. My friends can all tell a difference. It is like a weight has been lifted off my chest. And I just have so much more energy to focus on other things. I'm not spending all of my time hating myself and hating my body.

Saliby: And Em has anything changed for you?

Hagel: The main difference I've noticed actually is that I used to dress in all black all the time and like very like feminine sort of dress. And since coming out. I dress more androgynously, and I wear, actually like, wear colors now.

I feel a lot more content in my life and just like happy and warm, I guess. Like I feel more authentic, like more like myself.

I agree with Joseph, like I'm just overall like a much happier person. Like I feel a lot more content in my life and just like happy and warm, I guess. Like I feel more authentic, like more like myself.

Saliby: Joseph, did you find, since you crowdfunded your surgery, did you find that despite the fact that there was a pandemic that community played a big role in kind of this part of yourself?

Newton: I think the pandemic did not, like, take away my community. It just changed how I related to them. Like you said, I crowdfunded for my surgery, because my insurance would not cover it.

And I was completely floored, by the way that they showed up for me. And to have such a tangible, visible way of seeing their support for me, was absolutely incredible, and if anything made me feel closer to my community than I had before the pandemic.

Saliby: Your stories are incredibly different, but hearing each other, do you relate to anything the other has said? And I'll start with Em.

Hagel: What I thought of immediately, while you were talking about that, was that actually, prior to coming out, I had been in a serious, long-term relationship with a man, and we were engaged. And obviously, I had to break up with him when I came out. And so he lives a few hours away, so I did drive down there and do the break up in person. And I knew it was gonna be really difficult, so two of my closest queer friends said, "Okay, let's make it a road trip."

So, we all went down together, that was really nice to have that support, like there. And then afterwards, the break up did not go well. My ex did not take it very well. So, we ended up getting drinks and lunch at a bar in downtown Columbus. And we didn't know this, but we somehow ended up in, like, the gay district. Like the "gayborhood."

I look around, I see gay people everywhere. I see pride flags. I see just community.

So, we're sitting at this bar, and I'm just like crying because I just got screamed at. We're sitting in this bar. I'm drinking my Moscow Mule, and I'm looking around, and our waiter is gay. My friends are gay. The only other people in the restaurant is a roller derby team full of gay women. And I just, I look around, I see gay people everywhere. I see pride flags. I see just community. And I just felt so warm, like I had finally made the right choice and this is like the right path I was supposed to be on.

Saliby: Joseph, is there anything that Em has said over the course of this conversation that you've related to?

Newton: Like, I relate very strongly to themes of community and support, but I also relate to the idea of changing how you dress when you reach a point of acceptance and authenticity. I have to wear button-down shirts for like the next three months because I cannot lift my arms over my head, but I'm thinking about wearing things that like I never would have worn before getting top surgery.

I now am much more secure in my own identity and my own understanding of myself.

Because I think, for me, something that has changed is I care less about how other people perceive me because I now am much more secure in my own identity and my own understanding of myself. Just having that confirmation from another LGBT person that coming out can change your wardrobe is nice. Like that seems like such a small thing, but it's definitely something I picked up on.

Saliby: Well, E.C. Hagel and Joseph Newton are two queer Michiganders. I want to thank you both for joining me. Thanks, Em.

Hagel: Thanks for having me.

Saliby: And thank you, Joseph.

Newton: Thank you.

Saliby: And I want to wish you both a Happy Pride!

Hagel: Happy Pride!

Newton: Happy Pride!

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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