Rhed Francisco and her partner were denied food aid in their district in the Philippines because their lesbian relationship didn’t fit the distributor’s definition of a family unit. William Linares, a 24-year-old gay man in Belize, said he can’t find work outside of drag shows, putting him at risk of being unable to buy food and other basic necessities during the pandemic. “Amanda,” a trans woman in Uganda whose name was anonymized for safety reasons, said she fears she won’t be able to get tested for the coronavirus because of prejudice.
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life for nearly everyone in the world, but marginalized groups are facing the harshest consequences during the crisis. LGBTQ+ people, in particular, are facing a range of threats to their health, safety, and livelihoods, according to a new report by the human rights organization OutRight Action International.
“Vulnerable communities become more vulnerable during times of crisis and, for LGBTIQ people, this is amplified even more so exponentially,” said Daina Ruduša, senior communications manager at OutRight. “Because not only are we more vulnerable on a day-to day-basis, but we are also excluded by non-intersectional relief efforts and cut off from crucial lifelines like community networks.
“What makes this crisis particularly devastating is really the measures around it,” she added. “It’s not really the virus itself; it’s the surrounding containment measures and the economic fallout.”
The authors of the report interviewed dozens of LGBTQ+ people around the world, including various activists who shared unique insights into the crisis. The report sheds light on the many ways the pandemic is harming LGBTQ+ people, especially in countries where “stigma, discrimination, and criminalization of same-sex relations or transgender identities prevail.”
The report looks at seven primary ways the pandemic is affecting these communities.
LGBTQ+ people already face everyday employment discrimination and disenfranchisement worldwide. During the pandemic, government measures meant to contain the virus are forcing many LGBTQ+ people, who often have to work in the informal economy, to lose their jobs, while welfare programs often leave them out, the report says.
As a result, many LGBTQ+ people are being forced to work in dangerous conditions in order to afford food, rent, and other basic necessities. In the weeks and months ahead, a food and hunger crisis could emerge, threatening the health of countless people and making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“Crisis response is often not very intersectional,” Ruduša said, pointing to countries such as Panama that have instituted gendered quarantine days, which has resulted in trans people being criminalized.
The surge in coronavirus infections is overwhelming hospitals worldwide, especially in areas with already weak health care systems. Many LGBTQ+ people are wary of seeking treatment if they get infected because they know they will face discrimination based on past experiences.
“I will call the ambulance only if I am suffocating,” a trans woman named Liza told Outright. “Only if I feel a very real threat to my life. I’m afraid that if I get hospitalized, they will notify my family — that would be the worst. I am also afraid that I will be placed in the men’s ward, and that the doctors will not understand my situation, that they will treat me worse than others. And how, under such circumstances, could I continue my course of hormone treatment, which cannot be interrupted?”
This raises another key concern — the inability to receive care during the pandemic for a variety of other matters, including hormone therapy, which is essential to the health and identity of many trans people. Prior to the pandemic, trans people already faced barriers to health care, but that’s intensifying following quarantine measures.
“Hormone therapy is something that cannot be interrupted,” Ruduša said. “Hormonal imbalances have a huge impact on mood and on how our bodies work. It’s incredibly important that the course is done in the way it’s instructed.
“The inability to receive [hormone therapy] can have a huge impact on a transitioning body and there’s also a psychological toll. Trans people already feel gender dysphoria — they don't feel at home in their own bodies.”
The isolation of the lockdowns, meanwhile, is contributing to increased anxiety and depression, as LGBTQ+ people are physically cut off from communities they draw support and strength from.
Ruduša said LGBTQ+ organizations often provide essential goods and services such as food, medical care, shelter, legal support, and community. It’s difficult to fully transition these “lifeline” services online because many people cannot fully take advantage of them there, she said.
“I am experiencing a lot of anxiety,” said Shamim, a 26-year-old who identifies as a lesbian in Kenya. “Being LGBT is perceived as criminal and ungodly, so queer people have established ways of forming communities and chosen families ... Social spaces are very therapeutic, especially queer spaces. With that being taken away from me, it feels like my life is over ... Now it feels like we are all just struggling to stay alive.”
As more than 4 billion people shelter at home in 90 countries, domestic violence is on the rise among various demographics. For LGBTQ+ people, this is often paired with the daily prejudice they face while staying with family members and others who may disapprove of their identities.
Violence, stigma, and discrimination are also increasing outside of the household as marginalized groups are scapegoated and attacked. In some countries, LGBTQ+ people are even being blamed for the pandemic, as they have been in the past for crises ranging from the 2011 tsunami in Japan to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
“There are religious groups, cultural groups, traditional leaders, and some other Liberians who believe that the LGBTIQ community is the reason why the COVID-19 cases in Liberia are coming about,” said Karisma, a 26 year-old transgender woman from Monrovia, Liberia, who’s also the executive director of the Trans Network of Liberia.
In countries with leaders who have anti-LGBTQ+ views, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to further repress and antagonize communities through state violence and new legislation.
In Uganda, authorities raided an LGBTQ+ shelter and arrested people who were staying there. Poland is attempting to criminalize people living with HIV, while Liberia has threatened to strengthen laws against same-sex marriage, the OutRight report notes.
“Under a state of emergency, governments have powers they don’t normally have,” Ruduša said. “Governments that are right-leaning or have authoritarian tendencies have the chance to abuse these powers, whether it’s the chance to increase surveillance or clamp down on specific populations.”
To make matters worse, efforts to achieve different rights and forms of protection — in the workplace, at home, in public — could be rolled back as advocacy groups get defunded and lose their ability to organize.
A Serbian activist told OutRight that a decades-long fight to secure legal gender recognition and same-sex marriage rights has been indefinitely postponed because of the pandemic.
This concern was echoed by a trans activist in New Zealand.
“I worry that we are going to become more invisible in the bigger political picture — our fight and our politics are no longer going to be factored,” Phylesha Brown-Acton told OutRight. “Our challenges will be diluted ... I am worried that our rights and the things harmful to us will no longer be a priority anymore — that we will become insignificant to government priorities overall. Once you become invisible, you become voiceless.”
OutRight urges countries, institutions, and community groups worldwide to take concrete actions to protect LGBTQ+ people during the pandemic and beyond.
These include consulting with LGBTQ+ groups on policy matters, addressing food shortages, ending health care disparities, condemning hate speech, and fully funding support programs.
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated fault lines of inequality in societies around the world. Whether or not these rifts deepen depends on what countries do now.
“The most vulnerable have amplified effects from all of this, so relief efforts really have to make sure they’re not forgotten,” Ruduša said.