Safe spaces are a pivotal part of the LGBTQ+ experience — they serve as havens, resource centers, and gathering spots for people who have nowhere else to turn. Whether they take the form of bars or community centers, these places allow queer people to come together and be themselves, which is particularly important in areas where LGBTQ+ rights are threatened or nonexistent.
The problem is, the presence of LGBTQ+ spaces is dwindling in countries around the world, and COVID-19 has only accelerated their extinction.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have been forced to close due to the loss of revenue arising from lockdown orders and social distancing regulations. LGBTQ+ centers, which were already struggling to survive before the pandemic, have been hit particularly hard through the loss of patrons, lack of funding, and inability to secure government support.
“We know from our 2017 research that nearly 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ people attended LGBT-specific venues or events in their local communities at least once a month,” Eloise Stonborough, associate director of policy and research at Stonewall, told Global Citizen. Stonewall is an LGBTQ+ rights organization based in the United Kingdom that has campaigned for policies that prioritize equity and freedom for LGBTQ+ people in the UK, such as protection from discrimination in the workplace and same-sex marriage.
“During lockdown, many of these vital safe spaces have been closed, making it harder for LGBTQ+ people to access these spaces,” Stonborough added. “But even before the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, many LGBTQ+ venues across Britain have closed in recent years.”
In London alone, LGBTQ+ nightlife venues — which are pivotal to promoting community gathering and well-being — fell by 58% between 2006 and 2017. A recently released documentary, The Lesbian Bar Project, focuses on the gradual decrease in lesbian bars in the United States, even as LGBTQ+ rights have steadily progressed. Today, there are only an estimated 21 bars for the lesbian community across the country.
In countries where LGBTQ+ rights are not promoted and queer people experience high levels of stigmatization, the presence of LGBTQ+ spaces are even more vital, though they are often the target of harassment. In Ghana, the country’s first LGBTQ+ community center was forced to close in February due to threats of violence after politicians and religious groups decried its opening.
During COVID-19, the closure of these spaces added to the isolation and neglect experienced by LGBTQ+ people. Last year, the global advocacy group OutRight Action International published a report that analyzed the pandemic’s effect on LGBTQ+ communities around the world, illustrating how challenges relating to housing, food access, and job security were amplified by COVID-19.
LGBTQ+ spaces have also taken a hit from the economic burden of the pandemic, making it impossible for them to stay open without support from the community and donations.
“I have seen the suffering of many LGBTQI+ safe spaces globally in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the large majority closing either temporarily or permanently,” Shannon Novak, director of the New Zealand-based Safe Space Alliance, told Global Citizen. “For many, these spaces were the only space they could freely express themselves without fear. It is therefore important we look at how to bring these safe spaces back to life.”
The Safe Space Alliance was created out of the need for LGBTQ+ people to identify safe spaces around the world that will respect them for who they are without harassment. The physical locations registered with the Safe Space Alliance’s network range from housing accommodations to restaurants and bars. There are also a number of digital safe spaces — such as websites, apps, and online groups — available to people who are unable to go to physical locations, particularly in areas of the world where homosexuality is criminalized.
As countries continue to roll out and share COVID-19 vaccines so that more people can become fully vaccinated, it is important for governments, humanitarian responses, and the private sector to weave LGBTQ+ advocacy into their COVID-19 responses and make sure queer spaces continue to exist.
“As well as supporting LGBTQ+ venues and spaces, it’s also important to make all venues more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people so that everyone feels comfortable being themselves, wherever they are,” Stonborough said. “At Stonewall, we’ll continue to fight until [every] lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer person is free to be themselves.”
Safe spaces can be defined as any place that provides an environment for the LGBTQ+ community that is free from violence and harassment. While all venues should work to become safe for queer people to be themselves, there is an urgent need to create and save the spaces that provide support and resources for LGBTQ+ people in need.
Novak points out that the pandemic has afforded the opportunity for the global LGBTQ+ community to connect online and expand the presence of LGBTQ+ safe spaces.
“The pandemic has forced an increasingly digital way of coming together, so many people turn to platforms like Zoom and social media for business as usual. I suggest spaces look at developing these platforms so they are interactive, engaging, and generate income in some way,” he said.
Today, there are 69 nations that continue to criminalize homosexuality. Hate crimes against transgender people in the US continue to be underreported and misreported, while a group of lawmakers in Ghana are seeking to introduce a bill that will make it illegal to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. As far as the world has come in granting rights to the queer community, there is no nation where LGBTQ+ people are safe and able to live freely without fear.
LGBTQ+ organizations can make it easier for the community to find one another through a virtual landscape and connect with people from around the world. Government leaders who want to support the LGBTQ+ community can take part in strengthening the bonds between people by investing in safe spaces that are providing resources to people.
Global Citizens everywhere can take action to ensure world leaders act on the issues getting in the way of equal rights for LGBTQ+ people.
“As we work to keep our safe spaces alive, it’s important we focus on why we are doing it in the first place: to save lives,” Novak said. “Creating and maintaining safe spaces, whether physical and/or digital, can help reduce rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in the LGBTQI+ community. It’s important we communicate this fact when looking to engage the wider community for support.”