PANDEMIC AND PRIDE: How COVID-19 Disproportionately Affected the LGBTQ+ Community

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

In a year of endless lockdowns, job losses, uncertainty and heartbreak, the pandemic tested the vigour of even the most privileged members of our society. Difficulty in adapting to remote working, the inability to access non-COVID related medicines and healthcare, and mental health deterioration during home isolation are just some of the many consequences that the pandemic has had on our daily lives.

But, what happens when the privilege of remote working is not an option? What happens if the inaccessibility to non-Covid related healthcare is solely due to one’s sexuality, and the corresponding discriminatory nature of many healthcare systems? What happens if LGBTQ+phobic families and housemates nullify the option of home isolation? As we celebrate Pride month, a time when we reflect on the positive impact that LGBTQ+ individuals have had on this world, it’s important to shed light on our experiences throughout the pandemic. I say ‘our’ because I am pansexual, and many of the experiences that I discuss in this paper, I have lived. Let’s take a closer look at the effects that the pandemic has had on our LGBTQ+ population worldwide:

Due to colonial laws in more than 32 countries in Africa, their LGBTQ+ population are considered criminals, subjugating them to persecution and oftentimes, death penalty. As if this weren’t bad enough, due to workplace discrimination, African LGBTQ+ folks often only find jobs in the service industry and informal sector. With widespread closures in this sector, many individuals lost their jobs and were forced to move back home with their families. Emma, a transactivist in Kenya noted that this was “a terrible choice as many of them have homophobic parents”. And for those who chose against staying in a LGBTQ+phobic environment, a life on the streets was the only alternative. The pandemic also fuelled an LGBTQ+ refugee crisis in South Africa. Due to LGBTQ+ discrimination at home and a loss of job, individuals from Zimbabwe, DRC, Malawi and Nigeria migrated to South Africa seeking asylum, making them extraordinarily vulnerable to COVID-19 for two reasons: first, because many live in homeless shelters, where social distancing is implausible, and second because they are ineligible to receive food aid, which increases malnutrition and immune deficiency, thereby reducing their ability to stave off the virus.  In Uganda, the Government illegally detained 23 homeless LGBTQ+ individuals on the grounds that we were not following social distancing rules, were subject to “cruel and inhumane” treatment while detained, and were also denied access to lawyers. The Ugandan courts ruled in favour of the LGBTQ+ individuals as this was regarded as a “bogus pretext” to harass LGBTQ+ individuals. Nations across the African continent, including Senegal, Uganda, Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria, have blamed the onset of the virus to their LGBTQ+ community, noting it as a “punishment from God for LGBTQ+ people”. 

In Indonesia, beauty salons are some of the few places that willingly employ LGBTQ+ individuals. But, closures of these businesses during the lockdown led to financial instability for many of Indonesia’s LGBTQ+ community. Queer rights group Israel’s Gay Youth noted a 27% increase in suscide, depression and domestic violence amongst Israeli teenagers. They reported that teenagers were prisoners in their own house, were unable to leave their rooms and couldn’t speak to friends on their phones as parents would monitor their conversations. They further stated that “it got to a situation where they were cut off from every accepting and inclusive piece of life that a youth can receive”. In Japan, individuals reported that they were worried that the pandemic would force them to come out to their families when they are asked about who they have been in close contact with. Further, residents in Japan reported fearing the inability of being involved in medical decision making procedures about their partner if one of them is hospitalised with COVID-19. In South Korea, many individuals faced victim blaming and discrimination when news agencies focused on the detail that a spike in the virus occurred in a “gay district”, adopting an anti gay rhetoric. Similar to Japan, South Koreans also feared that their track and trace method would forcibly oust them as they are made to reveal information of close contacts. The President of Turkey, backed a religious leader, noting that homosexuality “brings illness”. Similarly, in Ukraine, a prominent religious leader who has over 15 million supporters said that COVID-19 was retribution for the sins of same-sex activities. Unsurprisingly, as we have seen, blaming the LGBTQ+ community for the onset of COVID-19 is not geographically restricted. 

The pandemic pushed Hungary into a state of emergency, giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for an indefinite purpose. By virtue of this, he had the ability to pass laws quickly and unchallenged. Thus, he abuses this position of power and Orban’s parliament passed Article 33, which suspends any opportunity for legal sex recognition of transgender individuals. This transphobic law forces individuals to write there “sex assigned at birth” rather that just their “sex” on all identity documents. In India, where the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the country, a significant portion of the transgender community are homeless, do not have access to food or water and lack a photo ID, prohibiting them from getting the vaccine. On the vaccine form, transgender activist Dhananjay Chauhan noted that she and other transgender individuals are forced to pick “other” as their gender. On top of this, many transgender individuals are skeptic over getting the vaccine due to heightened discrimination in the medical industry, societal stigma and a lack of representation in vaccine trials. 

I wanted to get a personal perspective on this, so I interviewed a young gay man, Mayuk Mukherjee from West Bengal, India. When asked about how the pandemic has affected him he noted:

“For many in a same-sex relationship like myself, we have not had the luxury of being able to seek help and support from our partner. When my father was in hospital with COVID-19, my partner couldn’t visit us as we were afraid that the doctors would find out I am gay and throw my father out of the hospital. Bed shortages in India’s hospitals meant that even the most diminutive of things like this could result in being thrown out of the hospital, and I did not want my sexuality affecting the treatment that my father got. So I made the distressing decision to keep my partner at arm’s length until my father’s recovery”. 

Another individual who I interviewed, who for their own safety will remain anonymous, stated that:

“I lost my job and my landlord evicted me. All my friends moved back in with their parents, but when I asked my parents if I could move in with them they said ‘hum mar jayenge, tum wapas mat aana’ (even if we die, don’t come back).”

In the US, the divide between its LGBTQ+ individuals and non-LGBTQ+ individuals could not be more apparent. For example, while 44% of non-LGBTQ+ adults in America reported that they or someone they know lost a job, the number rose to 56% for LGBTQ+ adults. In many American cities, there was a sharp rise in domestic abuse related calls to law enforcement agencies. Amongst these calls, LGBTQ+ callers reported higher levels of intimate partner violence, with bisexual women being at the greatest risk of expericinging physical violence and being stalked by their intimate partner. With stay at home orders in place, many LGBTQ+ individuals were forced to live with their assaulter in confined spaces, which led to a growing mental health crisis and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Trans and non-binary people in the UK have had their gender reconfirmation surgeries cancelled for an indefinite amount of time, and many worry that they will be pushed back onto a long waiting list. Many have also faced difficulty in accessing hormones. The triple threat- job loss, poor mental health and being pushed back into the closet has resulted in an increase in substance abuse and eating disorders amongst LGBTQ+ individuals in the UK, and many reported that they are worried that they would face a relapse amidst the pandemic.

With cancellations of blood donation drives, the demand for blood plasma, particularly from individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 rose significantly. As countries struggled to grapple with this shortage in blood supply, LGBTQ+ individuals were yet again discriminated against and were not permitted to donate blood in a majority of countries, including the US and UK. Gay and bisexual men in the US and UK have been subject to bands as well as ardent regulations on donating blood, due to discrimintaroy practices based on outdated stereotypes and the inability of the medical industry to adapt to present-day science. Gay and bisexual men were also denied the opportunity to donate blood after recovering from COVID-19. But once government officials in the US and UK noticed a sharp decline in blood availability, they eased some of these regulations in an attempt to make it more accessible for gay and bisexual men to donate blood. To some this may seem as a sign of hope and progress, but this begs the question- did we really need a ghastly pandemic to ravage the world for LGBTQ+ folks to have easier access to donating blood? 

A key theme throughout the paper was that these negative experiences faced by LGBTQ+ folks across the world increased tenfold for people of colour, disabled people and/ or poverty-stricken individuals. This shows how LGBTQ+ individuals with marginalised intersectional identities are perhaps the most vulnerable and susceptible to adversity. While this list is not exhaustive, the paper highlighted that amidst the pandemic, LGBTQ+ globally are more likely to experience job loss, more likely to be homeless or insecurely housed, more likely to be socially isolated and lack the ability to rely on family members, more likely to experience domestic abuse, less likely to feel safe where they are currently living, less likely to received healthcare when they need it, more likely to face substance abuse and eating disorders, more likely to be forced back into the closet, more likely to have poor mental health, less likely to have health insurance and more likely to be vaccine hesitant as a result of a lack of inclusion in vaccine trials. 

The paper showed how LGBTQ+ across the world have been systematically targeted because of their sexuality, be it at home, in the workplace, in healthcare or by the Head’s of their State. The pandemic has been such a struggle for LGBTQ+ folks that the Albert Kennedy trust recommended young people to “press pause” on coming out. The pandemic is a global issue, but so is LGBTQ+phobia. As rightfully said by Dr. Scott Nass, “All the issues that existed prior to the pandemic still exist but are even worse. They’ve been amplified by the pandemic”. As the issues that LGBTQ+ folks face have been amplified, so should our voices. This was my attempt at amplifying queer voices.

Bibliography

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By Vaania Kapoor Achuthan

Vaania Kapoor Achuthan is an upcoming 2nd year undergraduate studying Politics and International Relations at UCL. Vaania currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the IPPR and her interdisciplianry interests are in animal rights investigative journalism, civil rights activism, war correspondency and countering violent extremism.

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