A Call From the Closet: Examining the Vulnerability of LGBTIQ People During COVID-19

A Call From the Closet: Examining the Vulnerability of LGBTIQ People During COVID-19

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The below article was written by Paul Jansen, Senior Adviser for Global Advocacy, OutRight Action International

Regardless of where you are reading this from, I have no doubt that you are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am too. It affects us all. In very similar ways, and also very different ones. 

I don’t need to tell you that LGBTIQ people are among the most vulnerable groups in societies around the world. We face violence, harassment, lack of acceptance — even by our families. In far too many places our identities are criminalized. In far too few we enjoy a semblance of genuine equality. And in times of crisis, all of these are amplified. And because of the very specific nature of this current crisis — the closing of public and community spaces, the lockdowns and quarantines and “shelter in place” mandates keeping us indoors — that amplification is louder still.

OutRight’s report, “Vulnerability Amplified. The Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on LGBTIQ People,” paints a frightening picture. 

Across the world LGBTIQ people are over-represented in the informal sector, often relying on daily wages and surviving without job protections. Too many of us had no choice but to keep working or go without wages. Too many more lost their jobs and had to return to often unsupportive homes, where many still face another threat — that of domestic or family violence.

Are you on PrEP or antiretrovirals? Or perhaps undergoing hormone or other gender affirming treatment? We heard about disruptions to accessing this crucial medication, either due to oversubscribed healthcare providers, shortages in pharmacies, strict lockdown measures, or deeming everything non-covid related “non-essential” and therefore inaccessible. In Serbia, for example, accessing HIV medication since the Global Fund pulled out several years ago has been highly problematic. An activist told us that now it is basically impossible. Hormones too have been difficult to get — most community members were getting them from across the border in Croatia which, now with borders closed, is not a possibility. An activist in Chile told us that getting to the hospital is almost impossible, and even if you get there, they say they don’t have hormones. Similar stories came from across the world.

Remember when the Indian Ocean Tsunami hit, or Hurricane Katrina, or the Haiti Earthquake, and conservative religious and other leaders publicly blamed LGBTIQ people for the crises? The same has been happening now. Claims that COVID-19 is divine retribution for same-sex relationships and the destruction of heteronormative gender identity and expression have been made in Ghana, Guyana, Kenya, Liberia, Russia, Uganda, Ukraine, the United States and Zimbabwe, among others. Leading to further stigmatization, more hate, and pushing us even further into the margins of society.

You might think, How is this different to any other crisis, or any other day? We are always more vulnerable, we always face discrimination and trouble accessing healthcare, and scapegoating for the most ridiculous things. And that is true. The issues we are facing are merely amplified now. What makes this situation unique — what exponentially grows the threats we face and the challenges we experience — is the limited access to community. Our “chosen families,” our community centers, events, organizations and sites and apps like Hornet are a lifeline. 

At this time, ways in which we can turn to our community for support are limited to only that which can be done online, only by those who can get online. Catherine Sealys in St Lucia told us that her organization launched an online counseling service and several people have called in, literally, from the closet, so as not to be overheard by their families. While Tatiana in Russia told us that calls for help, for shelter, for food, have grown massively as people have lost their jobs and do not wish to, or can not return to abusive families, but the organizations are closed and also have to observe physical distancing, while the LGBT shelter is oversubscribed and under quarantine.

How can you help people under such circumstances? And what about legal progress? Forget it! In Serbia both legal gender recognition and same-sex partnership legislation plans have been put on hold, indefinitely. Jelena fears they have been set back 10 years. Kaspars in Latvia also said that partnership legislation talks have been halted. 

And so while some of the challenges our community faces right now are amplifications of what we face on a day to day basis, the absence of community makes that amplification staggering, and the need overwhelming. This is why OutRight launched the COVID-19 Global LGBTIQ Emergency Fund, to support LGBTIQ organizations to support our communities across the world through this unprecedented crisis. We are also continuing our advocacy work — albeit online — to ensure that crisis response efforts don’t leave our global community behind. Because now, perhaps more than ever, we need immediate action from governments, the UN, and the philanthropic sector to prevent an LGBTIQ humanitarian crisis.

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