The COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-ranging effects for people across the UK. However, some groups have felt the effects of the pandemic and its associated lockdowns more than others. In this blog, Dr Billy Haworth, from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, shares their recent research into the experiences of LGBTIQ+ populations during COVID-19. They argue that LGBTIQ+ populations have faced unique challenges, and will require additional support to help them overcome the effects of the crisis. There is great diversity and even inequality within LGBTIQ+ populations, and in the longer-term, policymakers need to ensure that their policies are fit for all prior to implementation.
The coronavirus pandemic and associated response measures have had disproportionate impacts on different segments of society. This includes people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and sexual characteristics (SOGIESC), or who are more commonly known as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+) populations. Mental health challenges, social isolation, substance misuse, loss of livelihood and financial difficulties, scapegoating, discrimination and stigma, elevated risk of violence, reduced access to health and support services, and more have been reported as experienced among LGBTIQ+ populations.
We know that socio-economically marginalised groups, including LGBTIQ+ people, are often the hardest hit during crises, as marginality leads to increased vulnerability. Crisis responses generally do not adequately account for LGBTIQ+ needs, if at all. Moreover, response strategies themselves can heighten and reproduce vulnerabilities by assuming binary cisgender (people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) and heterosexual identities as the norm, thereby failing to address the needs of minority populations. A United Nations report described how COVID-19 responses reproduced and intensified pre-existing exclusion and discrimination patterns for LGBTIQ+ people. For example, same-sex couples in the Philippines were denied COVID-19 support because of local government views on what counts as a “family” for food aid distributions.
Complementing other reports, I conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse range of LGBTIQ+ people in the UK between May and October 2020 to capture and understand their experiences of COVID-19. This timeframe represents various stages of the UK’s pandemic response, including lockdowns and periods of easing and tightening of restrictions.
My research exposed key challenges for LGBTIQ+ people during the pandemic. Significant mental health impacts were felt, especially during lockdown. This included increased anxieties about the virus and issues related to gender or sexual identity. Isolation from supportive people and identity-affirming spaces elevated stress. Some participants described being at home with unsupportive families, or having limited biological family relationships, reducing the support networks that so many people relied on in the pandemic.
Some industries, like the hospitality and entertainment sectors, have experienced greater impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated social and economic restrictions. LGBTIQ+ people working in these areas expressed concerns over income in the short term and anxieties about longer-term employment prospects. More widely, disruptions to LGBTIQ+ spaces have been acutely felt, including nightlife, but also community spaces, support groups and activities like Pride festivals. These spaces usually provide many LGBTIQ+ people with essential opportunities to freely and safely express themselves and their identities.
The National LGBT Survey found that LGBTIQ+ people were more likely to suffer mental health challenges without adequate support, and that LGBTIQ+-friendly spaces, including nightlife and Pride events, are highly important but in decline. Based on this information, policymakers could have predicted the intensification of these issues during COVID-19, yet gaps persisted in policies and responses.
Existing and new community groups filled critical gaps in providing mental health support and reducing isolation through mutual aid and the creation of safe and identity-affirming (online) spaces. In fact, moving activities online presented opportunities to connect with new and diverse audiences, in some ways improving accessibility. Community organisations and peer-support groups were vital for many LGBTIQ+ people during COVID-19.
Diversity within LGBTIQ+ populations
My research makes clear that there is no single LGBTIQ+ experience. Diversity of COVID-19 experiences reflects diversity within LGBTIQ+ populations, including diversity between different subcategories, but also intersections with other factors, like age, class, disability or race.
My research highlighted unique challenges for transgender people. While cisgender people experienced disruptions to healthcare access, this issue was particularly significant for transgender patients. Healthcare relating to gender affirmation and gender identities was delayed if not halted completely, often without communication. This caused confusion and anxiety, exacerbated mental health concerns, and added to already long waiting periods for gender identity clinics. These delays, coupled with people being at home with their bodies more and reduced access to support, also contributed to gender dysphoria.
If we overlook diversity and only account for the most visible experiences, such as those of cisgender gay men, we risk furthering inequalities within minority groups.
How can policies be improved?
In the short term, policies should prioritise access to disrupted services that were directly related to the aspects of LGBTIQ+ vulnerability most exacerbated during COVID-19 lockdowns. This should include facilitating increased and targeted mental health support through training and resources, and maintaining access to healthcare during crises, especially transgender care.
Resources should be allocated to support and expand upon the important work already being done by LGBTIQ+ community, volunteer and mutual aid organisations. This could include: appointing LGBTIQ+ liaison personnel within COVID-19 recovery groups to build strategic partnerships and facilitate knowledge sharing, linking government and non-government activities, and targeting support measures where they are most needed and will be most effective.
For longer-term change, policies cannot continue being based on assumptions that populations are cisgender and heterosexual. They must not only include and account for LGBTIQ+ needs and capacities, but must recognise diversity within the LGBTIQ+ population. “One-size-fits-all” approaches are ineffective for the broad UK population, and likewise are not appropriate for communities as diverse as LGBTIQ+. To better incorporate LGBTIQ+ diversity, SOGIESC education should be included as part of workplace training programmes for government and crisis management organisations. Co-production of policies should also be a goal; involving communities and harnessing community wisdom is an important component of crisis management. Productive dialogue with LGBTIQ+ people themselves and the groups and organisations that represent them is essential for developing inclusive and efficient strategies.
Lastly, policies must shift focus away from crisis response towards risk reduction. If we were more prepared and marginalised sectors of society were better supported, we would see less severe impacts – as disaster studies have informed. We must work now to address the political, economic and social structures that place particular groups at increased vulnerability to crises, including LGBTIQ+ people, to mitigate the negative impacts of future hazards, pandemic or otherwise.
Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
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