LGBT and Covid-19

COVID-19 and LGBTI-phobia

By Kusminder Chalal and Piotr Godzisz

Seven international experts discussed the impact of Covid-19 and the lockdown on LGBTI communities across the globe during two events organised by Birmingham City University (BCU) and the INHS. Kusminder Chahal and Piotr Godzisz, BCU, share their insights and reflect on both events.

Context

Covid-19 was discussed by all speakers in terms of causing the amplification of already existing vulnerabilities, such as experiences of unequal treatment and targeted violence. These pre-existing conditions were brought to the fore by Juul van Hoof of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights with the published findings of the 2020 EU LGBTI Survey results, which included North Macedonia and Serbia and involved almost 140,000 participants. Undertaken before Covid-19, the findings show that since the previous survey, conducted in 2012, little or no progress has been made in improving the lived experiences of LGBTI people.

While the introduction of new laws in some countries seems to have contributed to increased participation in public life, fear and violence is still a daily reality for many LGBTI people. Fear of public signs of affection are still avoided. Across the region, 60% of gay and bisexual men avoid holding hands; 33% of LGBTI respondents avoid going to certain location; access to housing and homelessness is still a key issue with vast country by country differences against the EU average. In countries where civil society support is weak for LGBTI people their experiences deteriorate. The pre-COVID survey found 1 in 3 respondents said they find it difficult to make ends meet. The pandemic is likely to have made the position of LGBTI people worse.

Paul Giannasi, national police advisor for hate crime in the UK, highlighted that year on year there has been an increase in recorded anti-LGBTI hate crime. At a community level, Giannasi said that there does not seem to have been a decrease in feeling at risk largely because of the prevailing negative public discourse, narrative and extent of online hate. Debates focused around transgender rights have resulted in a backlash and Giannasi argued against a hierarchy of anti-hate responses:

“condemn all hate crime – you are part of the solution, condemn only some hate crime – you are part of the problem”.

Giannasi observed that there was a reduction in recorded hate crime during the lockdown largely because the night-time economy was closed. Since the partial opening of the economy, there has been a significant increase in hate crime figures.

Impacts

Speakers from across the globe have documented, and responded to, the immediate impacts of the pandemic on LGBTI people. All speakers agreed that the precarious situation of LGBTI people in a variety of settings including employment, housing and access to healthcare has been made worse during the pandemic. Outright Action International’s research undertaken between March and April 2020 showed the impact of the pandemic across 38 countries. Yvonne Wamari described the impact as “a razor’s edge of poverty” which could push down already vulnerable people. Corroborating evidence from all the speakers highlighted an emerging pattern of victimisation and re-victimisation of LGBTI people.

The politicisation of Covid-19 has led to some negative national responses including forcing through a particular ideology focusing on traditional family values; used as a pretext by some Council of Europe member states to crackdown on rights. Such actions have led to a fear of violence and scapegoating of LGBTI and other minorities. This has created an animus that Graeme Reid from Human Rights Watch argued cannot be adequately understood through the lens of phobia.

Mary Hasan and Emma Smith, Council of Europe, highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on an already weak employment position has led many LGBTI people to lose their livelihoods during the pandemic, including in the informal sector, for example, sex work, beauty and hospitality. Akram Kubanychbehov from ILGA-Europe shared findings from 21 countries that highlighted LGBTI communities have a greater than average likelihood to be unemployed.

There has been huge disruption in health and healthcare during the pandemic. LGBTI communities have suffered as a consequence including a reluctance to seek care due to fear, scapegoating and stigma; delays in medical treatment and cancellation of appointments for trans-people and being unable to access hormones.

Confinement and lockdown has exacerbated the risk of family and domestic violence. Social isolation, anxiety and mental health issues have been elevated particularly for those who have limited contact. Dr Jasna Magić from UK-based NGO Galop focused on the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on domestic violence. Described by the United Nations as “shadow pandemic” the lockdown has led to a massive spike in domestic violence. Both referrals and traffic on the Galop website for domestic violence services increased by over 50%. Coupled with an increase in demand, the lockdown reduced the capacity of the service (e.g., face to face support). In the early days of the lockdown there was a high volume of out of hours calls; increase in calls from concerned friends and family; domestic abuse survivors calling to say that lockdown has been an escape from abuse; “soft calls” with callers requesting information on domestic abuse, emotional support and validation; and increased calls from LGBT black, Asian and minority ethnic people.

Responses

Dealing with the pandemic has led to services adapting to respond to the immediate crisis. OutRight Action International, for example, created funds for a relief effort. Of the 1,500 applications received, the vast majority came from Africa and Asia, with nearly 50% from Africa. The majority of applications for support were requests for food support due to increasing food insecurity and discrimination. In the in the Philippines, for example, a lesbian couple did not receive a food parcel because they were seen as not fitting a normative definition of what ‘family’ is. Galop in the UK responded to the increase in web traffic by producing online resources and identifying support services open through the lockdown and regularly updating a directory so survivors could access them. Akram Kubanychbehov highlighted that many LGBTI organisations shifted from advocacy to direct service provision. Mary Hassan from the Council of Europe suggested that national governments need to identify if LGBTI are being supported in national relief programmes.

Graeme Reid, Human Rights Watch, suggested that some are more vulnerable than others and being LGBTI is a factor but not always the primary factor in accessing who is at risk. Economic status and racial identity dramatically increase the level of vulnerability. Reid identified black lesbians and poor lesbians as most affected by the pandemic. However, Kubanychbehov stated that in central Asia transsexual workers were most vulnerable, having no access to relief grants or places to stay. Reid suggested that in recognising relative vulnerability an intersectional approach is required.

Conclusion

The two events brought together advocacy and transnational organisations to offer a snapshot of the consequences of Covid-19 and the lockdown on LGBTI communities and individuals. The social and economic impact of the pandemic has foregrounded the obstacles to achieving human rights and amplified the fault lines that exist within and society.

Covid-19 and its fallout is an on-going situation and will continue into the future. Structural changes are required that respond to the underlying issue of achieving LGBTI human rights at a societal level. Experts participating in the two events stressed that we have a responsibility to remind governments and officials that they serve all citizens equally, that donor support continues at this critical time, and that equal rights for LGBTI people do not reduce rights of or for others.


Kusminder Chahal is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, Birmingham City University. His interests include the lived experiences of hate crime, support services, capacity-building practitioners, and understanding the victim’s perspective.Dr Piotr Godzisz is a Lecturer in Criminology in the School of Social Sciences, Birmingham City University. He also sits on the Advisory Board of the INHS. His work lies on the intersection of hate crime and human rights.

Dr Piotr Godzisz is a Lecturer in Criminology in the School of Social Sciences, Birmingham City University. He also sits on the Advisory Board of the INHS. His work lies on the intersection of hate crime and human rights.


The events were organised by the Centre for Security and Extremism at Birmingham City University in collaboration with the International Network for Hate Studies. The Hate Crime, Vulnerabilities and Interventions cluster within the Centre for Security and Extremism brings together researchers interested in exploring the interface of hate crime, intersectionality, social regulation, political, policy and practical interventions and contemporary violence and threats, including extremism and everyday expressions of hate both on and offline.

The recordings of the sessions are available on the BCU website.

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