How COVID-19 has affected the LGBTQ+ community
Karolina Saladžiūtė is a final year LLB student at KCL. In her eye opening article below, Karolina explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to and exacerbated many of the struggles and hardships that the LGBTQ+ community faces.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought challenges to every society worldwide; however, the LGBTQ+ community continues to face unique challenges and is adversely affected at disproportionate levels due to its economic and healthcare situations. A substantial international human rights issue is that crises such as pandemics seem to amplify the existing inequalities, such as discrimination of LGBTQ+ persons in social, economic, and health sectors. The problem is further exacerbated by the lack of equal rights in many countries. People set these lack of freedoms on ‘traditional values’, going so far as to harass, belittle and take away any freedoms the LGBTQ+ community has long fought for (e.g. like Poland recently).
I will look at the most pressing human rights issues the LGBTQ+ community faces – direct and indirect discrimination, and how it has been aggravated by the pandemic.
Figure 1 https://outrightinternational.org/content/president-duda-“lgbt-free-zones”-and-growth-nationalism-poland
LGBTQ+ Inequality and Vulnerability
If we look at legal documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and other international treaties generally offer equal protection under the law. But individuals who belong to the LGBTQ+ community regularly experience direct discrimination ['when someone is mistreated because of a protected characteristic, such as race, gender or sexual orientation'] or indirect discrimination ['when there is a policy that applies in the same way for everybody but disadvantages a group of people who share a protected characteristic such as sexual orientation']. This is especially true regarding employment, healthcare, housing and social security. Looking at the bigger picture, it is still clear that many places worldwide continue to degrade those whose sexual orientations or gender identities are different from a particular social norm. Over 70 countries still criminalise same-sex relations and some even carry out the death penalty. As noted by Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN's independent expert, 'lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people suffer a crucible of egregious violations, including killings, rape, mutilation, torture, arbitrary detention, abduction, harassment, physical and mental assaults… they are subjected to lashings and forced surgical interventions, bullying from a young age, incitement to hatred and pressures leading to suicide'. This is a significant problem, as under the law, all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have the right to equal treatment without exception. This, however, is usually ignored by governments and leaders.
Figure 2: https://outrightinternational.org/content/president-duda-“lgbt-free-zones”-and-growth-nationalism-poland
I was born in Lithuania, where LGBTQ+ rights were always undermined. A more recent example of human rights violations can be clearly seen in my neighbouring country – Poland. The newly re-elected president Duda is continuously spreading propaganda and encouraging homophobia, claiming that same-sex relationships pose a threat to 'traditional family values'. His speeches, filled with hatred, intolerance and violence, undo the progress made, setting a precedent for equal treatment of LGBTQ+ people. They do the opposite – encourage people to discriminate, attack and hate, and have even led to the creation of 'LGBT free zones' which build hostile and violent environments for LGBTQ+ people, legally completely undermining fundamental human rights. For some, this particular issue may seem irrelevant or too far-fetched, however it poses a real international threat. Poland is a member of the EU (so is Lithuania) and EU uniformly backs measures which support the LGBTQ+ community. If Poland undermines these, it can damage the EU's position globally and affect LGBTQ+ equality globally. The even more worrying problem is that such ideas and measures seem to inspire other governments and it can be seen mostly through Eastern Europe, including Lithuania. Most recently, some Latvian politicians have started promoting 'LGBT- free zones'.
But it must be recognised that a change to more progressive governments has proven to be effective in protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. For example, in Lithuania, the newly elected openly LGBTQ+ lawmaker has revealed legitimate plans to legalise same-sex civil unions in 2021 and generally work on the community's economic and social discrimination.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made it even harder for the LGBTQ+ community to survive and has been destroying the progress made towards universal equality.
Covid-19 impact on lives and livelihoods
The pandemic has further exacerbated the issue. Firstly, by adhering to the rules issued by their respective governments regarding the pandemic and staying at home, LGBT children, youths and elders ‘are forced to endure prolonged exposure by unaccepting family
members’. This introduces a threat of domestic violence, physical/ emotional abuse and further damage to their mental health. In effect, such hostile conditions at home have already increased the chance of attempted suicide by 8.4 times. With nowhere to turn due to the pandemic, loss of access to positive connections such as school, university or friends, the rates have increased as many individuals struggle to cope .
Moreover, many LGBTQ+ individuals have struggled with employment during the pandemic. More than 5 million LGBTQ+ individuals work in jobs that are more likely to be impacted by Covid-19  such as restaurants, hospitals, education. This could mean they may lose their jobs, have little support in navigating new demands or be at an increased risk of exposure. Furthermore, many LGBTQ+ people already live in poverty or are unemployed, thus suffer a disproportionate economic burden driven by Covid-19.
Therefore, the lack of employment and life in poverty suggests that LGBTQ+ individuals may face healthcare and health issues that straight and cisgender people would not. Some LGBT youths may be thrown out of their homes due to their sexual orientation or gender and are more likely than the general population to live in poverty and lack access to adequate medical care. Such basic necessities are crucial during a pandemic, and the absence of them can create a greater risk of health complications and death resulting from Covid-19. Furthermore, reduced access to healthcare facilities can be detrimental to the LGBTQ+ community, who experiences higher HIV and cancer rates. With weakened immune systems LGBTQ+ people are more vulnerable to Covid-19 and its complications. Not only that, multiple nationwide lockdowns can make it harder to access the essential care for HIV such as antiretrovirals. But we cannot say that the pandemic is to blame – such issues are deeply rooted in the discrimination the LGBTQ+ community faces when seeking healthcare. As a result, many individuals delay seeking healthcare even in emergency situations, including over 3 million LGBTQ+ elders in the US alone.
It must be acknowledged that LGBTQ+ migrants may face intersecting discriminations – based on their nationality status and sexuality or gender. On top of the issues faced as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, migrants may also be less likely to seek healthcare or provide information on their health status as they may fear deportation or detention. People of colour are also clearly discriminated when it comes to delivering said healthcare, thus contracting Covid-19 would pose a significantly higher risk of complications and death than white folks face. Being migrants, the individuals are also more likely to work in informal sectors with lack of help and may be forced to work during a pandemic with increased exposure to Covid-19 or fired.
Action needed to help the LGBTQ+
The LGBTQ+ community has been adversely affected by the pandemic as the people are at a greater risk of economic and health complications. Even at this time, countries have continued to effectively take away the rights the community has fought for. The responses to Covid-19 taken by the government and the policymakers must actively consider the unique situations faced by the LGBTQ+ people.
I am lucky enough to go to a good university, have a supportive family, have access to healthcare and, most importantly, to have a voice I can use to raise awareness. As Year 12 and 13 students, there is a lot you can do. You can spread awareness on the challenges the LGBTQ+ community (which may include you). You can actively pursue studies in human rights law, but, crucially, you can support. Whether that is supporting your LGBTQ+ friends during hard times, encouraging others to help or donate to various organisations or contributing yourselves. Even £1 can make a huge difference for those who need it!
Organisations that are collecting donations for Covid-19 impacted LGBTQ+ individuals:
- The Human Rights Watch
- LGBT Foundation
- The Proud Trust
- Age UK
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