People For the American Way

Coronavirus’s Disproportionate Impact on LGBTQ People

News and Analysis
Coronavirus’s Disproportionate Impact on LGBTQ People
Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly's Gender Spectrum Collection. Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection.

During this unprecedented emergency, People For the American Way has continued to work to safeguard vulnerable communities. We are pushing our lawmakers for solutions to address these inequities, and to help our members stay aware and up-to-date, we are sharing emerging news and data on the blog to highlight how our vulnerable communities are suffering and offer resources on how to get involved in our work to protect them. Read our previous posts here.

Today, we’re covering the impact on LGBTQ people and the challenges they are facing amid this global health crisis.

Decades of stigma, bias, and discrimination against LGBTQ people have led to disproportionately high rates of a range of social, economic, and health problems within the community. And over the past few months, this once-in-a-lifetime public health and economic crisis has pulled back the curtain, exposing and compounding the deep systemic inequities that the LGBTQ community has experienced.

While people are sheltering in place to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, home can be a dangerous place for LGBTQ people. Lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to experience intimate partner violence. Being quarantined with an abuser removes opportunities to escape violence, and may even escalate intimate partner violence against LGBTQ people. During a moment in which domestic violence has spiked across the country, LGBTQ people are at even greater risk.

And for many LGBTQ young people, sheltering in place removes them from their only sources of social support, and endangers their mental health. Almost half of LGBTQ high-school students reported that their families made them feel bad about their sexual orientation or gender identity. And although discrimination and harassment are prevalent in schools, it can be the only site of support for LGBTQ students. During the pandemic, being out of school means being isolated from affirming educators, student clubs and other networks of support. Before the pandemic, LGBTQ people already faced higher risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidality, largely due to a lack of familial or community support. Now, that risk is even more pronounced.

LGBTQ people without permanent housing experience also face unique dangers amid the pandemic. LGBTQ people represent outsized proportions of young people experiencing homelessness — often as a result of familial rejection of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression. Because of discrimination and threats of violence, these young people often seek safety in LGBTQ-specific shelters and community centers that provide meals, showers, counseling, substance abuse support and other critical resources. Demand for these services is rising during the pandemic, but building closures, reduced hours, and other safety measures means availability is limited, leaving homeless LGBTQ people even more vulnerable to contracting the virus.

The virus can be especially dangerous for the health of the LGBTQ community, particularly for HIV-positive people. Gay and bisexual men, transgender women, LGBTQ youth, and LGBTQ people of color are disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic. If they contract COVID-19, they face an increased risk for serious complications as a result of their immunocompromised status. Budget cuts to LGBTQ health clinics, which are often the only sources of affirming, competent care, also creates a gap that could direct LGBTQ people back to discriminatory health care settings. Discrimination in health care is a primary barrier to care for LGBTQ people, especially for HIV-positive and transgender people.

To make matters worse, transgender people already bear the brunt of biases within a medical industrial complex that often treats lifesaving gender-affirming procedures as “elective.” As a product of the shutdown, gender-affirming surgeries have been postponed indefinitely, as have appointments to begin hormone replacement therapies and routine check-ins that ensure safety of existing treatments.  These treatments are anything but elective, but rather are shown to dramatically improve transgender people’s mental health and our quality of life.

During this time, transgender people may also be unable to access legal services or civil courts to change their name and gender markers on crucial government documents. Having documents that fail to appropriately reflect a transgender person’s name and gender marker serve to “out” trans people any time they must show their driver’s license or social security card– making transgender people especially vulnerable to numerous forms of discrimination and harassment. Many transgender people who began the expensive and laborious process of undergoing a legal name and/or gender change before the economic and social shutdown may have documents that reflect different names and/or genders. For example, a person could have a social security card with their chosen name, but still have a passport with their former name. These inconsistencies could lead to confusion and discrimination.

In the first weeks of our current reality, instead of advancing economic and public health solutions to support the country in the midst of this crisis, states including Idaho continued advancing legislative attacks on vulnerable LGBTQ communities. Addressing the disparities experienced by LGBTQ people during this crisis should not stop at passing short-term pandemic relief with additional funding for culturally competent care. Serious structural problems highlighted by this crisis need serious structural solutions, starting with the Equality Act, which seeks to expand existing federal civil rights protections for all people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. As we consider how best to emerge from this crisis with a more equitable normal for all Americans, we cannot disregard the importance of advancing LGBTQ rights and justice.