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LGBTQ+ people left out by exclusionary COVID-19 aid practices

‘I get so irritated. What they did was so inhumane.’

Rhed* and her partner Salyn* were denied COVID-19 food aid from their city in the Philippines because lesbian couples don’t count as a “family” in the eyes of the local government. Luckily, their housemates and extended family shared their food with them.

They are just two of the countless lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer (LGBTQ+) people around the world currently excluded from pandemic relief efforts because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

“I felt belittled, and I was thinking: what would happen to us if we were living on our own and renting a place and are excluded?” Rhed recalled. “How would we be able to sustain ourselves knowing that we are also affected by the crisis?

“Every time I remember that experience, I get so irritated,” Rhed told The New Humanitarian by phone through a translator. “What they did was so inhumane.”

As governments have enacted stay-at-home policies to contain the coronavirus, many citizens have been left without income and reliant on aid.

In the global conversation of the most vulnerable, analyses have underscored the need for gender-consciousness in understanding the burden of this disease. Much focus has been on gender-based violence: how this pandemic might impact women and girls, as well as worsen situations of domestic violence.

Rights groups, however, have pointed out that the LGBTQ+ community – and its particular vulnerabilities – have been excluded from many of these discussions.

On 17 May, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, 96 UN and human rights experts issued a joint statement calling for the international community “to urgently take into account the impact of COVID-19 on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender diverse persons when designing, implementing, and evaluating the measures to combat the pandemic”.

Following this statement, a joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council from 187 human rights groups called for the protection of the rights of LGBTQ+ people during the pandemic.

As these statements note, a lack of LGBTQ+ focus risks further compounding the inequality and discrimination faced by this marginalised population – research has shown that LGBTQ+ communities often fare worse during emergencies because of these omissions.

A global problem

Rhed’s experience in the Philippines is just one of many that shows how relief efforts can still produce exclusionary results even if they don’t explicitly exclude sexual and gender minorities. 

This was also evident in short-lived “gender quarantines” in Latin America at the start of the pandemic. To limit public crowding, the Colombian, Panamanian, and Peruvian governments implemented mobility restrictions that only allowed people of a certain gender to leave the house on a given day. While seemingly innocuous, these restrictions put many trans people into a dangerous double-bind.

In Sri Lanka, in order to access local government food aid, people must be registered as a resident of their municipality. The process involves sharing a permanent address with the police, which unnerves many sexual and gender non-conforming people, according to Ephraim Shadrach, a queer gender-fluid person. “The police have been brutal to people who don't conform to gender norms,” Shadrach explained to TNH over the phone, adding that many in the Sri Lankan LGBTQ+ community prefer to refuse the aid rather than participate in a process that might expose them to violence.

In Brazil, meanwhile, some trans people say they are being left out of government aid response.

“The government is giving emergency funds to people who are informal workers [because of the] COVID-19 crisis, but trans people are having difficulty accessing this aid because the people who have changed their name legally do not get approval as their new legal names aren't in the system,” Lua Stabile, a transwoman, told TNH by phone. “No one really knows how to change the names because it has already been legally changed, but the old names just keep appearing in the system.”

In Zimbabwe, water scarcity as a result of a drought that occurred during the pandemic has led to local city council officials being in charge of local water distribution. According to Keisha*, a bisexual androgynous woman, getting access to this water requires working through personal connections in a resource-scare environment. “My family and I have to go to the next neighbourhood over because there is water, as well as one of the only friendly people who will not discriminate against me for my sexual orientation,” she explained.

Learning to include

COVID-19 responses that fail to consider and address anti-LGBTQ+ biases risk neglecting these vulnerable communities. 

On a video call with TNH, the UN’s independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, called for the aid community to ensure that “the implementation of humanitarian measures does not perpetuate inequality and has the ultimate objective of building back better” after the pandemic.

Madrigal-Borloz recently put forward a framework, called the ASPIRE guidelines, laying out how to advance an inclusive COVID-19 response effort.

But this is a big leap when LGBTQ+ communities are already structurally excluded from so much of society, as Naya Rajab, a transwoman Syrian refugee in Lebanon, explained to TNH over the phone through a translator. “On normal days, trans people can’t access proper healthcare,” she said. “During the pandemic it’s even worse, I don’t know what I would do if I got infected with COVID-19. I’m scared.” 

Access to medical assistance can be a huge barrier to LGBTQ+ people who fear discrimination within the healthcare system – particularly if the gender marked on their identity documents doesn’t match their gender identity, or if their HIV status is disclosed. Alejandra, a transwoman suffering from respiratory issues presumed to be COVID-19, died last month in Colombia after paramedics reportedly discovered her HIV status and refused to treat her.

“On normal days, trans people can’t access proper healthcare. During the pandemic it’s even worse, I don’t know what I would do if I got infected with COVID-19. I’m scared.” 

Broader societal discrimination also bars many LGBTQ+ people from pursuing education and job opportunities. As a result, many work day to day in the informal economy, which was effectively shut down when shelter-in-place measures were implemented in many countries due to the pandemic. Unable to make any money and often without savings, many LGBTQ+ people are struggling to meet their basic needs.

“The speed with which many LGBTIQ communities moved into food insecurity was really shocking,” Amie Bishop, the author of a report on the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ+ people, told TNH.

In the wake of the pandemic, Bishop’s group, OutRight Action International, launched an emergency relief fund for LGBTQ+ people – 56 percent of the nearly 1,500 applications were for food support. 

Different vulnerabilities

While the pandemic has affected the LGBTQ+ community, the impact is not equal across the board.

Graeme Reid of Human Rights Watch told TNH he advises against thinking about the community as “a monolithic entity”, but rather urges everyone “to look at the kind of specific vulnerabilities faced by specific people”. Reports show that LGBTQI+ women, youth, and the elderly are most economically vulnerable of the community. 

In addition to these structural inequalities, the local political climate for many LGBTQ+ people around the world has also worsened.

“Already facing bias, attacks, and murder simply for who they are or whom they love, many LGBTI people are experiencing heightened stigma as a result of the virus, as well as new obstacles when seeking healthcare,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged in a recent statement.

In South Korea, Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere, local community leaders are blaming LGBTQ+ people for the spread of the pandemic. This scapegoating leaves people susceptible to violence and other forms of discrimination.

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In Uganda, a shelter for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness was raided for breaking social distancing rules. And, in the Philippines, three gay men accused of violating curfew were publicly humiliated as a form of punishment. Human Rights Watch accused both governments of using the pandemic as an excuse for persecutory behaviour.

The pandemic has also put more LGBTQ+ people at risk of violence in their domestic life. As a result of losing income and the closing of public spaces, many people have been forced to return to their family homes, where some hide their identities or risk being kicked out. Others do not, or cannot, hide their identities, and face discrimination because of it.

Many gendered forms of violence are present in these family and community dynamics, where LGBTQ+ people often report being threatened with – or experiencing – physical or sexual violence to “correct” them. “The mental suffering of living in such a hostile environment compounds the stress experienced during a pandemic,” Keisha said.

For rights groups, who say humanitarian actors need to recognise the delicate situation of this community and better tailor their programmes to reach unmet needs, there are two clear ways forward.

First, aid organisations and governments should incorporate people from the LGBTQ+ community into their planning, as well as into their monitoring and evaluation programmes. This inclusion will ensure implicit biases don’t perpetuate inequality. CARE and the International Rescue Committee did so in their pandemic response gender analysis, but their inclusionary actions are the exception – not the norm.

Second, organisations and donors should be clear in making non-discrimination one of their leading principles, as well as an expectation they share with contractors and grantees. While conditioning aid can be detrimental, making clear expectations of non-discrimination can, rights groups say, hold organisations to account.

With reporting support from Ging Cristobal in the Philippines, Nazeeha Saeed in Germany, and Yvonne Wamari in Kenya.

* Name changed at the request of the interviewee.

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