For an example of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the LGBTI movement, look to Costa Rica. The Central American country recently legalized same-sex marriage, a clear victory for the LGBTI community.
“Typically, this would be an occasion where the movement would have been occupying the streets,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz, UN Independent Expert on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation (IE SOGI) of the UN Human Rights Council. “There was nothing of that.”
Demonstrations and celebrations, staples of the LGBTI movement, could now come at the cost of public health. “Respect for the guidelines of the World Health Organization, sheltering at home, wearing masks, and understanding the importance of solidarity — this is something the movement is very mindful of,” Madrigal-Borloz said.
Instead, tens of thousands of Costa Ricans watched the livestreamed wedding ceremony of the country’s first same-sex couple to be legally married.
For LGBTI people, there’s a particular significance to demonstrating publicly in June, dubbed Pride Month, as it commemorates protests against police raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June 1969 that started the modern, ongoing fight for LGBTI equality. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the lived inequalities of LGBTI people especially clear. According to Human Rights Campaign research, LGBT people are more likely to suffer health complications from COVID-19, work in harder-hit industries such as food service, live in poverty, and be homeless. The global protests over racial injustice also demonstrate that many LGBTI people of color face discrimination for multiple reasons. As Madrigal-Borloz emphasized, “No one is solely defined by their sexuality.”
Pride and the fight for black equality are intricately woven together. One of the earliest gay rights organizations, the Gay Liberation Front, was founded by Marsha P. Johnson, a black, transgender, gay and trans rights activist. She and fellow activist and drag queen Sylvia Rivera, a Latina American, were early protagonists in the Stonewall uprising and together founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Leading figures in the civil rights movement such as James Baldwin, Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde were also gay and champions of intersectional identity.
“The reality is that the foundation of Pride itself was started as a protest headed by black women and queer folks of color,” said Russell Boyd, national field organizer with the Youth and College Division of the NAACP. “That very much alone is a celebration.”
Now, 50 years later, the connection between these two movements is all the more clear against the backdrop of inequalities laid bare by COVID-19.
You can't say you want betterment for queer folks if you leave out folks who have other intersecting identities.
National Field Organizer with the Youth and College Division of the NAACP
LGBTI people of color often find themselves on the fringes of society without formal jobs, shelter, supportive families, or wider social acceptance. Today, they are disproportionately affected by both the health risks and economic fallout of COVID-19, according to new research, which finds that LGBT people of color are more likely than white or straight counterparts to have lost their jobs or had their work hours cut during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 is a human rights crisis, especially to those who experience preexisting vulnerability and inequality,” Alejandro Verdier, Argentina’s deputy permanent representative to the UN and co-chair of the UN LGBTI Core Group, said at the recent virtual event Shedding Light: LGBT persons and COVID-19, organized by the UN Foundation and UN Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures.
There are many documented examples: in Uganda, an LGBT shelter has been raided; in South Korea, homophobic rhetoric is on the rise; in Hungary, parliament has voted to end legal recognition of transgender people; in the U.S., transgender civil rights protections are under threat.
The Shedding Light event served to launch Victor Madrigal-Borloz’s official IE SOGI statement for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Informed by global consultations with more than 400 people and co-signed by over 90 UN independent experts, the statement urges states and other stakeholders to take into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and gender diverse people when designing, implementing, and evaluating measures to combat the pandemic.
An important conclusion of these consultations is that a lack of protections for LGBTI people during the pandemic endangers millions of lives around the world. Those who experience multidimensional discrimination based on an intersection of their identity are endangered most of all. “We all embody many identities in one body,” Madrigal-Borloz said. “For certain people, their compounded identity is compounded discrimination.”
Discrimination in health services, education, and employment based on gender identification, sexual orientation, and race places LGBTI people all over the world at higher risk during public health crises.
An LGBTI person who contracts COVID-19, for example, is unlikely to receive proper treatment from health systems and government policies around the world that are increasingly discriminatory against LGBTI people. During the Shedding Light event, the director of the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group in Georgia, Eka Tsereteli, said her organization tries to accompany transwomen on clinic visits because they are often denied treatment. Even if COVID-19-free, many LGBTI people remain at risk of their governments co-opting pandemic emergency powers to increase penalties for HIV transmission and use police forces to target marginalized communities.
This is not the time to make LGBT persons invisible.
IE SOGI, UN Human Rights Council
“Communities don’t know who to turn to for support,” said Midnight Poonkasetwattana, executive director of the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health and another Shedding Light panelist. Poonkasetwattana works with 18 other civil society organizations to fill the gap in government support, delivering food and sanitation products to LGBTI communities across Thailand. When asked how Pride Month might influence LGBT realities during the pandemic, he said, “Visibility is needed all the time, but especially now.”
Pride Month this year is intertwined with the global public health crisis and uproar over long-standing racial injustice. While some protests have defied the pandemic and taken to the streets, other manifestations of strength are taking over our digital landscape. Black and Latinx LGBTI people, who found haven in the underground voguing and ballroom scene, have started holding virtual ballroom events offering anti-COVID tips and support to Black Lives Matter. This year a Global Pride event will offer a 24-hour livestream of human rights speeches, performances, and activations in what could be the largest gathering of the international LGBTI community to date.
“I am optimistic,” said Boyd, “because we are recognizing every day the power of our voices.”