LGBTIQ communities face prejudice all over the world, including Asia, and Covid-19 has made the challenges even tougher. Photo: iStock

Covid-19 took China, its neighbors, and soon the world by storm. On January 23, the Chinese government declared a temporary lockdown of Wuhan and other cities. Regional travel bans soon followed.

In a matter of hours, almost every life in the region was affected. While travel restrictions immediately affected hundreds of millions of people, the ripple effect the virus and its containment measures had, and continues to have, on marginalized communities would grow to be much larger than the general population. 

By January 25, LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or questioning) activists all over China were gathered in chat groups discussing the unfolding crisis. They recognized the immediate need to extend the lockdown beyond January and responded by mobilizing.

“We have to do something as LGBT activists. We’ve gained a lot of experience navigating the system. We knew what to do and how to mobilize, and it was time to use it,” said Stephanie, of Guangzhou. Her group started a 48-hour social-media campaign and mobilized thousands of people to lobby for the extension of the public holiday – and succeeded. 

While LGBTIQ people were the heroes of that story, overall they are among the most vulnerable groups in societies around the world, experiencing higher levels of discrimination, exclusion and stigma even in the absence of a pandemic. The containment measures keeping people at home and cut off from their support networks and communities make the effects of this crisis particularly devastating. 

OutRight Action International set out to understand exactly how LGBTIQ people are affected by this pandemic, the measures imposed for containment, and the corresponding economic downturn. The findings of our report “Vulnerability Amplified: The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on LGBTIQ People,” released this month, surpassed our expectations of the level of crisis facing this group, across the world, right now.

Strikingly, while containment measures and political and social environments vary from country to country, what we found was that the top challenges and concerns were shared across the world. Rising food and shelter insecurity was among the highest concerns facing LGBTIQ people, including in Asia. An alarming number of LGBTIQ people have lost their main source of income.

“Marcus,” a gay man from Singapore, said: “LGBTIQ people are more likely to be in jobs that are now unavailable. Bars and clubs are closed; many of my drag-queen friends had their gigs canceled. Many folks are just living day-to-day.”

Indeed, LGBTIQ people are overrepresented in the informal economy, living on the margins, without job security, thus being more susceptible to economic fluctuations and much less likely to be able to work from home. 

Our research identified that barriers in access to health care have increased dramatically too. In addition to overwhelmed health-care systems, pre-existing stigma and discrimination have been amplified, turning queer folks away from seeking the care they need.

In China, quarantine measures required individuals to provide a reason for travel. Afraid of the stigma and discrimination that comes with carrying the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), many LGBTIQ people preferred taking the risk of not getting their medication over being outed to their family or community. The Wuhan LGBT Center scrambled to help, delivering medication to around 14,000 persons throughout the lockdown.

Haojie of the Wuhan LGBT center said: “We had to help our own community, because we are all we had.… The government does not have the capacity to take care of minorities or provide any resources to us. In the near future, I very much doubt we will have any progress protecting LGBT groups because the nation and government’s attention and energy will exclusively be directed to addressing the Covid virus.”

Another key threat of Covid-19 comes in the form of rising levels of domestic and family violence. This is the most prevalent form of violence faced by the LGBTIQ community, and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the rise now as many queer people have been forced to return to unsupportive family homes.

Moreover, containment measures have shut down queer spaces, community centers, and events – leaving LGBTIQ people without a safe place to escape to, or seek support from, even momentarily. 

“YY,” a bisexual woman in Guangdong, said: “My relationship with my family is very oppressive. Because of my sexual orientation, my mother started to force me to get married to a man. Because I’m bisexual, they think they could correct my SOGIE [sexual orientation, gender identity and expression]. As a result, we fought many times.… There was a lot of psychological violence.…”

Unfortunately, the availability of relief measures does not mean accessibility. In the Philippines, for example, food packages were distributed to “families,” but the definition of “family” did not include same-sex partners. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, food aid was distributed from police stations, which in a country that still criminalizes same-sex relations are not safe for LGBTIQ people. 

OutRight launched the Covid-19 Global Emergency Fund to support LGBTIQ communities and organizations on the frontlines of responding to the crisis. Within a month we received more than 1,500 applications for help. That, and our research, overwhelmingly show just how grave a situation LGBTIQ people are facing, with increasing levels of hunger, homelessness, violence, and even death.

Urgent action is needed from governments and multilateral organizations to ensure that relief efforts are inclusive, and LGBTIQ people are not pushed even further into the margins of society.

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Jean Chong

Jean Chong is program field coordinator at OutRight Action International. She has been an LGBTQ activist for almost two decades. She is based in Singapore.