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Losing lifelines, keeping connections

The LGBTQIA+ population already faced a unique set of challenges that became amplified during COVID-19. The pandemic offered a time to reflect on the importance of community.

Community can be found in curious places—in a local dance class or a corner coffee shop. It can be facilitated in classrooms or religious centers. Community is something that binds people together, that provides a safe space for people to be themselves.

So what happens when physical spaces are inaccessible? When those who found comfort in camaraderie were barred from experiencing it?

In 2020, the message was clear: Social distancing, staying home, and not congregating would help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. A necessity, but also a detriment to those who rely on coming together to continue on.

For the LGBTQIA+ community, this impact was felt deeply. Even before COVID-19, LGBTQIA+ people faced greater challenges in accessing employment, health care, and other services than the general population. Yet this was just one of many bad hands the pandemic has dealt.

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Health care challenges

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation found that more than 5 million LGBTQIA+ individuals in the U.S. work in industries that were likely to be highly affected by COVID-19, including restaurants and food service, hospitals, K-12 and higher education, and retail industries. This adds up to almost half of the U.S. LGBTQIA+ population. Work in these industries has meant higher risk of exposure, greater possibilities of layoffs or unemployment, and heightened demands on employees with sometimes limited support from the organizations themselves.

With health care access tied to employment for so many, the more than 5 million LGBTQIA+ workers in industries highly affected by COVID-19 have had to deal with the stress of losing both.

“I definitely see a heightened level of anxiety where people are asking, if I lose this job, what’s next? What else is available to me as an LGBTQIA+ person?” says Erica Rodriguez, Psy.D., a mental health therapist at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and professor in the Cultural Family Psychology Department at Pacific Oaks College. “Right now unemployment is so high that anyone looking for a job is going to struggle. But when you add that extra layer of being someone who is nonbinary, or identifies as trans, a masculine-expressing woman, or a more feminine-expressing man, there’s that fear of how that will be taken if they show up to an interview.”

Additionally, COVID-19 created new barriers to health care for people who already have a difficult time finding safe and accepting facilities and providers. “Even before the pandemic, LGBTQIA+ individuals struggled to find competent health care providers who understand the importance of things like proper pronouns and not deadnaming [using a transgender or nonbinary person’s former name] someone, providers who are able to affirm and not stigmatize them,” Dr. Rodriguez explains. “One of the struggles during COVID-19 is that a lot of health care facilities are now having to close or are modifying how they offer services. Fewer doctors and nurses are available. Their hours are different. The already high level of anxiety for LGBTQIA+ patients in accessing care is amplified by what’s going on because of the pandemic.”

Disruptions in health care access can be incredibly detrimental to individuals on medications that they cannot afford out of pocket. Dr. Rodriguez notes that discontinuation of hormone treatments or HIV medications is damaging not just physically but emotionally.

“You have no right to tell someone who identifies as transgender that they can’t have their hormones. It’s like telling a diabetic they can’t have their insulin. It’s a quality-of-life issue,” she says. “If you go off of a medication unexpectedly, you start seeing the increased symptoms of depression, of dysphoria. And because of COVID-19-related unemployment, if someone loses their job right now it takes so long to get benefits through Medi-Cal.”

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Finding connections

Much like health care access and unemployment—and undoubtedly intrinsically related to those issues—the LGBTQIA+ community experienced higher rates of economic stress even before COVID-19. HRC Foundation research notes that these individuals are more likely to live in poverty compared to the U.S. population as a whole, a number the Williams Institute pegged at an astounding 22%.

The HRC Foundation also points out the possible link between the high rates of unemployment and poverty in the LGBTQIA+ community to discrimination—28% of LGBTQIA+ people reported losing a promotion because of their sexual orientation, and 27% of transgender workers reported having been fired, not hired, or denied a promotion due to their identity.

And once LGBTQIA+ people find themselves back on the job hunt, the hiring process can exacerbate existing issues with hiding important parts of their identity.

“I think presenting a specific version of yourself in a job interview is common. It’s a kind of survival mechanism for everybody when they have a desperate need to try to do everything possible to be able to obtain a job,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “But for LGBTQIA+ individuals, you’re also asking them to hide a piece of who they are. A transgender individual who may not fit the stereotypical look of what someone of that gender looks like is being asked to completely lie about who they are indefinitely in order to have a job and afford the basic necessities for life — essentially, to choose to hide who they are in order to live.”

For Kenneth Brown, a Pacific Oaks College graduate student pursuing his master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy with an emphasis in African American Studies, this was a big part of his life for a long time. Before he came out as bisexual, he often found himself concealing that part of his identity and felt how profoundly limiting that could be—both in serious settings like job interviews as well as in less serious situations.

“I was taking improv classes, and the people in class with me were so funny. They could really go there in their improv scene. They were just free,” he recalls. “And I’m sitting there, almost jealous. I was like, I need to come out. I need to come out because they’re talking about relationships, they’re making crazy jokes, and I’m sitting here policing myself. And because of that, I wasn’t being a hundred percent authentic. There was a whole lot of stuff that I was missing out on.”

Brown has since come out and discusses his commitment to being his authentic self in doing so.

“This is who I am now,” he says. “That’s what I decided when I came out: That life is too short. You better be you, and you better be your authentic self. I want to live my life.”

For the LGBTQIA+ population, it’s the members of their community who often support them the most once they have come out and begin to live as their authentic selves. Dr. Rodriguez notes the impact COVID-19 has had on these connections.

“The LGBTQIA+ population has always had specific spots that were havens. And even within those havens, there were times where there was hate against the community,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “Now we don’t even really have those. And there’s the fear that COVID-19 will shutter some of these very havens forever. How many small mom and pop stores that serve the community are we losing because of the pandemic?”

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Finding pride

Brown says that it’s his social circle and time spent with the community that has suffered the most from COVID-19.

“I’m blessed in that I have a job. I have a loving family. I haven’t had problems accessing health care,” he says. “But in the community, there’s more of a need to have time for connection. Whereas going out on a Friday night might be a way to let off steam for others, in our community it’s more than that. It’s a way to continue to affirm yourself, to get that feedback back that you’re OK, you’re alright. COVID-19 has cut that off. That’s when I start to feel more isolated and feel like this has really hit our community in a different way because of how important it was to have that connection with people.”

There’s hope for a return of in-person connection. With vaccines rolling out and businesses slowly reopening, a return to a new normal is near. While the impacts of the pandemic on the LGBTQIA+ community will likely prove to be major and long term, Brown is hopeful for the community as a whole. He’s also hopeful that he’ll soon be able to enjoy his first Pride.

For many, Pride is one of the only times and places where members of these communities feel fully free to be themselves. The next Pride will not only be a celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community, but also of a return to in-person connection.

“I only came out about three years ago, and I was so excited to go to Pride in 2020. I was going to get a rainbow flag, and we were going to have a great time. Then COVID-19 hit,” Kenneth pauses and laughs. “But when I finally get to go to Pride, it’s going to be amazing.”

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