The COVID-19 Pandemic Economy Has Hit LGBTQ+ People Hard, and Black Trans Folks Hardest
When 2020 began, Joriel Boykins felt things were starting to fall into place. He had a job, a car, and was renting an apartment in east New Orleans. He was feeling healthy, eating well, exercising, and was excited to be starting his gender transition.
You can guess what comes next. The coronavirus infected the United States, hitting New Orleans particularly hard—and Boykins' hard-earned stability quickly evaporated. The restaurant where he worked as a dishwasher and doing food prep shut down; he and others were laid off with no warning and little communication. He kept himself afloat with food delivery gigs, until eventually he had to sell his car to pay rent.
"Once I get out of one hole, another opens," he said.
With few other options, he took a job as a caterer at a wedding. A few days later, he found himself feeling sick. Boykins, who falls into several demographics experts identify as high-risk for coronavirus, had contracted COVID. He would later be reinfected, largely because of his increased risk tied to work.
This snapshot of a pandemic year—with its illness, uncertainty, financial precarity and loss—will be familiar to millions of Americans of all genders, sexualities, races and ethnicities. But research is beginning to show that people in the LGBTQ community, and in particular trans people and Black and Latinx queer people, have faced disproportionate economic fallout and will have a longer period of economic recovery ahead. Two-thirds of LGBTQ households have experienced financial problems during the coronavirus pandemic, compared to just 44% of non-LGBTQ people, according to a report by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a nonprofit think tank focused on equality issues. Almost all (95%) Black LGBTQ respondents said someone in their household had experienced financial setbacks since the start of the pandemic. And just this week (the week of Trans Visibility Day, for some irony) dangerous anti-LGBTQ legislation was approved to allow doctors to discriminate against queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming patients.
Economic and social vulnerabilities may be more evident than before, but they were already big issues for the broader LGBTQ community. The pandemic and resulting economic crises have merely exacerbated already existing challenges.
"Contrary to stereotypes of LGBTQ people being economically better off—double income no kids—the LGBTQ community on the whole faces higher rates of poverty, unemployment, discrimination and many more disparities," said Logan Casey, MAP's Senior Policy Researcher. "That affects our economic security and our ability to withstand or weather giant obstacles, like a global pandemic."
All roads lead back to stigma and discrimination, said Casey. And the cumulative effect on those who grapple with overlapping marginalized identities—related to race, socio-economic status, parenting status, injection drug use, sex work, disability, chronic illness, mental illness and gender—can be massive.
"Discrimination in one part of your life starts to snowball into other parts of your life—and makes it hard for anything to change really," said Casey.
To be clear, we're not talking about implicit bias or microaggressions. We're talking about legal discrimination: only 21 states and the District of Columbia protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The Trump presidency saw the intentional erosion of gender- and sexuality-based protections in health care, in schools and in the workplace.
Equal rights advocates anticipate that the coming years will see the expansion of anti-discrimination protections in some states, and attempts to deligitimize protections for LGBTQ people in others. (Even as I write, the Equality Act is being hotly debated in Congress.)
Which is why the drumbeat of universal American experience of the pandemic, with ubiquitous phrases like "we're all in this together" and calling the coronavirus "the great equalizer" can feel utterly off the mark.
Dr. Lisa Bowleg explained her frustrations with such rhetoric in an article from the American Journal of Public Health titled "We're Not All In This Together." Bowleg, a professor of applied social psychology at George Washington University, was in a grocery store in the spring of 2020 when one such PSA came on over the loudspeakers.
"And I was like, 'who is the We?'" she said. If her years of HIV/AIDs policy and prevention research have taught her anything, Bowleg said, it's that when you look at things through an intersectional lens, there is no collective "we." "There are people who...because they're marginalized at so many intersections, whatever it is it's going to be worse with them."
Simply looking at health indicators, LGBTQ people are more likely to be living with chronic illness, to have asthma, to have diabetes and to be smokers. They are more likely to be survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. One-third of LGBTQ Americans are reported to be living with disability; that number is higher still among transgender people, according to National Center for Transgender Equality. Intersex Americans, many of whom have been subject to traumatic surgical interventions as children, report higher rates of challenges not only to their physical health, but mental health.
Health care coverage and cost has been an area of stress for many Americans during the pandemic. LGBTQ people are less likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to be insured. This is due in part to working in sectors where health insurance is not always tied to employment: the food service industry, retail, sex work and entertainment. 40% of LGBTQ workers are employed by the five industries that are among the hardest hit by the pandemic: the food service industry, K-12 education, colleges and universities, retail, and hospitals.
It's a truth universally acknowledged that financial difficulties impact more than just our bank accounts. Economic anxieties strain relationships and our mental and spiritual well-being. An astonishing number (74%) of LGBTQ people have reported that COVID-19 has harmed their mental health.
In lockdown, we've all experienced separation: from our families, loved ones and communities. That loss can feel particularly devastating for queer and trans people whose chosen families and community spaces are a reliable source of safety, comfort, and support in a world that is largely not built with our needs in mind. Quarantine is a uniquely painful experience for those who are forced into lockdown with unsupportive or abusive families. A casual search of GoFundMe will surface dozens of queer and trans youth seeking funds to move out from abusive or unsafe family environments.
"There's greater risk of isolation generally," said Dr. Carrie Lippy of the National LGBTQ Institute on Intimate Partner Violence, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. I spoke to Lippy together with her co-director Marci Taitt-Lamar, who highlighted how isolation, a feature of the pandemic year, is also a hallmark of domestic violence. Before the pandemic, survivors could leave abusive homes by staying with a family member or going to a shelter. With an increase in stress and economic vulnerability, not only do experts anticipate an uptick in intimate partner violence, they fear it will be harder to see and remedy.
"Economic vulnerability just reduces the number of options you have," said Lippy, "and you have a lot of systems that are only set up to create further harm."
We can't solve a problem we can't see or don't yet fully grasp. Everyone I talked to for this piece said we need more data to not only understand but to help mitigate the hurdles facing the LGBTQ population. And historically, federal and local entities have rarely if ever collected detailed, comprehensive and intersectional data on sexual identity or gender expression.
It can be easy to emphasize the vulnerabilities of LGBTQ people, especially during an unprecedented global catastrophe like COVID-19. But, as much as this pandemic has revealed queer and trans communities to be susceptible to failing systems, it has underscored incredible strength, resilience and creativity. Where federal and state agencies have failed, LGBTQ communities and their allies have stepped up to support one another through mutual aid, community care, and fundraising.
A shining example of the power of person-to-person support began in the spring of 2020, when Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society (G.L.I.T.S.) began fundraising to cover rent for members of the Black trans community. That effort raised $1 million and led to the purchase and opening of G.L.I.T.S. House, the first housing complex of its kind to be owned by a Black transgender woman in New York City.
Finding and building community is something queer and trans people excel at doing, as Marci Taitt-Lamar noted. Supporting each other outside pre-existing systems is a part of queer history. "Queer and trans communities have a long history of creating chosen families, and of supporting one another in the face of a lack of support from governmental agencies and other institutions and systems."
In New Orleans, Joriel Boykins, too, has drawn from the support of the queer community to rebound from his COVID-19 setbacks. He now has a new job and is optimistic about the future.
"I've had up and down moments from 2020 until now," said Boykins. "But I'm strong and I was raised never to let my struggle be my downfall."