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The LGBTQ+ Community Faces Unique Coronavirus Challenges

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Key Takeaways

  • Studies show that members of the LGBTQ+ community may be at higher risk of mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Discrepancies in healthcare for these vulnerable populations are exacerbated by the crisis.

While everyone is dealing with COVID-19 challenges, there are a number of ways in which the LGBTQ+ community is being disproportionately impacted by this global pandemic. A recent study published by the Journal of General Internal Medicine reveals that symptoms of anxiety and depression have increased among sexual and gender minority individuals since the onset of the pandemic.

From delaying gender-affirming surgeries and sheltering in place with unsupportive family members to facing higher health risks and experiencing discrimination within the healthcare system, members of the LGBTQ+ community are dealing with many unique challenges.

Pre-Coronavirus Risk Factors

Of the 16 million Americans who identify under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, five million have jobs that are more likely to be impacted by COVID-19 and many lack the paid medical and family leave they need to take time off for themselves or to care for family members.

Though the Supreme Court ruled in June that federal law protects LGBTQ+ individuals from being fired for their identity, that doesn’t necessarily mean all individuals feel comfortable disclosing their identity or that they receive the same benefits and treatments as their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts. 

The problems extend far past the workplace. LGBTQ+ individuals have less access to health coverage than non-LGBTQ+ individuals, with 23% of LGBTQ+ adults of color and 32% of transgender adults of color having no form of health coverage. On top of that, 21% of LGBTQ+ adults have asthma and 1.4 million LGBTQ+ adults have diabetes. One in two Black cisgender men who have sex with men (MSM) and one in four Latinx cisgender MSM will be diagnosed with HIV, and one in two Black transgender women and one in four Latinx transgender women already have HIV.

In addition, Kenya Crawford, LMHC, Ed.M, M.A., psychotherapist and clinical supervisor, says, “QTPOC are navigating racism, homophobia, classism, sexism, and an array of other forms of oppression daily. All of these experiences have been magnified in the midst of COVID-19."

Though the community, as a whole, is battling unprecedented challenges, some of those being hit the hardest are Black transgender women, transgender sex workers, LGBTQ+ people of color, and immigrant LGBTQ+ individuals. LGBTQ+ youth are also facing many challenges and already have a 120% higher risk of reporting homelessness compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.

“It’s this constant bombarding from every possible angle,” says Kira Hayes M.A., MFT, owner and mental health provider at Affirming Pathways Psychotherapy, LLC. “COVID filled a cup that was already overflowing.”

Disproportionate Access to Care

At a time when we’re all trying to avoid a virus of which there is no known vaccination or cure, access to affordable, supportive healthcare and mental health care is essential for all. Unfortunately, this country has a long, systematic history of discriminating and denying high-quality care to our minority and marginalized communities.

“It’s cruel to target certain groups who are already under-resourced for no other reason than the culture or legal system doesn’t recognize their humanity,” says Louise Newton, MSW, LCSW, SEP at MindPath Care Centers.

Even though numerous mental health professionals have determined that gender-affirming procedures and surgeries are medically necessary for the long-term mental well-being of a transgender individual, many health insurance companies still deem them as “non-essential.”

To cancel a life-affirming surgery after many years of preparation (including hormone therapy, financial preparation, referral letters from mental health professionals, and more) is devastating, especially for those experiencing gender dysphoria.

These procedures can be lifesaving and cancelling them puts many individuals at risk of experiencing depression and suicide ideation—especially those who are already experiencing mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or substance use disorders due to the overwhelming distress of living in a physical gender body that doesn't reflect the gender they identify with.

Isolation and the Impact on Identity 

“Our community has truly been struggling during the COVID-19 crisis. We are one of the few, if not the only marginalized populations who don’t have built-in family empathy,” says Elena Joy Thurston, founder of the Pride and Joy Foundation. “Quarantine has meant that we have a lot less face time with the people who affirm our identity and our experience.” 

The cancelling of schools, community events, and in-person support groups means spending more time at home, which, for many, isn’t always a safe or comfortable place. Going back into the closet or hiding your identity might be the only way to survive or protect yourself, but that experience can be detrimental to your mental health. It is especially problematic for those without a support system who are experiencing gender dysphoria.

“Having to hide aspects of one's identity, one's life, involves a number of psychological strategies that can ultimately wear upon an individual,” says Konjit V. Page, Ph.D., Chair of the American Psychological Association's Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

Even though virtual communities, events, and groups do exist, they aren’t the same as meeting in real life, and not everyone in the LGBTQ+ community feels comfortable joining them.

“We often build these chosen families in communal and public spaces, from bars and bathhouses, to book clubs and bocce ball groups. During COVID-19, these spaces have largely been closed entirely or are unsafe, which makes meeting up with other [LGBTQ+ members] face-to-face more difficult,” says D. Gilson, Ph.D, professor and published author, who moved back home with his parents at the start of the pandemic to take care of his father and focus on a career change.

"Though a lot of LGBTQ+ folks have found a great deal of camaraderie through virtual events such as drag shows or happy hours," he adds, "I am one of the people who finds these online events to be anxiety inducing."

D. Gilson, Ph.D.

I’ve taken time to unplug and learn how to be alone and more holistically with my family. I know that’s not possible for everyone, but I’ve overcome a lot of anxiety surrounding loneliness and biological family issues during this pandemic.

— D. Gilson, Ph.D.

The pandemic, for many, has caused unparalleled feelings of hopelessness, but Newton wants every member of the LGBTQ+ community to remember: “The world needs us to survive. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

If you’re battling any number of mental health challenges, from PTSD and substance abuse to depression and suicidal ideation, ask for help. Take advantage of the tools and resources that are available. Now is the time to find supportive care that might not have been available to you pre-pandemic. Organizations like The Trevor Project are worth checking out.

Resiliency in a Crisis 

"While it may seem like the [LGBTQ+] community has come a long way after historical events such as marriage equality, the fight is far from over," says Crawford.

Despite unfair circumstances and insurmountable obstacles, the LGBTQ+ community has proven, time and time again, to be incredibly tenacious and resilient. From battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early '80's to battling today's pandemic, this community has shown that mutual compassion in times of crisis isn't just possible, it's necessary.

Kira Hayes M.A., MFT

A lot of minority [and marginalized] communities are coming together and supporting each other. Isolation is being redirected into something positive.

— Kira Hayes M.A., MFT

We've witnessed increasingly large divides in the U.S. in recent years, but Hayes pointed out that in the divide, unification is happening between minority and marginalized populations.

"We’ve seen a glimpse of what happens when the world stops,” says Newton, noting that the LGBTQ+ community has the built-in skills and resilience factors needed to survive this—and any other—crisis.

LGBTQ+ individuals should continue to ask for help, to reach out to trustworthy family and friends, and continue to remember that they are a part of an amazing community. For allies who want to support, speaking up as never been more important.

"Allies are the strongest voices and those are the voices that can step in when any kind of stigma is being seen," says Hayes.

What This Means For YOu

LGBTQ+ individuals should continue to ask for help, to reach out to trustworthy family and friends, and continue to remember that they are a part of an amazing community. For allies who want to support, speaking up as never been more important.

Allies should consider financial contributions if possible, and if not, attend protests, offer relevant services for free, reach out to LGBTQ+ friends and family members to offer actionable assistance, and at the very least, be a verbal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.

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Article Sources
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