The COVID-19 pandemic has turned everyone’s life upside down, but it is hitting previously-marginalized communities especially hard. Across the United States, coronavirus is making our country’s shortcomings more visible. Gaps in healthcare infrastructure, which have long existed, have been brought to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, as more and more people die from the unavailability of COVID-19 treatment.
Graphic by Max Coolidge. Resources compiled by Shoshana Weinstein. See bottom of the page for links to resources.
Racial disparities which were present before the pandemic have become, if possible, even more apparent as African Americans and Latinx Americans die at drastically higher rates than whites. (New research suggests that Black Americans might account for as much as 60 percent of corona-related deaths, despite making up just 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.) Similarly, COVID-19 has affected LGBTQ+ folks to a much greater extent than their cis/straight counterparts, especially LGBTQ+ people of color. Being queer or trans does not, in and of itself, make one more susceptible to the virus; instead, preexisting structures of systemic homophobia and transphobia put LGBTQ+ people at greater risk.
Let’s start by looking at some of the disparities which already exist between the LGBTQ+ community and the rest of the U.S. For one thing, the queer and trans community is more likely to live in poverty than others. According to a 2019 study, almost 22 percent of the LGBTQ+ community lives under the poverty line, compared to just 16 percent of their cishet counterparts. This is especially true for transgender people of color; 40 percent of Black trans adults and 45 percent of Latinx trans adults live below the poverty line. For those who live in poverty, skipping work usually is not an option, because collecting a wage is a matter of survival. Thus, experiencing poverty at higher rates often means that queer and trans people are exposed to the virus at higher rates as well, simply because they cannot afford to stay home.
Poverty also makes it much more difficult for individuals to seek healthcare, especially in a country where health insurance itself is still so expensive. In fact, while a total of 27 million Americans remain uninsured, a disproportionate number of those Americans are part of the LGBTQ+ community. 17 percent of LGBTQ+ people lack health insurance, compared to 12 percent of non-LGBTQ+ folks. Even for those with insurance, coronavirus treatment costs an average of about $38,000! For the uninsured, that cost goes up to an average of $73,000, according to a study published in May 2020. These high costs mean that many LGBTQ+ people with coronavirus simply cannot afford to seek treatment.
The LGBTQ+ community is also uniquely vulnerable to several pre-existing health conditions which place people at higher risk for contracting coronavirus. For example, LGBTQ+ folks are much more likely to smoke (37 percent of us do, compared to 27 percent of the rest of the population), which makes queer and trans people more likely to fall prey to a respiratory illness like COVID-19. People with HIV/AIDS, many of whom are LGBTQ+, are immunocompromised and thus likely at a higher risk of contracting symptoms as well. And let’s not forget the discrimination faced by many LGBTQ+ people, especially trans folks, when they do manage to find healthcare. The Trump administration has given medical professionals the green light to refuse treatment to transgender patients, a policy which will quite literally have deadly consequences. Even for those who are not turned away, transgender patients often face intentional misgendering and other forms of harassment which discourage them from seeking care in the first place.
The list of factors that put LGBTQ+ folks at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 could go on and on. LGBTQ+ youth are 120 percent more likely to be homeless, and thus face greater exposure to the virus; many LGBTQ+ workers fear discrimination when requesting paid leave, because doing so would require them to disclose their queer or trans identity. Suffice to say that systemic anti-LGBT discrimination constistently puts queer and trans people at higher risk and creates barriers to seeking care.
On the other hand, many LGBTQ+ people are able to safely social distance. However, even in quarantine, being queer or trans can pose distinct challenges. Chief among them are the higher rates of depression and anxiety in the young LGBTQ+ population. Mental health issues are made worse when queer and trans youth are forced to quarantine with intolerant family members. Many face the risk of physical and emotional abuse from family. The Trevor Project, which offers crisis counseling to LGBTQ+ youth, reports that in the past few months the number of people who have contacted them in crisis has nearly doubled. Elderly LGBTQ+ people, too, are less likely to have supportive families.
Even those who are social distancing in accepting environments may find themselves cut off from a previously-established sense of community with other LGBTQ+ people. LGBTQ+ people of all ages have less access to identity-affirming spaces and interactions during a time when we are all staying home. As pride events are cancelled or postponed and gay bars close across the country, it can sometimes feel as if queer culture itself is disappearing.
Many readers might be thinking, So what? Everyone is facing challenges right now in the midst of the pandemic; don’t make this into a competition to see who is suffering the most. And it is certainly true that regardless of gender and sexual orientation, everyone deserves to be healthy, safe, and financially stable. But these health disparities deserve our attention; they are just one more instance in which institutionalized discrimination leads to the disproportionate suffering of a marginalized community. Hopefully, this pandemic will bring more urgency to the process of reckoning with the intersection of heterosexism, transphobia, and racism in the U.S.
I wish that I could end this article by saying something along the lines of, “We’ll get through this together,” but those words ring hollow, at least to my ears. These days when people say things like that to me, I’m reminded of when Trump was elected and everyone seemed to be saying, “We got through Reagan, we’ll get through Trump!” (Huge portions of the LGBTQ+ community, especially LGBT communities of color, did not “get through” the Reagan administration and the AIDS crisis at all. In fact, they were wiped out.) I don’t say that to be depressing or provocative, but simply to acknowledge that for many of us, things look pretty bad right now. So instead, I will end with this: You are not alone right now. There are plenty of resources you can turn to (see the graphic above). And of course, happy pride month.