“Covid sucks.” This is what I have been hearing from people since the pandemic blew up. Whether it is a chit-chat with Grindr strangers, a check-in with long-time friends, or working with community organizations—the steadily increasing number of Covid-19 cases always lingers at the backdrop for the conversation, gradually consuming the little optimism left in people to believe that life will resume to normal soon.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ communities and aggravated systematic inequalities in health. The exact impact of Covid-19 on LGBTQ+ people is difficult to trace due to negligence of official data collection and lack of access to health services. Financial hardship related to employment, housing, and social isolation further impairs LGBTQ+ people’s capacity to cope with the pandemic.
The campaign “Queer We Are, Together We Heal” originated as a collaborative initiative to address health equity issues within and beyond LGBTQ+ communities in Madison. Several community organizations formed a coalition to work together, including Our Lives magazine, Freedom, Inc., the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center (GSCC) at UW-Madison, MadRainbow, Out Professional Engagement Network (OPEN), OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center, and Orgullo Latinx LGBT+ of Dane County.
We spent the summer meeting and discussing what the community needs were concerning health and launched the campaign in September. We now have a public presence on social media through community partners’ publicity channels and the campaign’s main Facebook page (@QueerHealthEquity) and Twitter handle (@we_queer). We are also lucky to have Our Lives magazine as the campaign’s primary media partner.
The goals of the campaign are to document how the pandemic has affected local communities, to highlight structural inequities behind health disparity, and to rally support for community care. As organizations occupying different and overlapping spaces, we also want to use the campaign as an opportunity to cultivate trust and facilitate collaboration.
Structures for Health Equity
According to a research report by the Human Rights Campaign, many structural factors disadvantage LGBTQ+ communities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides the long-existing gap in access to health coverage, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to work in highly affected industries, have no paid leaves, and experience poverty and housing insecurity. Historical discrimination in health care practice and policy also leads to a higher rate of chronic illness including HIV infection among LGBTQ+ people.
Ticia Kelsey works as the LGBT Senior Advocate at the OutReach Community Center. She has been checking on elderly people who have a connection with the center after Covid-19 cut off in-person events. “A lot of LGBTQ seniors have difficulty with things like teleconferences and tele-appointments,” Kelsey says. “Because our seniors are kind of segregated away from the main population of seniors, we haven’t had as many classes telling us how to do this.”
Such social isolation hinders access to health care while elderly people are already at higher risk to get severe illness from Covid-19. LGBTQ+ seniors usually get health information through word of mouth among themselves, Kelsey says. “Many transgender seniors walk into a clinic and are treated so badly they never want to go back in. And then other LGB seniors were outed by their physicians when they were younger. And so they don’t trust those people now.”
The closure of social spaces for LGBTQ+ people also affects the younger generation. “We have data from students, and these data are clearly indicating that students, or young adults broadly, are seeking and are hungry for connection and community,” says Warren Scherer, the Director of GSCC. Thus, being unable to find those communal connections adds on an underlying mental health concern, Scherer points out.
Participating in the campaign, Scherer wants to raise public awareness of health equity and create a better environment for LGBTQ+ youths to get health services. “Folks who upon moving away from or off campus may have different access to supportive and affirming health care providers,” says Scherer. “Whatever we can do to change the landscape so folks are having better interactions to address those health equities is important.”
Trans people are among the LGBTQ+ groups who face constant challenges to get support for health care and living arrangements. During the pandemic, many providers have to postpone transition-related care such as gender reassignment surgery. “This can be a really stressful experience for trans folks, in that it can feel like they have less control and agency over their own bodies,” says Sergio Domínguez, a Ph.D. student and researcher at the Trans Research Lab affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Domínguez cites the statistics showing that Trans Lifeline, a major non-profit crisis hotline serving trans people, has gotten 40 percent more calls than usual in the past few months.
Health Equity, Intersectionality, and Social Justice
Health disparities are a symptom of structural inequities regarding race, citizenship, class, age, ableness, gender, and sexuality. Domínguez says that the Trans Research Lab promotes a cultural shift from gender equality to gender justice. Reproductive injustice, racism, classism, xenophobia, and whore-phobia are all contribute to trans people’s experience of discrimination, Domínguez says. “There has to be justice for all trans people, not just a select few who are white, able-bodied, middle class, documented, et cetera.”
A social justice approach to health equity highlights intersectionality in LGBTQ+ people’s everyday experience. Freedom, Inc., an avid advocate for racial justice, participates in the campaign and helps to connect organizing around health equity with the police abolition movement. A public statement co-signed by more than 170 LGBTQ+ organizations urges to “defund the police and invest in communities.” The statement provides concrete alternatives to police that would premise health equity on affordable housing, inclusive workplace, quality education, and other community services.
For many Latinx LGBTQ+ people in Dane County, housing and employment insecurity put them in limbo during the pandemic. Access to basic health services can be a problem for Latinx people with no immigration documentation, says Baltazar De Anda-Santana, the Director of Orgullo. “They are undocumented, so they don’t have a lot of support financially to deal with all the health issues right now.”
Taking jobs that necessitate on-site activities and customer services further expose some LGBTQ+ Latinxs to the risk of Covid-19. De Anda-Santana recalls talking to a job seeker: “When I asked this person, ‘Where do you want to work?’ she said a restaurant or a factory because that’s the only place where this person could work.” Orgullo has been working with other Latinx organizers to coordinate resources and rally support. Mutual aid and extensive community network help the situation most, De Anda-Santana says.
The Trump administration has been systematically rescinding policies and laws protecting LGBTQ+ rights. For example, in November, 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services stopped prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in the department’s grant programs, some of which address the HIV, opioid, and youth homelessness epidemics. These administrative actions are accompanied by other attacks on people of color and non-white immigrants, causing extra harm to LGBTQ+ people of racial and ethnic minorities.
Collaboration Cultivates Trust
Despite its devastating impact, the Covid-19 pandemic presents as an opportunity for community leaders to work together and address a common challenge. “I’m excited that we’re all trying to work together to try to create a cohesive message,” says Justin Williams, the President of OPEN. “Typically, we all work in our little silos on the issues that our organizations work on and we don’t have a lot of crossover.”
One major barrier to collaboration among LGBTQ+ organizations is limited staffing. With so many things still needing to be done for LGBTQ+ communities, it can be difficult to find the right time between two organizations trying to connect with each other, says Ticia Kelsey at OutReach. Organizations run entirely by volunteers are particularly under strain. “I wish I could put more time into collaborative community projects, but I do have a day job,” says Baltazar De Anda-Santana at Orgullo.
Convening & recruitment
This was the situation I had to navigate when I started to convene the coalition for the campaign earlier in March. The entry point was to coordinate a communication platform for community partners to talk with one another. Collaboration then grew organically when trust was built and specific community needs were identified. The initiative to foster a coalition among LGBTQ+ organizations was part of the “Humanities Responders” program sponsored by the Center for Humanities, UW-Madison.
Through the Humanities Responders program, I recruited two project assistants who had expertise in community communication and were passionate about promoting health equity. Eli Krebs, a recent alumnus of UW-Madison in Sociology, is interested in researching LGBTQ+ health; and M.Rose Sweetnam, a UW-Madison undergrad student, Event and Accessibility Coordinator at GSCC, and member of the Trans Research Lab, serves as the graphics coordinator and media assistant for the campaign.
Linking university and community together
“It’s so hopeful to build coalitions during this time, because that means you’re looking toward a future together and you’re not mired in this hopelessness that you can easily fall into when everything has such chaos,” says Aaron Fai, the Assistant Director of Public Humanities at the center. “Creating that link across university and community is rough, and it requires a lot of cultural humility on the side of the university.”
To mobilize structural changes of intersectional justice and health equity, institutions like universities and hospitals need to hold back their privileged position and recenter community perspectives. OPEN has been partnering with UW Health to facilitate the institution’s diversity training. Justin Williams at OPEN insists that the partnership reflects the experience and need of LGBTQ+ people. “I was telling them, ‘We’ll bring people to the table. They might call you out on it, and you just need to be humble and accept that,’” says Williams.
The “Queer We Are, Together We Heal” campaign builds on this reciporical model of collaboration to face the challenge of Covid-19. “It’s up to community organizing and mutual aid networks to support the ongoing needs of LGBTQ+ and multiply marginalized people who are being failed,” M.Rose Sweetnam says. “That’s what this project is doing, highlighting the ongoing needs of LGBTQ+ communities so that we can continue building better support networks.”