While in lockdown, Betina, a young woman in São Paulo, Brazil, stays busy cooking and working. She tries to stay calm by meditating. But Betina, who identifies as a lesbian, faces another challenge.
Her parents are homophobic, she said, and she doesn’t feel comfortable being herself while working from home because of the pandemic.
“My parents make sure I know they are not OK with my ‘choices’ every day. And being a lesbian made them so disappointed in me that no matter what I do, it’s never enough,” said Betina, who asked that her surname not be used to protect her identity. “I feel like I’m watching my life go by through somebody else’s eyes — because I’m not who they want me to be, but I also can’t be myself when I’m in their house.”
Betina is not alone. Many people who identify as LGBTQ are experiencing lockdown differently than their heterosexual peers — especially those stuck in homophobic homes. And LGBTQ organizations around the world are seeing significant upticks in calls for help.
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Switchboard, the UK’s leading LGBT+ helpline, says it's receiving 20% more calls, emails and instant messages than they did before the pandemic — and those numbers continue to rise.
“It’s really, really staggering,” said Natasha Walker, Switchboard’s co-chair. “I know we’ve spoken to people who’ve come out to their family as transgender or who’ve come out to their family as homosexual and the parents aren’t dealing with that very well. Those callers are contacting us because they think they’re about to be kicked out.”
Transgender and gender-nonconforming people are calling and messaging at an even higher rate, Walker said.
“There could be numerous reasons for that,” she explained. “One thing we’re all very aware of right now is the pausing of gender-treating, gender-affirming surgery, and gender clinics having to shut down or really strip back their services.”
But for some, even getting on the phone is a risk. Many of the people under the age of 24 reaching out to Switchboard are contacting the organization via email and instant messaging services.
“There’s a real parallel between being able to reach out to us via instant messaging and email because of concerns about being overheard on the phone,” Walker said. “Especially within these different circumstances that people are finding themselves in, in lockdown.”
Social media apps like Twitter and communication apps like WhatsApp are seeing a surge in use during COVID-19. But this extra time online does not correlate with a heightened feeling of connectedness — people are feeling more alone than before the coronavirus pandemic.
That feeling is compounded for some LGBTQ people in countries where homosexuality is still criminalized.
Shawna Stewart is the co-director of WE-Change, an organization that helps lesbian, gay and bisexual women in Jamaica, where homosexuality is illegal. Stewart said as unemployment rates increase and universities and schools are canceled, many younger queer people have had to move into hostile and homophobic living situations.
“This morning, someone called me to tell me that she lost her job, and she’s at home with her family,” Stewart said. “And it’s very, very difficult because she doesn’t have any money, and they are quite homophobic. And they’re making it difficult for her — not even giving her food.”
Stewart is working to get food to the girl, and also found her a therapist, who will work with her pro bono.
Jennifer Okoba, who works for an LGBT organization called One Action Foundation in Nigeria, where homosexuality is criminalized, said her organization is overwhelmed by the number of people who need support.
“Most of them requested, you know, monetary support, basic food items,” Okoba said. “And then some people just requested that they don’t really need anything, they just need someone to talk to.”
Okoba and her team posted a survey online to see how many locals needed support. She thought maybe 20 people would reply. But 207 responses later, Okoba and her team made the difficult decision to pause the survey.
“If I’m thinking about supporting one person, that would be roughly $80. So if I have 207 people reach out to me, I don’t know where I’m going to get that amount of money to support everyone,” Okoba said. Right now, she only has enough resources to support about 10 people by sending food to their homes and calling them for regular check-ins.
In Canada, homosexuality is not criminalized, but queer Canadians are also being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, said Helen Kennedy, executive director of Canada’s leading LGBTQ organization, Egale. According to new research from Egale, LGBTQ Canadians are facing pay cuts and layoffs at a higher rate than straight and cisgender Canadians.
“A majority of the LGBT households — 53% — have been affected by layoffs or reduced hours as a result of the pandemic, compared to 39% of the overall Canadian population,” Kennedy said. “So, that’s dramatic.”
More research is needed to understand that gap in impact, she added.
“We can anecdotally describe that the majority of LGBTQ2IS community members are overeducated and underemployed — that the types of jobs they would have access to are more of your front line, server-type jobs,” Kennedy said. “But that’s very much a stereotype, at this point. And it’s a guess.”
The organization has called on the Canadian government to explicitly address the needs of LGBTQ people in its pandemic response and emergency preparedness planning, for example, by allocating funds and integrating LGBTQ stakeholders in housing projects and food security assistance.
The situation is also complicated by the fact that many people in the queer community have created “chosen families” outside of their biological relatives, she added.
“We don’t have the same family structures as our non-LGBTQI2S people have,” Kennedy said, referring to the term that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and two-spirit. “If you are in a situation where you are isolated within a homophobic, transphobic, biphobic household for example, then that additional stress on your mental health and physical health just further compounds the problem.”
Betina, the young woman from Brazil, said she is reaching out to some of her LGBTQ friends to help her deal with isolation with her family. “It’s good to be able to talk with people who understand,” she said.
Walker, from the Switchboard helpline, said staying connected is the best thing for the queer community to do right now.
“One thing the LGBTQ+ communities have always done is evolve and adapt to changing situations. We’re a hearty bunch who are really, really good at supporting each other, at our core. And empathy — empathy binds us together,” Walker said. “So, yeah, I have no doubt that we’ll get through it, but it’s really important that we do that by supporting each other.”