LGBTIQ+ people in Brazil left to support themselves during COVID-19: vulnerabilities, coping strategies, and recommendations for more inclusive crisis policies

This post was originally written for Policy@Manchester and posted on July 26, 2021, at http://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/posts/2021/07/lgbtiq-people-in-brazil-left-to-support-themselves-during-covid-19-vulnerabilities-coping-strategies-and-recommendations-for-more-inclusive-crisis-policies/

A version of this blog is available to read in Portuguese here.

COVID-19 has brought huge change to society. However, the impacts have been different and disproportionate for different groups including LGBTIQ+ populations. As University of Manchester research has reported, there have been gaps in government and transnational responses in recognising and addressing those inequalities. In a previous blog post, Billy Tusker Haworth discussed COVID-19 experiences and policy recommendations relating to LGBTIQ+ people in the UK, now Billy and Luan Cassal discuss the impact on LGBTIQ+ communities in Brazil.

  • LGBTIQ+ people across the world have faced diverse and unique challenges, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic
  • LGBTIQ+ social movements and support organisations can guide, pressure and monitor the actions of government, and produce information on harm reduction practices. Developing effective partnerships between sectors is important, with co-production of policies as a goal
  • Policy approaches must recognise diversity and inequalities within LGBTIQ+ communities, and consider the importance of intersecting factors in shaping lived experiences of marginality in Brazil, such as race and class, alongside sexuality and gender identity

Brazilian experiences

Brazil is marked by a history of colonialism, enslavement, and authoritative regimes. Reactionary discoursesviolence and murders against LGBTIQ+ people are frequent. Trans and non-binary people are especially targeted, and other identity categories such as race, age, and religion can enhance those vulnerabilities. This hostile context has produced strong social and political movements in gender and sexuality, achieving a series of judicial decisions and public policies for LGBTIQ+ people’protection and inclusion. Even if limited, these actions demonstrate strength and resilience.

Currently, Brazil has the second highest COVID-19 death toll and third highest number of cases globally. Structural inequalities without adequate actions became evident during the pandemic. Brazilian LGBTIQ+ associations reported that LGBTIQ+ people suffer the effects of the pandemic combined with recent political policies (reducing public funding for social protection and development) and an authoritative federal government (which rejects specific actions for LGBTIQ+ protection). The Brazil COVID-19 response has been criticised, with the President opposing social distancing measures, lockdowns, and vaccination, and advocating for ineffective medications.

Our study sought insights into challenges faced and coping capacities adopted by LGBTIQ+ people in Brazil during COVID-19. We interviewed 12 LGBTIQ+ people living in the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro during the ‘first wave’ of the pandemic in 2020.

Key challenges experienced

Mental health was the main concern of the LGBTIQ+ people interviewed. Participants described experiences of anxiety, depression, exhaustion, uncertainty about the future, and difficulty maintaining healthy routines. Historically oppressed, LGBTIQ+ people in Brazil had created safe spaces for resisting persecution, such as political groups, cultural spaces, public centres and social organisations. When local governments first implemented lockdowns, no alternatives for these spaces and activities were provided. This, coupled with reduced access to community and public support services, increased isolation and negatively impacted mental health and quality of life.

People struggled to find information on how to manage their wellbeing and stay safe in the pandemic generally, let alone any specific guidance for LGBTIQ+ lives. Each level of government (City, State, and Federal) communicated different, contradictory COVID-19 guidelines. This generated misinformation and heightened stress.

How have people coped?

Without clear instructions, individuals determined their own protective measures and responses, including staying and working at home where possible, physical distancing, limiting social circles, prioritizing particular activities or self-quarantining before meeting vulnerable people, and following information from outside sources, such as WHO information on masks.

Even when physically distant, LGBTIQ+ people created opportunities for socialising and reducing loneliness. Social media, video calls and online activities became more frequent for offering and receiving support, with friends, community groups and professional services.

However, inequalities within LGBTIQ+ populations meant that these privileges were not available to everyone. Study participants expressed solidarity and concern for more-disadvantaged members of LGBTIQ+ communities, such as trans and non-binary people or those without secure jobs and income.

Other identity characteristics intersected with gender and sexuality to shape pandemic experiences. For black people, their race – as an additional axis of oppression in Brazil – was perhaps even more important in their lives than gender or sexuality. One interviewee described that while sexuality could be concealed at work, job interviews, or in social settings, their race cannot, limiting employment opportunities and social circles compared to white people. In this context, community support and mutual aid were essential for helping many people cope during COVID-19. For example, groups of black lesbian and bisexual women who came together to assist with loneliness, wellbeing and financial stress by fundraising and providing social, health and income support for poorer black LGBTIQ+ people.

How do we improve?

Our study highlights both vulnerabilities, exacerbated by gaps in government pandemic responses, and resilience capacities across LGBTIQ+ populations that should inform current and future crisis policies. In the short term we recommend prioritising access to health, work and social assistance for the most vulnerable groups, including specific assistance to improve access for LGBTIQ+ people to mental wellbeing, healthcare and other social services, and inclusion of LGBTIQ+ needs in broader and intersectoral programmes, such as government emergency aid. LGBTIQ+ social movements and support organisations can guide, pressure and monitor the actions of government, and produce information on harm reduction practices. Developing effective partnerships between sectors is important, with co-production of policies as a goal.

There are existing government LGBTIQ+ reference centres in Brazil which appeared underutilised by our study participants. These should be important sites of support and advice to LGBTIQ+ people in need, and could be better-utilised for disseminating targeted guidance for COVID-19 and other crises. These centres must be expanded in terms of locations and capacities, and must be more widely advertised.

Crisis situations highlight the need for social care and public protection. For marginalised groups like LGBTIQ+ people, this need remains in ‘normal’ times. Improved access to health services without discrimination, housing security, support for victims of violence, and equal access to education and employment opportunities and stable jobs are all needs exacerbated during the pandemic, but that require longer term attention and solutions. The specific needs of LGBTIQ+ people must be included in not only future crisis responses, but in all public policy planning. Policy approaches must recognise diversity and inequalities within LGBTIQ+ communities, and consider the importance of intersecting factors in shaping lived experiences of marginality in Brazil, such as race and class, alongside sexuality and gender identity.

Implementing these recommendations in the historical and contemporary political, social and ideological context of Brazil will not be easy. But we hope that by raising them we may at least contribute to necessary dialogue for the better-inclusion of LGBTIQ+ people in crisis policies and beyond. Ultimately, to move towards greater inclusion for marginalised groups it is these very political, social and ideological structures that we must interrogate, as these constitute the root causes of vulnerabilities and uneven crisis impacts.

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About Luan Cassal

Luan is a PhD candidate in Education and research assistant at University of Manchester. He has expertise in educational psychology, violence, and public policies for LGBTIQ+ community, studying experiences in Brazil, Portugal, and the UK.

About Billy Haworth

Billy is a geographer in the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester. They have expertise in critical human geography, geographic information science, and international disaster studies. Billy’s current research focuses on LGBTIQ+ marginalisation and coping capacities during crises