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.

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.

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

Policy@Manchester: LGBTIQ+ experiences of COVID-19 in the UK and the need for more inclusive crisis policies

This post was originally written for Policy@Manchester and posted on March 10, 2021, at http://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/posts/2021/03/lgbtiq-experiences-of-covid-19-in-the-uk-and-the-need-for-more-inclusive-crisis-policies/

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-ranging effects for people across the UK. However, some groups have felt the effects of the pandemic and its associated lockdowns more than others. In this blog, Dr Billy Haworth, from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, shares their recent research into the experiences of LGBTIQ+ populations during COVID-19. They argue that LGBTIQ+ populations have faced unique challenges, and will require additional support to help them overcome the effects of the crisis. There is great diversity and even inequality within LGBTIQ+ populations, and in the longer-term, policymakers need to ensure that their policies are fit for all prior to implementation.

  • LGBTIQ+ populations have reported a vast range of challenges to their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The sudden removal of support networks and identity-affirming spaces has disproportionately affected these individuals.
  • LGBTIQ+ community groups and volunteer organisations have filled gaps, and policymakers need to support and expand the important work of these groups.
  • In the long-term, policymakers need to move away from ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches when they design policies for managing crises.

The coronavirus pandemic and associated response measures have had disproportionate impacts on different segments of society. This includes people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and sexual characteristics (SOGIESC), or who are more commonly known as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+) populations. Mental health challenges, social isolation, substance misuse, loss of livelihood and financial difficulties, scapegoating, discrimination and stigma, elevated risk of violence, reduced access to health and support services, and more have been reported as experienced among LGBTIQ+ populations.

LGBTIQ+ experiences

We know that socio-economically marginalised groups, including LGBTIQ+ people, are often the hardest hit during crises, as marginality leads to increased vulnerability. Crisis responses generally do not adequately account for LGBTIQ+ needs, if at all. Moreover, response strategies themselves can heighten and reproduce vulnerabilities by assuming binary cisgender (people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) and heterosexual identities as the norm, thereby failing to address the needs of minority populations. A United Nations report described how COVID-19 responses reproduced and intensified pre-existing exclusion and discrimination patterns for LGBTIQ+ people. For example, same-sex couples in the Philippines were denied COVID-19 support because of local government views on what counts as a “family” for food aid distributions.

Complementing other reports, I conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse range of LGBTIQ+ people in the UK between May and October 2020 to capture and understand their experiences of COVID-19. This timeframe represents various stages of the UK’s pandemic response, including lockdowns and periods of easing and tightening of restrictions.

My research exposed key challenges for LGBTIQ+ people during the pandemic. Significant mental health impacts were felt, especially during lockdown. This included increased anxieties about the virus and issues related to gender or sexual identity. Isolation from supportive people and identity-affirming spaces elevated stress. Some participants described being at home with unsupportive families, or having limited biological family relationships, reducing the support networks that so many people relied on in the pandemic.

Supportive spaces

Some industries, like the hospitality and entertainment sectors, have experienced greater impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated social and economic restrictions. LGBTIQ+ people working in these areas expressed concerns over income in the short term and anxieties about longer-term employment prospects. More widely, disruptions to LGBTIQ+ spaces have been acutely felt, including nightlife, but also community spaces, support groups and activities like Pride festivals. These spaces usually provide many LGBTIQ+ people with essential opportunities to freely and safely express themselves and their identities.

The National LGBT Survey found that LGBTIQ+ people were more likely to suffer mental health challenges without adequate support, and that LGBTIQ+-friendly spaces, including nightlife and Pride events, are highly important but in decline. Based on this information, policymakers could have predicted the intensification of these issues during COVID-19, yet gaps persisted in policies and responses.

Existing and new community groups filled critical gaps in providing mental health support and reducing isolation through mutual aid and the creation of safe and identity-affirming (online) spaces. In fact, moving activities online presented opportunities to connect with new and diverse audiences, in some ways improving accessibility. Community organisations and peer-support groups were vital for many LGBTIQ+ people during COVID-19.

Diversity within LGBTIQ+ populations

My research makes clear that there is no single LGBTIQ+ experience. Diversity of COVID-19 experiences reflects diversity within LGBTIQ+ populations, including diversity between different subcategories, but also intersections with other factors, like age, class, disability or race.

My research highlighted unique challenges for transgender people. While cisgender people experienced disruptions to healthcare access, this issue was particularly significant for transgender patients. Healthcare relating to gender affirmation and gender identities was delayed if not halted completely, often without communication. This caused confusion and anxiety, exacerbated mental health concerns, and added to already long waiting periods for gender identity clinics. These delays, coupled with people being at home with their bodies more and reduced access to support, also contributed to gender dysphoria.

If we overlook diversity and only account for the most visible experiences, such as those of cisgender gay men, we risk furthering inequalities within minority groups.

How can policies be improved?

In the short term, policies should prioritise access to disrupted services that were directly related to the aspects of LGBTIQ+ vulnerability most exacerbated during COVID-19 lockdowns. This should include facilitating increased and targeted mental health support through training and resources, and maintaining access to healthcare during crises, especially transgender care.

Resources should be allocated to support and expand upon the important work already being done by LGBTIQ+ community, volunteer and mutual aid organisations. This could include: appointing LGBTIQ+ liaison personnel within COVID-19 recovery groups to build strategic partnerships and facilitate knowledge sharing, linking government and non-government activities, and targeting support measures where they are most needed and will be most effective.

For longer-term change, policies cannot continue being based on assumptions that populations are cisgender and heterosexual. They must not only include and account for LGBTIQ+ needs and capacities, but must recognise diversity within the LGBTIQ+ population. “One-size-fits-all” approaches are ineffective for the broad UK population, and likewise are not appropriate for communities as diverse as LGBTIQ+. To better incorporate LGBTIQ+ diversity, SOGIESC education should be included as part of workplace training programmes for government and crisis management organisations. Co-production of policies should also be a goal; involving communities and harnessing community wisdom is an important component of crisis management. Productive dialogue with LGBTIQ+ people themselves and the groups and organisations that represent them is essential for developing inclusive and efficient strategies.

Lastly, policies must shift focus away from crisis response towards risk reduction. If we were more prepared and marginalised sectors of society were better supported, we would see less severe impacts – as disaster studies have informed. We must work now to address the political, economic and social structures that place particular groups at increased vulnerability to crises, including LGBTIQ+ people, to mitigate the negative impacts of future hazards, pandemic or otherwise.

Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.