This year is the 30th anniversary of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). I am thankful for the broader lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community and the progress to date they have made for a fairer and more equal society.
This includes the recent Victorian birth certificate changes, the New South Wales Government’s easing of restrictions preventing gay men from donating blood and the progress made on Scott Johnson’s 30-year cold case (which as of yesterday has led to four other gay-hate crimes being investigated by NSW Police).
However, during this year’s IDAHOBIT, it’s important to acknowledge the impacts of COVID-19 on the LGBTI community. This pandemic has not been an equitable experience for us and in many ways has entrenched or exacerbated further inequalities.
Violence and human rights
One doesn’t need to look far to see these exacerbated inequalities. There has been state-sanctioned “homosexual free zones” in Eastern Europe, Trump has been scrapping protections for LGBTI patients, there are new “sexual deviance” laws in Indonesia, and Turkish leaders have suggested a link between the spread of COVID-19 with LGBTI acceptance.
Earlier in the year during the initial spread of COVID-19, there were news reports of murders of transgender people in Puerto Rico, arrests of LGBTI people in Egypt, the United Republic of Tanzania and increasing violence and abuse in the Republic of Korea.
As a result, UNAIDS called on governments to stop “arbitrary and discriminatory arrests of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and to enact laws to protect their human rights.”
As such, LGBTI people in Australia need to know that they have strong legal protections and rights, even during a pandemic. Government, industry and the business sector need to be aware of their civic and legal obligations to treat LGBTI people equally. This is particularly important when the industrial and governance systems that were in place before COVID-19 are no longer the same or provide the same safety net.
Employment and Poverty
Indeed, the most pressing of issues for community advocates is a strong response to the social consequences of an economic down and the industrial implications of COVID-19.
The industries heavily affected by COVID-19 (tourism, retail, cosmetic and beauty, hospitality and arts) are strongly believed to have impacted the LGBTI community. This is difficult to show because census data on LGBTI community factors, location, employment is absent and seldom collected.
It is believed 594,000 people lost their job in April, and the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) approved 456,000 applications to access 3.8 billion dollars’ worth of super.
Like many Australians, LGBTI people lost employment and are now using their super to have food on the table. Like many have reported, they will be expected to live in poverty and austerity when they retire.
This will disproportionately affect transgender and gender diverse communities as we know these communities are already more likely to live in poverty and experience higher levels of unemployment.
Social Isolation, Mental Health and Support Services
Accessing other financial assets is not the only issue when it comes to disproportionate impacts for LGBTI communities.
COVID-19 has meant there is a stronger reliance on informal support networks and family members. Due to discrimination or a lack of acceptance, LGBTI people may be unable to use their family or those informal support networks. Given LGBTI familial circles tend to be smaller because of this discrimination or a lack of acceptance, social isolation is a major problem.
As such mental health and counselling support is critical. LGBTI communities already experience higher levels of mental health vulnerabilities – depression, anxiety, suicidality and self-harm. During a time of social distancing and self-isolation this is known to have increased. Improving the capacity of telehealth services will improve access and ensure no one is left behind.
The crisis has also disproportionately affected transgender and gender diverse communities, where hospitals have reduced their capacity to perform and provide medical care for sex-reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy.
Navigating the Future
When working with the LGBTI community and the advocacy organisations that support them, there are areas that can be looked at to improve the human rights and wellbeing of LGBTI Australians in the COVID-19 context.
On a national level:
A dedicated National Human Rights Commissioner for LGBTI;
Establishing a National Pride Centre;
Collection of LGBTI community profiles in Census data;
On a state level:
Reform to the Crimes Act (1990) in NSW
Reform to the Anti-Discrimination (1977)Act in NSW
Provide consistent and increased funding to mental health, legal and housing services that work with LGBTI communities.
Continued health funding and provision, including inclusive health services.
A Labor Opposition and Labor Government navigating the post COVID-19 landscape will be representing and supporting all Australian and should work with all communities to improve outcomes - especially the most vulnerable and those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
Jack Whitney is Co-Convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and a public policy consultant.