Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, both LGBTQ youths and adults faced obstacles that others never had to think about. And COVID-19 has only exacerbated those disparities.
Adrian Parra, executive director of Youth OUTright Asheville, cites the lack of support many LGBTQ youths face at home and in the community, the likelihood of homelessness, and the lack of state and federal laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination as obstacles people face every day.
“Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County identified more than 1,000 people age 21 or younger who are homeless, and Human Rights Campaign data found that about 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ,” Parra says.
Because of the shuttering of schools, some children and youths find themselves sheltered in place with parents and other family members who are not supportive, may not understand the importance of medications — especially the hormones some need every day — or dismiss the need for therapy or support groups.
“We expect homelessness among this population to double,” Parra says. “This is a population that tended to be isolated even before the pandemic. Now they’re really feeling alone. What they need more than anything else right now is community connections.”
As part of its policy manual, Buncombe County Schools issued gender support guidelines in 2017 aimed at providing a safe and supportive learning environment for LGBTQ students. The seven-page document includes guidelines for restrooms and locker rooms (the guide may be downloaded by searching “gender guidelines, Buncombe” online).
“It’s pretty lofty, but not always followed,” Parra says.
Despite the guidelines, some of the approximately 30 student LGBTQ groups in the county have had trouble gaining access to paid Zoom accounts while the schools were closed to hold online meetings during the pandemic, Parra says.
Meanwhile, at Asheville City Schools, Parra says his organization was initially denied approval to meet with a student group. “I had to modify my presentation before I could come in and talk to students at Asheville High School, but I was granted access after we appealed.”
Another problem generally with online learning is that schools use a student’s legal name, which often doesn’t match a transgender student’s identity, and in some cases, can out a student who hasn’t been public about their identity.
“There is one bright spot in this,” Parra says. “With schools closed, there has been a reduction in bullying.”
Cascade of effects
As adults, LGBTQ people continue to have trouble getting and holding jobs, and while a recent Supreme Court ruling means they no longer can be fired for being gay or trans, there still are obstacles. For example, transgender people often don’t have identification that matches their identity.
“Because of ID problems, a lot of trans folks can’t get a job that requires licensure,” says Ezekiel Christopoulos, executive director of the nonprofit Tranzmission. “Only 11% of trans people have ID that matches who they are. That means a lot of jobs aren’t open to us.”
As a result, Christopoulos says, trans people are more likely to work in the service industry in tourist destinations such as Asheville, and those jobs are more likely to be part time and low wage, forcing people to hold two or more jobs just to make ends meet.
“We’re more likely to have to share living space because rents are so high in Asheville,” he says. “That means we can’t self-quarantine. Some of us share bedrooms or sleep on the couch. We have to go to work because service jobs, even though they’re low wage and have no benefits, are considered essential.”
Making matters worse, trans people who are arrested for attending public protests or being out after curfew (for example, walking home from work), usually don’t have the proper ID, so are more likely to be detained and put in a holding cell.
“So, you could be arrested for being out after curfew while walking home instead of taking public transportation — and who wants to get on a bus right now? — and you never know which holding cell you’ll be put in,” he says.
And while the Supreme Court’s June 15 decision means employers aren’t allowed to discriminate against employees who are LGBTQ, it deals only with employment issues — not education or health care.
Closing the gaps
The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, founder and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, issued a statement the day of the Supreme Court decision, affirming her organization’s decision to close all the gaps in human rights for LGBTQ people.
“The decision comes at a time when millions of Americans are facing unemployment or reduced employment because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Beach-Ferrara, who’s also a member of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. “As LGBTQ people venture back into the job market, we’re grateful for this measure of relief: The legal protection that employers can no longer use anti-LGBTQ bias as a weapon in the workplace.”
Tina Madison White, executive director of Blue Ridge Pride Center, and a board member of the national Human Rights Campaign, was thrilled with the court’s decision.
“I broke down in tears. It’s not until something like this happens that you realize the stress you’ve been living under. … What this says is that you can’t fire someone for who they love or who they live with. You can’t fire someone for whose softball team they join.”
The one surviving plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, Gerald Bostock, was fired from his job for joining a gay softball team.
However, the ruling deals only with employment, White adds: “There’s still some wiggle room when it comes to education and health care, and we need to close those gaps by passing the Equality Act.” The proposed federal law would ban all discrimination of people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“You can legislate behaviors, but you can’t legislate acceptance,” she says. “Remember, we passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and look where we’re at today with racial discrimination.”
Michael Hoeben, transgender/HIV bridge and retention coordinator at Western North Carolina Community Health Services, also hopes to see comprehensive legislation soon. “I think we’ll see a lot more challenges to discrimination in all these other areas, but a patchwork approach isn’t the best way to deal with discrimination,” he says. “The enforcement of human rights is the only way to address human wrongs.”
Hoeben cites one more problem with the Supreme Court ruling, especially here in North Carolina. “We’re in a right-to-work state,” he says. “We’re still fireable.”
Christopoulos also notes that the court decision didn’t cover housing or law enforcement, and trans and nonbinary people often are overpoliced. “They’re assumed to be sex workers and are stopped more often than other people,” he says. “We need the Equality Act to address these inequities.”
Christopoulos also says discrimination is rife in health care. “A lot of physicians won’t treat trans and nonbinary people,” he says. “A trans man might need what we call female care, but a doctor might not want him in the waiting room.”
From education to activism?
White says BRP, which hosts the annual Blue Ridge Pride Festival in Asheville, is considering changing its focus because of the pandemic from primarily education to more of an activist role.
The traditional festival and other Blue Ridge Pride events have been canceled because of the virus, but White says the organization is still talking to the community to explore other forms of programming.
“We always thought we should be the gentler voice,” White says. “With the festival off, we may become more protest-oriented.”
The festival helped educate people about the issues LGBTQ people face, and its cancellation leaves organizers questioning how they might help educate people in other ways.
“It’s not just the festival that’s been shut down because of this virus,” White says. “The clubs and other places where people could go to meet others — people who might not be out but who need to meet others who are further along on their journey and who maybe can help and support them — those places are closed right now, too. And more than anything, people need others to talk to.”
Since LGBTQ people face many of the same inequities suffered by people of color, White says, BRP stands with civil rights organizations such as Black Lives Matter and is looking for possible ways to work with other local groups on events and advocacy.
More vulnerable to health risks
According to research by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, LGBTQ people are more vulnerable to the health risks of the virus. They are less likely to have health coverage, and are more likely to smoke and have asthma, plus a variety of other chronic illnesses. In addition:
- 17% of LGBTQ people lack health coverage.
- One in five LGBTQ people have not seen a doctor when they needed to because they couldn’t afford it.
- 21% of LGBTQ people have asthma, compared with 14% of non-LGBTQ people.
- LGBTQ people are more likely to work jobs in highly affected industries, often with more exposure and/or higher economic sensitivity to the COVID-19 crisis.
- One in five LGBTQ people live in poverty, and 40% of homeless youths identify as LGBTQ.
- The top five industries in which LGBTQ adults work are industries heavily impacted by COVID-19, affecting more than 5 million LGBTQ workers or 40% of LGBTQ workers (compared with 22% of non-LGBTQ people working in those industries).
- A disproportionate number of LGBTQ people work in restaurants (15%) compared with their non-LGBTQ peers (6%), and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage in 2018 for food and beverage serving and related workers was $10.45 per hour.
- Only 29% of respondents to HRC Foundation’s 2018 LGBTQ Paid Leave Survey said their employer offers paid leave specifically for medical reasons and that they were eligible to use it.
Several organizations in Buncombe County are cooperating to address these disparities surrounding COVID-19.
Western North Carolina Community Health Services cares for more than 450 transgender people and more than 800 HIV-positive people. Its Minnie Jones Health Center has repurposed some space and erected tents in the parking lot to increase testing for COVID-19.
Hoeben says the nonprofit is working with a number of LGBTQ advocacy groups to help address some of the health care disparities.
“The health disparities are exacerbated,” says Hoeben, who is transgender. “Housing is less secure. … It’s a social justice issue, and there are real consequences to these systems’ inequities.”
WNCCHS is collaborating with Youth OUTright, Tranzmission, the Campaign for Southern Equality, Gender Benders and Blue Ridge Pride to offer free hormone treatments to its transgender patients.
This is important because, while transgender people can survive without treatments, it only exacerbates the issues they have with their bodies, Christopoulos says. And since hormones are prescription medications, people need access to doctors who can prescribe it, plus monitoring of the dosage.
Some organizations are collecting donations and distributing them as mini-grants to help people gain access to prescriptions and even more basic needs, such as food and rent.
Tranzmission has distributed some $60,000 in food, cash for rent and syringes for the WNCCHS hormone distribution program. Youth OUTright is offering small cash mini-grants of $50 to $200 for people age 24 and younger to help them pay for necessities.
“It’s not a lot, but in my position, I can move a little wealth around,” Parra says. “What we need is real policy changes, real systemic reform around how people in authority view and treat us, not just during this pandemic, but always.”