/ Blog Post
Every community has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdown. The impacts, however, have not been equally felt—populations like the LGBTQ+ community, which already face myriad systemic healthcare and economic challenges, are experiencing an entirely new intersection of barriers. We checked in with Fellows throughout the country to learn more about the legal issues their LGBTQ+ clients are facing as a result of the pandemic.
According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to work in jobs highly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Making up roughly 40% of all industries where LGBTQ+ Americans work, (compared to only 22% of non-LGBTQ+ individuals) the top five industries to employ LGBTQ+ people are food services, hospitals, K-12 education, collegiate education, and retail. As the pandemic forces “unessential” businesses, like bars and restaurants, to shutter—and creates an invisible minefield of disease in those that remain open—a disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ workers are finding themselves at either financial or physical risk.
At Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, D.C., 2018 Fellow Elizabeth Pinolini is working to reduce employment barriers for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals—communities whose unemployment rates were already three times higher than the national average prior to the pandemic. As of May 2020, the overall U.S. unemployment rate has hit 13.3%, a slight improvement over the April 2020 numbers—14.7%, the highest since the Great Depression.
Right now, stunted administrative services are exacerbating barriers that have long existed for transgender and non-binary individuals: “Access to employment is always a concern for transgender and non-binary people, but the ability to obtain identity documents that accurately reflect their name and gender has become even more difficult,” said Elizabeth, who uses they/them pronouns.
The closure of courts and DMV offices means that many people are unable to change their names or update their licenses to accurately reflect their name and gender. “This makes it more difficult to obtain a job because inaccurate identification exposes these populations to discrimination. We are making every effort to find creative solutions to these obstacles,” they explained.
Access to Resources
Adding insult to injury amidst a global health crisis, unemployment, for many people, also means an abrupt end to health insurance and accessible healthcare. MK Anderson, a 2019 Fellow at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, helps LGBTQ+ Georgians overcome legal barriers to federal and state assistance programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These services are crucial at a time when more Americans than ever are relying on the country’s social safety net.
“[LGBTQ+] folks are more likely to be food insecure and are more likely to be affected by COVID-19,” said MK, who uses they/them pronouns. “Moreover, [LGBTQ+] folks are more likely to have been laid off or have reduced work hours due to the pandemic,” they said, referencing Human Rights Campaign Foundation data. MK noted a variety of barriers to information and resources faced by their clients, from lack of access to internet or social media accounts—where many virtual trainings, including one recently led by MK*, are held—to closures of the physical offices of local agencies, where many of MK’s clients rely on longstanding relationships with their caseworkers.
Access to resources is also a concern for LGBTQ+ individuals in rural communities, who already tend to face significant barriers to culturally competent health services. At the Lavender Rights Project, 2018 Fellow Dusty Weber Lamay created the Trans Advocacy in Rural Places project, which works to solve the burdens placed upon rural transgender people to meet their own legal needs. Now, as entire rural communities struggle to keep up with healthcare demands using limited resources, Dusty has noticed a marked increase in the need for LGBTQ+ estate planning support, which ensures that clients have up-to-date and valid healthcare directives and estate documents. “Trans estate planning was one of my passions prior to the pandemic and I am grateful that these skills can be so helpful during this time,” he said.
2019 Fellow Elisabeth Hieber’s clients are low-income LGBT** elders, many of whom have experienced lifetimes of discrimination and stigmatization, leading to heightened economic, social, and legal disparities compared to their non-LGBT peers. According to the American Psychological Association, studies estimate that there are more than 2.4 million LGBT elders in the United States, and that number is growing. Faced with a virus that is particularly dangerous for the elderly, Elisabeth’s clients at The Center for Disability and Elder Law represent a significant population that is at an elevated risk of serious illness and death.
According to Elisabeth, who uses they/them pronouns, LGBT elders are more likely to need estate planning tools to protect their unmarried partners and chosen family. Unfortunately, due to social isolation and technology barriers, “In the moment when LGBT elders are most likely to need estate planning support, the security offered by estate planning documents is even more unattainable,” they said.
Education is yet another sector that has been flipped on its head as a result of the pandemic. Kel O’Hara, a 2019 Fellow at Equal Rights Advocates, works to expand support for LGBTQ+ student survivors of gender-based violence and harassment, with a focus on Title IX. The abrupt shift away from physical campuses has raised a lot of questions about the status of pending Title IX cases. Kel, who uses they/them pronouns, co-wrote comprehensive guidance for Title IX administrators, encouraging schools to thoughtfully and promptly proceed with remote investigations, with priority given to cases that involve graduating students.
“Long delays in an investigation can prevent student survivors from healing or even cause further traumatization. It’s absolutely possible for schools to investigate and resolve these cases without students returning to campus,” said Kel.
Physical safety and mental health are additional concerns for LGBTQ+ students forced to leave behind the support and community that campuses provide. “There are many [new challenges facing my clients], but the one I’m most worried about is social isolation,” Kel said. “Many queer and trans students are back in unsupportive homes or experiencing housing insecurity, further affecting their ability to participate in a Title IX process and protect their own emotional wellbeing at a collectively traumatic time.” Though school-based support has become largely inaccessible, organizations like Gender Spectrum have created online resources and virtual support groups, while crisis hotlines like The Trevor Project are working to respond to increased calls.
“Sadly, the loss of safer spaces and supportive connections are an issue for all LGBTQ+ people right now, not just students,” they said.
We are proud of the work our Fellows are doing to protect LGBTQ+ rights amid the coronavirus pandemic. To learn more about the work of our Equal Justice Works Fellows, visit here.
**Elisabeth refrains from using the common “LGBTQ+” acronym to refer to elders in the community because of the historic weaponization of the word “queer” against older adults.