COVID-19 still holds the world in its grip, and yet it’s good and perhaps even necessary to look ahead at the post-corona era. At ‘the new normal’, as it is also called. The LGBTI+ community in particular needs to prepare itself.
There are people who see this health crisis as an opportunity. According to them, the pandemic has brought us face-to-face with the facts: the way we were doing things, it can’t go on. They hope for a better world, they assume that Mother Earth has given us such a harsh warning that even the tough ones will have understood.
Even within the LGBTI+ community, there are those who see the new normal in this way. The old normal excluded too many people, and if blacks and women can seize this moment and force society to finally take them into account, why shouldn’t or why can’t LGBTI+ persons do the same? They look forward to such changes with great eagerness.
I am an optimist so I hope they are right. But when I look at the events of the past few months, I fear that we may need to prepare for the worst. That we won’t be able to strive for progress and will in fact have to fight just to keep what we have.
LGBTI+ people have suffered a lot as a result of the corona crisis and the measures taken in response to it. Gay, trans and intersex people are among the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. Social acceptance is often superficial even in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, and their networks or chosen families are often made up of people who are in the same situation. Due to the mandatory stay-at-home measures, many of them were forced to spend weeks with family members with negative views about their sexual orientation. Those who were still in the closet lost their escape door because they had nowhere to go. Suddenly, safe spaces were either temporarily closed or permanently shut down.
In Belgium we could clearly see the impact from the number of requests for help that Lumi, the LGBTI+ helpline, received. And this was clearly a global problem, as could be seen in webinars from ILGA Europe, Cavaria, and the embassies of Belgium and the Netherlands in the Philippines.
Moreover, many governments seemed to view the impact of the COVID-19 measures on LGBTI+ persons as the least of their concerns. The measures, as well as the decisions about whether or not to lift them, were clearly tailor-made for the classic middle-class family. They suffered too, of course; it was hard for everyone. But their voices were heard on TV and in parliament, and people at least tried to come up with solutions for them. Many LGBTI+ people, on the other hand, got the impression that their problems were considered luxury matters. The loneliness of older gay men who have no children, the skin hunger of lesbian single women who were not allowed to see their girlfriends because of ‘no family’, the postponement of treatments for people in transition because they were ‘non-priority’, sex workers (a line of work that trans people in many countries resort to) who were no longer allowed to work but were not compensated… it was hard.
In addition, LGBTI+ action groups ran into problems in several countries. For example, their financial support disappeared when (local) governments decided to spend all their resources on fighting corona. Whether this had the ulterior motive of immediately silencing these LGBTI+ groups, or happened simply because people from a hetero point of view didn’t see how this money could also be used by LGBTI+ associations for the fight against the pandemic, is immaterial. No matter what the reason, the result was disastrous: these groups could no longer help the people seeking their aid. Others have been running out of money because many of their volunteers have lost their jobs and can no longer devote their time and resources to the association’s work.
And finally, there were countries that used the chaos to pass laws that are clearly anti-LGBTI+. At least Hungary and the United States did this.
Looking at what’s in store in the near future, I don’t see much that makes me happy.
Just think of the tracking app. The Netherlands is ready to use it, and Belgian politicians and policy makers are also dreaming of this technology. With the best intentions of course: we need to get the disease under control, and people will not be punished because they have infected others, so what is there to be afraid of? But imposing apps that can expose the whereabouts of LGBTI+ people scares me. In way too many countries being LGBTI+ is still punishable by law, sometimes even with death. And even in places where the law permits it, revealing such information can lead to unwanted consequences. Don’t forget that 1 in 5 Belgians at home or at work doesn’t dare to be openly LGBTI+ for fear of the negative ramifications. Should we consider this as collateral damage?
Moreover, the LGBTI+ community is all too easily used as a scapegoat in difficult times. Gender historian Jonas Roelens recently pointed this out and clearly showed how periods of disaster and illness led to a regression, a restriction of our rights. Who says this will not happen again? I predict that the accusing fingers won’t just be pointed by clergymen who see COVID-19 as a punishment from God simply because we exist.
An example: there are gay men who have sex with many different partners. They love sex and regularly have a nice moment with other men who do the same. They see each other in saunas, at meeting places, and usually just at home. Apps such as Grindr, Hornet, Gay Romeo and Tinder have made things a lot easier than before, so there’s a lot of swiping and dating going on. These are all consenting adults getting together. Yet, it’s somehow socially unacceptable. Many people – including a lot of homosexuals, by the way – disapprove of this behaviour. How do you think people will react when a corona-positive gay man infects some of his bedfellows? Will we then have a neutral discussion about how to protect these men and how to prevent their activities from causing a disease outbreak? Or would just about any bigoted person jump on the bandwagon to have these apps banned and the saunas and meeting places closed? Our puritan fellow citizens are always ready to push their agenda under the pretext of public health. It has happened before during the AIDS period. The stigma we received then has considerably slowed down our fight for equal rights.
So the danger that the new normal will mean a decline in our LGBTI+ rights is real. We have to be ready to face the attack. And the most dangerous attacks will be those that come in disguise, attacks that are not openly anti-LGBTI+ but make us lose our rights for the ‘common good’. If we notice something like this, we must immediately sound the alarm and expose and denounce these hidden mechanisms.
Fortunately – and that’s where the optimist in me comes up again – I also see positives in this situation.
We shouldn’t forget that we are not on our own. Human rights and privacy organisations clearly take our side because where LGBTI+ rights are under pressure (whether ‘accidentally’ or ‘voluntarily’), one usually also finds other minorities, civil rights and privacy in general threatened.
The past few months have also made it clear that our movement has become a truly international movement. Never before have I seen so many LGBTI+ people look beyond national borders. We have kept in touch, shared information and tactics, supported each other. I attended webinars not only from ILGA and Outright, but also from unexpected partners like the Belgian and Dutch embassies. Funds were set up, some were even pushed by internationally renowned TV programmes such as Trevor Noah’s Daily show. We got the United Nations to send a letter to all countries with actions they could take to support their vulnerable and marginalised LGBTI+ citizens. There was the virtual Global Pride that gave LGBTI+ activists and artists a global stage. And so on and so forth.
Of course, I’m afraid that in the next few years we’ll have to protect our rights in order to prevent a relapse. But if we continue to do that together, if we continue to maintain those international networks that we’ve been setting up so massively in recent times, this may well be the basis for a big leap forward in the future. So let’s be vigilant, and at the same time, let’s continue to be hopeful.
Last month, the Belgian and Dutch embassies in the Philippines, together with the people from Mindanao Pride, organised a series of webinars on the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTI+ people and policies. They gathered a diverse group of activists from Asia and the Low Countries in a virtual way so we could all learn from each other. The fifth and final episode looked ahead at ‘the new normal’, the changed world in which we will have to find our way again. This opinion piece by Bruno De Lille is based on the closing remarks that he made at the end of the webinar.
This text is a translation of a text originally written in Dutch. The original can be found here: http://brunodelille.eu/moet-de-lgbti-gemeenschap-bang-zijn-voor-het-nieuwe-normaal-knack/.