COVID-19 still holds the world in its grip and yet it is good and perhaps even necessary to look ahead to the post-Corona era. To ‘the new normal’, as it is also called. Also as LGBTI+ community we should prepare ourselves.
There are people who see this health crisis as an opportunity. According to them, the pandemic has put us face to face with the facts: the way we were doing, it can’t go on. They hope for a better world, they assume that Mother Earth has given us such a strong slap on the wrist that even the tough ones will have understood.
Within the LGBTI+ community, too, there are those who see the new normal in this way. The old normal excluded too many people, and if blacks and women seize this moment to force society to finally take them into account, why shouldn’t or can’t LGBTI+-persons do the same? They look forward to the changes with great desire.
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 better prepare for the worst. That we won’t be able to strive for progress but will have to fight to keep what we have.
LGBTI+ people have suffered a lot as a result of the Corona crisis and the measures taken. Gay, trans and intersex people are among the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, even in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands social acceptance is often superficial 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, many of them were forced to spend weeks with family members who were negative towards their sexual orientation. Those who were still in the closet lost their escape door because they had nowhere to go. Safe spaces were suddenly 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 (https://cavaria.be/covid19-lgbti). Webinars from ILGA Europe, Cavaria or the embassies of Belgium and the Netherlands in the Philippines showed that this was a worldwide problem.
Moreover, the impact of the COVID-19 measures on LGBTI+ persons seemed to be the last of their concerns for many governments. The measures, as well as the rhythm of whether or not to lift them, were clearly tailor-made for the classic middle-class family.Of course they suffered too, it was hard for anyone, but their voices were present on TV and in parliament and people at least tried to come up with solutions for them. Many LGBTI+ people, on the other hand, had 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 (in many countries an important form of work for trans people) 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. This happened, for example, through financial support that disappeared when (local) governments decided to spend all their resources on fighting Corona. Whether this was with the ulterior motive of immediately silencing these LGBTI+ groups or simply because people from a hetero point of view did not see how this money could also be used by LGBTI+ associations for the fight against the pandemic, does not even matters. The result was equally disastrous: these groups could no longer help the people seeking their aid. Others are running out of money because many of their volunteers have lost their jobs and can no longer devote resources and time to the work of the association.
If we look to the near future, I don’t see much that makes me more happy.
Just think of the tracking app. The Netherlands is ready to use it and also in Belgium politicians and policy makers are 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 should we be afraid of? But imposing apps that can expose the whereabouts of LGBTI+ people scares me. In too many countries it is still punishable to be LGBTI+, sometimes even with death. And even where it’s allowed by law, it can lead to an unwanted outing with all its consequences.Don’t forget that 1 in 5 Belgians at home or at work doesn’t openly dare to be LGBTI+ for fear of the negative consequences. 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 will not only come from clergymen who see a punishment from God in COVID-19, 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 that a lot easier than before and so there is a lot of swiping and dating going on. It’s about adults doing this with their full consent. Yet this is not socially accepted. Many people, including a lot of homosexuals by the way, disapprove of this behavior. How do you think people will react when a Corona infected 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 behavior from causing a disease outbreak? Or would any bigoted person jump on this wagon 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 got 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 tackle the attack. And the most dangerous attacks will be those that come in disguise, that are not openly anti-LGBTI+ but where we lose our rights for the ‘common good’. If we see that, 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 positive things.
We may not forget that we are not on our own. Human rights and privacy organizations clearly choose our side because where LGBTI+ rights are under pressure (whether ‘accidentally’ or ‘voluntarily’) one usually also finds other minorities and 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 across the national borders. We kept in touch, shared information and tactics, supported each other. I saw webinars from ILGA, Outright but also from surprising 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 marginalized 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 afterwards. So let’s be vigilant and at the same time full of hope.
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 that we could learn from each other. The fifth and final episode looked ahead to ‘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 was allowed to speak at the end of the webinar.
This text is a translation of a text originally written in Dutch. As the translation is generated by machines, not all translations will be perfect. The original can be found here: http://brunodelille.eu/moet-de-lgbti-gemeenschap-bang-zijn-voor-het-nieuwe-normaal-knack/.