House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Twitter May 17, delivering commencement address to Smith college
The coronavirus pandemic has upended normality and the once seemingly inevitable full equality for LGBTQ people. One year ago, on May 17, the US House of Representatives passed the historic Equality Act, legislation that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation and gender identity. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to bring the nondiscrimination legislation up for a vote, leaving LGBTQ equality dangling as the Trump administration meticulously strips away hard-won rights and the conservative-dominant U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on whether federal job protections for LGBTQ people under Title VII are constitutional.
If the Court strikes down those protections, federal employees and workers in 28 states without LGBTQ employment nondiscrimination laws — including essential first responders and healthcare workers — could be quietly, individually, unceremoniously fired, adding to the burgeoning roster of the unemployed, which in April hit 14.7%, the highest rate since the Great Depression. What will happen to LGBTQ people in states with nondiscrimination laws?
But even if by some miracle the Equality Act makes it to the Oval Office, it may not feel the flare of President Trump’s special sharpie since he opposes the legislation, despite his love affair with former Fox contributor Ric Grenell, the gay Ambassador to Germany.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t let the anniversary of the Equality Act pass unnoticed, however. Last year, she wore a rainbow wristband as she orchestrated the 236-173 bipartisan vote, invoking both the Founding Fathers and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots on the House floor. This year, her passion for LGBTQ equality was laced with tempered rage.
“This year, the ongoing challenge posed by the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic reaffirms our urgent responsibility to reject the violence, bigotry and hate that weaken and divide our communities,” Pelosi said, in part. “For LGBTQ individuals at home and around the world who are persecuted because of who they are or whom they love, we must speak out and demand action. We cannot stay silent while the Trump Administration’s callous, anti-LGBTQ agenda continues to dismantle decades of hard-won progress by stripping LGBTQ Americans of their rights and their dignity. And we cannot stand by while the Administration abandons our global leadership in the fight against anti-LGBTQ violence and discrimination.”
Powerful words that comfort and inspire, hang in the air, then vanish. Today, like the beginning of the AIDS crisis three decades ago, LGBTQ people are disappearing, identities erased by government neglect, the weight of bureaucracy, and the lack of action, despite good intentions.
On May 19, there were 1.56 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United states, with 92,258 deaths. The government collected data on gender, age, race and ethnicity – but how many of these human beings were LGBTQ?
On the afternoon of May 19, the state of California reported a total of 81,795 cases of coronavirus, with 3,334 deaths. California has the largest LGBTQ population in the country so how many of these people are LGBTQ?
On the afternoon of May 19, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health identified 39,573 positive cases of COVID-19, with a total of 1,913 deaths, noting that 92 percent of the people who died had underlying health conditions.
“An interactive dashboard is available that provides an overview on COVID-19 testing, cases and deaths along with maps and graphs showing testing, cases and death data by community poverty level, age, sex and race/ethnicity,” says a Public Health press release promoting their website, www.publichealth.lacounty.gov. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included.
For LGBTQ people who survived the AIDS crisis, the pain of this erasure evokes a “safer-at-home” primal scream.
“[E]ssentially no data is being collected in California or elsewhere about COVID-19 impacts on the LGBT community on infection rates, on hospitalization rates, on death rates — that data simply isn’t being collected,” said out State Sen. Scott Wiener on a Zoom news conference May 13 before testifying before the California Senate Health Committee on his LGBTQ data collection bill, SB 932. “It is appalling that we have the ability to collect the data and it’s simply — it’s an afterthought. And that is, unfortunately, the history of the LGBTQ community where we have to fight against invisibility all the time, we have to fight to be counted.”
Equality California Executive Director Rick Chavez Zbur was pained to say that “the fight before us just about collecting this data reminds me more of the 1980s than I want to admit. For our community to once again be erased and ignored, to have our government look the other way as our community dies nearly four decades later, it’s just appalling, it’s unacceptable.”
The difference between the 1980s and now though, Zbur said, was that today the LGBTQ community has openly LGBTQ leaders and allies working to correct the dire inequality the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed.
But it doesn’t feel that way.
There was plenty of time to kick existing LGBTQ health and death data laws into gear, tailoring unique messages, mentioning the LGBTQ community as one of the minority groups at greater risk for infection and inviting help to test and track LGBTQ COVID-19 cases.
“This new virus represents a tremendous public health threat,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on a telephonic news briefing Tuesday, Feb.25, when the Los Angeles Blade first starting covering the COVID-19 crisis.
“Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in this country,” she said. “It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses ….We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”
At a Feb. 27 news conference, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said there was no coronavirus emergency in the state but 33 people tested positive, most quarantined travelers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, adding that following protocol, California was monitoring more than 8,4000 people who flew from Asia to California.
Meanwhile, a woman from Solano County tested positive for COVID-19 on March 1, appearing to be the first US case for which there was no known source for the illness. But at a Newsom news conference, California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly noted that the woman had been sick in the community well before she was hospitalized. Contact tracing revealed that two Los Rios Community College District college students, working as medical professionals, had come in contact with her and were being isolated and “treated” in Sacramento County. Additionally, three UC Davis roommates were under 14-day isolation “out of an abundance of caution” after one showed mild symptoms, according to the Los Angeles Times.
And then there was the whistleblower who revealed that HHS “sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear,” the Washington Post reported. “The workers did not show symptoms of infection and were not tested for the virus, according to lawyers for the whistleblower. Out Rep. Mark Takano was furious when those evacuees were sent to March Air Force Base in Southern California.
Three months ago, HHS, the CDC, the State of California, and LA Public Health knew there was a strong likelihood that community spread of COVID-19 would be bad but didn’t gear up to protect first responders, healthcare workers or the public. Nor did they extend collection of demographic data needed to track outbreaks beyond gender and age when West Hollywood, LA and California declared a health emergency.
LGBTQ people were good citizens, responsibly taking part in the greater mitigation effort when officials ordered large gatherings to be cancelled and businesses closed.
On March 11, an open letter from more than 100 organizations specifying how COVID-19 could impact LGBTQ communities was distributed to the media, healthcare workers and public officials. It outlined how COVID-19 “may pose an increased risk to the LGBTQ+ population” with vulnerabilities and underlying medical conditions and laid out “specific steps to minimize any disparity.” For instance: 37% of LGBTQ adults smoke every day compared to 27% of non-LGBTQ people; 21% of LGBTQ people have asthma, compared to 14% of non-LGBTQ people.
“[W]e need to make sure the most vulnerable among us are not forgotten. Our smoking rates alone make us extremely vulnerable and our access to care barriers only make a bad situation worse.” noted Dr. Scout, the Deputy Director for the National LGBT Cancer Network, “This letter outlines simple steps to ensure no population is further stigmatized by a virus.”
The LGBTQ community responded. “The situation with COVID-19 is changing quickly. I don’t know whether we will be closed for a few days, a few weeks or even longer. Until our public health officials can assure us that it is safe, we will remain closed,” David Cooley wrote in a March 16 Facebook post announcing he was shutting down The Abbey in West Hollywood. “I am saddened that it has come to this. If staying open caused the pandemic to spread more quickly, I would be inconsolable. I know this crisis will pass. When it does, we will all celebrate together.”
Meanwhile, Trump began a pattern of lies and magical thinking. “It’s going to disappear,” Trump assured the world on March 17, having previously declared the coronavirus was “well under control” in this country.
The LGBTQ nonprofit safety net started to fray, but they bucked up to behave responsibly, as well. The LA LGBT Center said they were starting tele-health contacts, protecting seniors, homeless youth and staff from COVID-19; Project Angel Food issued a dire call for volunteers and the TransLatin@ Coalition closed but still provided food and sought shelter for clients.
Accustomed to equality in Southern California, LGBTQ people felt part of the larger community response. In a March 16 phone interview, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti recalled the community’s historic experience with the AIDS crisis.
“This community has been through tougher days than this and the most important thing is to not only be resilient but to be calm,” Garcetti told the LA Blade. “The LGBTQ community — which has seen what spread can do to a community and how devastating it can be — can really be the leaders of influencing in our workplaces, with our families and with others.”
The LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS communities did their part. The Los Angeles County Commission on HIV released an Interim Guidance for healthcare providers and persons living with HIV and underscoring the statewide and local “Safer At Home” orders. And nonprofit leaders such Jeffrey King, founder and executive director of In The Meantime Men, found ways to address issues no one else was discussing.
“The coronavirus has us all making major adjustments in our lives,” King said in a video posted on his Facebook page. “I want to encourage you to stay connected, and to consider your risk. Many of us are still engaging in sex. Our sex clubs and gay-specific social venues are closing now. Our social dating apps, however, are in full effect. Again – I want you to consider your risk and to act responsibly.”
But LGBTQ people started disappearing and dying, including icons such as playwright Terrence McNally.
Then, towards the end of March came the surge. Frontline community clinics and health centers that faced a shortage of test kits and medical supplies pleaded for help. Jim Mangia, Chief Executive of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, one of the few LA-area clinics that serve transgender clients of color, told reporters on a March 24 conference call that the situation was dire. The week before, 879 patients “were required to be placed in triage tents to isolate them from other patients,” the LA Times reported. No data on how many clients were transgender.
“Public health officials across California report that the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICU) doubled overnight. As of 2 pm. Saturday, the state now has 4,643 confirmed cases and 101 deaths, a spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) told the Los Angeles Blade Saturday afternoon, adding that approximately 89,600 tests had been conducted as of March 27,” the LA Blade reported. Newsom was bracing for a possible torrent of new infections with testing increasingly becoming an issue.
“There’s as much as ten times as many cases of coronavirus infection than is being reported,” a medical worker at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center told the Blade. “I think that the death count is very likely much higher, because the criteria for testing is so strict. So, we don’t really know the actual infection rate or mortality rate is currently.”
But no one was talking to the LGBTQ community. Finally, attorney and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran started posting daily updates on his personal Facebook page — including one with a frank discussion about having sex in a pandemic.
On April 4, the LA Blade posted a number of essential LGBTQ services, including The Trevor Project which said its crisis contact volume spiked at nearly twice normal volume, especially as COVID-19 forced LGBTQ young people to return to or remain in unsupportive or abusive environments. (The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7 can be reached at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or by texting 678-678.)
That was also the day the LA Blade finally got through during Newsom’s regular news conferences and asked if the newly announced website (covid19supplies.ca.gov) met the specific health and economic needs of LGBTQ Californians, especially those living with HIV and LGBTQI+ residents solely dependent on the gig economy.
“Yeah, from across the spectrum from addressing homeless youth — particularly in LA County. So, the answer is ‘yes’ — from an LGBTQ perspective but also from a geographical perspective. And from an age perspective as it relates to finding more federal resources for housing opportunities for LGBTQ youth and adults. Look, I come from San Francisco, 5th generation, it’s a point of deep pride when we talk in terms of cultural competency, neighborhood by neighborhood,” Newsom said. “The history of the HIV epidemic searing the consciousness of our health care delivery focus — again a bottom-up focus, and yeah, of course that extended to Dr. Fauci, who is very familiar to the folks in San Francisco and within the LGBTQ community as being one of our heroes decades ago, in terms of how he met that moment and he spoke truth in that moment. So, the answer is absolutely ‘yes’ — point of pride for me as a former mayor of San Francisco, who’s deeply attached to the needs and desires and aspirations and the health of our LGBTQ community.”
“We are always grateful for Governor Newsom’s leadership, but perhaps never more than during this public health crisis. Governor Newsom has been a lifelong pro-equality champion and we know he and his team are prioritizing our LGBTQ+ community — and the diverse communities to which we belong — and will identify and implement specific solutions to meet the unique challenges we face,” Equality California’s Zbur wrote in an email to the LA Blade. “We look forward to working closely with the governor in the coming weeks and months to provide health and healing for LGBTQ+ and all Californians.”
But while public acknowledgements were appreciated, they were brief and unsustained. LA County and LA City news conferences never even mentioned the LGBTQ community when other minority groups or issues about access to care were highlighted. The LA Blade called out the disparities on April 14 noting that for all the attention of a slew of populations at high risk for contagion, LGBTQs were not included, nor was data being collected.
The LA Blade was not alone. On April 21, GLMA Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality issued a second open letter signed by more than 170 organizations calling for action “to protect LGBTQ patients from discrimination and to include sexual orientation and gender identity in data collection efforts related to the pandemic,” as well as the economic harm to LGBTQ communities.
By May 12, Newsom told the LA Blade that he and Dr. Sonia Angell were working with Sen. Wiener on the data collection bill – but he did not commit to signing an emergency executive order to demand that local providers and county health departments start collecting LGBTQ data that is being lost with every passing minute.
“I don’t think that there are any disagreements that this needs to happen,” Wiener said during the Zoom news conference. “Obviously, the Governor and current Public Health are drinking water from a fire hose right now, and so we will continue to work with them to make sure that this happens and that it’s prioritized.”
However, Wiener added, “I would love for the Governor to issue an executive order immediately,” using the language in the bill.
And what of the most marginalized of the marginalized? Despite California officially a sanctuary state, the Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants (DRAI) program is not accessible for transgender, gender-nonconforming, and Intersex (TGI) people, many of whom are people of color, who have difficulty meeting criteria, according to Bamby Salcedo, founder of TransLatin@ Coalition.
“All organizations distributing money under DRAI are non-LGBTQ specific, which further impacts LGBTQ people, particularly TGI people, from accessing these funds. Communities such as sex workers, houseless people, those who have been recently released from immigration detention who do not have any type of documentation, and all others that live at the intersections of identifying as TGI will experience significant difficulties in accessing DRAI funds,” Salcedo said in a May 19 press release.
Despite decades of seeming progress, thousands of votes to advance democracy, millions contributed to fundraisers and political campaigns — LGBTQ people are once again fending for themselves and taking care of each other.
On May 18, Equality California launched a consumer-friendly website and help line “to connect LGBTQ+ Californians impacted by the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis with LGBTQ+ friendly resources and support services,” says an EQCA press release. The civil rights organization is also working to expand the website “to include comprehensive directories of service providers in each of the state’s 53 counties and launch a series of free webinars for people facing unemployment or lost wages.”
“The COVID-19 LGBTQ+ Help Center and Help Line are roadmaps for members of our community to find the support they need from providers who know and care about LGBTQ+ people,” says Zbur. “We’re in this together. Whether you need to get tested, file for unemployment or a loan, find a foodbank or talk to a mental health professional, we’re here to help. Go to the website, call the phone number or send us an email and we’ll get you to the right place.”
The Equality California website, funded by grants from the AT&T Foundation and Sempra Energy Foundation, outlines how LGBTQ+ people “face higher rates of comorbidities such as HIV and cancer, are more likely to use tobacco products, are less likely to have health insurance and less likely to access care when they are sick out of fear of discrimination,” are overrepresented in the industries hit hardest by the economic downturn, with elders who already faced isolation before the COVID crisis.
The goal of the Help Center and Help Line is to help LGBTQ+ people navigate the social safety net to find resources they need.
LGBTQ people might be dis-counted by governmental agencies but as in the early days of AIDS, LGBTQ people are starting to take care of each other. What the future looks like for the otherwise invisible devastated community remains to be seen.
LGBTQ+ Californians facing healthcare, financial, social challenges are encouraged to visit covid19.eqca.org or call (323) 448-0126 for assistance.