LGBTI+ IN THE COMMONWEALTH IN THE COVID-19 ERA

LGBTI+ in the Commonwealth in the COVID-19 Era

 

COVID-19 is having drastic effects across the world – and a disproportionate impact on marginalised communities. We spoke to members of The Commonwealth Equality Network to gain insight into the ways in which the crisis is impacting their work, their lives and their communities.

tcen.36c712ac6e5b.png
KALEIDOSCOPE INT TRUST LOGO LANDSCAPE RG
 
 

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been swift, far-reaching and severe. In many territories, surges in the number of people falling ill have added pressure to health systems, governments have introduced rarely used emergency powers and economies have contracted deeply. The very rhythms of life as we knew them have been disrupted on a scale which has left almost no corner of the Commonwealth untouched and no person unaffected in some way.

Emergency situations such as this have a disproportionate impact on marginalised communities, and simmering inequalities are put in sharp relief as the already difficult and precarious positions of these communities are exacerbated. This is true of many groups, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer and gender-diverse (LGBTI+) people are no exception.

This report highlights the voices of LGBTI+ human rights defenders from across the Commonwealth and lays out a snapshot of the acute challenges that LGBTI+ movements and communities are facing as a result of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

Conducted through a consultation of members of The Commonwealth Equality Network over the course of April 2020, we have gathered the testimony of 41 LGBTI+ individuals from 34 member organisations, covering 37 Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN) is the first civil society network to sustainably advocate on behalf of LGBTI+ people in the Commonwealth. It was accredited to the Commonwealth in 2017.

 

This report contains two sections: ‘Snapshots’ from an online survey, detailing member organisations’ primary concerns and changing economic situations, and ‘Spotlights’ outlining trends using information from both the survey and a rapid-response call. The data in this report is not exhaustive but provides real-time insight into the needs of LGBTI+ people, communities and organisations across the Commonwealth in the COVID-19 era.

This consultation has revealed an uncertain and increasingly difficult picture for LGBTI+ organisations and communities in the Commonwealth, due to both the COVID-19 outbreak itself and the responses of governments – both nationally and as donors of international aid.

In Botswana, LGBTI+ people are being blamed for COVID-19 with impunity and, in Barbados, an increase in verbal harassment against LGBTI+ people by the police when seeking assistance has been reported.

 

In Pakistan and Saint Lucia, LGBTI+ people are facing layoffs, redundancy and loss of income in sectors where they are overrepresented and that are hard hit by restrictions to movement, such as tourism or sex work, placing their livelihoods, housing and lives at risk.

 

In Kiribati and Sri Lanka, LGBTI+ people are at risk of or have had to stay in lockdown with relatives who discriminate against and stigmatise them, a further burden on and threat to their mental and physical health.


In Ghana and Malta, there are reports of increased difficulties in accessing medication, especially for HIV-positive and trans people. 

In Belize and other jurisdictions, judicial processes are delayed, including challenges to legislation that is discriminatory or that fails to protect people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and sex characteristics.


And in the United Kingdom, there has been a concerning indefinite freeze on expected government funding to support the human rights of LGBTI+ people internationally – at a time when it is needed the most.

In many places, there is often only one or a small handful LGBTI+ civil society organisations supporting, providing services to and advocating with and for LGBTI+ people. This consultation has revealed that the very survival of many LGBTI+ civil society organisations across the Commonwealth is at stake.

At a time when there is clear and escalating need, some TCEN member organisations – nearly half of which have no reserves – have reported decreases in or loss of current or potential income, as donations have slowed and new funding opportunities have been put on hold indefinitely. Coupled with new restrictions on movement, the ability of member organisations across the Commonwealth to carry out essential human rights advocacy, provide lifesaving services and assistance such as shelter and food to LGBTI+ people, or even to survive, is under threat like never before.

 

It is in difficult circumstances such as these that governments across the Commonwealth  must, through word and deed, demonstrate their commitment to the values of the Commonwealth Charter. Despite this deepening set of challenges, there are actions that decision-makers, policymakers and funders can take to protect, support and respect LGBTI+ people and their rights in response to COVID-19.

In order to do this, funders, especially governments, must urgently allocate financial resources for:

  • Consultations and data gathering with LGBTI+ organisations and communities about their needs resulting from the immediate and emerging impacts of COVID-19.

 

  • Flexible emergency response funds for LGBTI+ civil society to support services they are providing to LGBTI+ communities and to ensure their organisations survive.

 

  • LGBTI+ civil society to sustain their ongoing, longer-term work to address entrenched structural drivers of the inequality, discrimination and exclusion LGBTI+ people face, during the pandemic and beyond.

Funders must also allow greater flexibility with existing funding, so organisations under duress are better able to adapt and respond to the ever-changing and difficult circumstances of the pandemic.

 

Additionally, Commonwealth governments must:

  • Uphold the principles outlined in the Commonwealth Charter in all aspects of response and recovery efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, but not limited to, those of equality, and respect for the promotion and protection of human rights for all without discrimination on any grounds, as articulated in article II, and access to health, education, food and shelter, as articulated in article XI.

 

  • Ensure that any response and recovery efforts are inclusive of LGBTI+ people and their particular needs, and that these efforts will reach the most marginalised and vulnerable and not worsen existing inequalities and marginalisation. This includes, but is not limited to, access to healthcare services; employment and paid leave; welfare, benefits and emergency economic support; access to education; food security; access to housing; and access to justice.

 

  • Introduce and implement policies that ensure the safety and security of all persons, without discrimination, including support for those who are victims of domestic and intimate partner violence or who are made homeless, and that ensure state agents, including the police and the military, are accountable for any decisions or actions they take.

 

  • Ensure that data gathered during the pandemic is disaggregated by sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics, among other grounds and identities, in support of the above.

 
 

Founded by a small group of organisations in 2013, The Commonwealth Equality Network uses collective action to catalyse the meaningful change needed to achieve a Commonwealth where all LGBTI+ persons are free from discrimination and violence, including criminalisation on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. 

 

Through collective advocacy, research, resource mobilisation and capacity strengthening, the network’s members seek the removal of legal, political, social, economic and cultural barriers to equality in Commonwealth countries.


TCEN now counts 57 organisations representing 45 countries from all Commonwealth regions in its membership.

In June 2017, TCEN was accredited to the Commonwealth, the first LGBTI+-focused group to ever receive this official status. Since the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta, TCEN has actively participated in Commonwealth spaces to raise the profile and normalise the discussion of LGBTI+ people, rights and concerns and to engage with national-level decision-makers and policymakers who are often not otherwise accessible to LGBTI+ civil society.

TCEN’s membership is made up of 57 organisations representing 45 of 54 Commonwealth countries.

 

This report lays out a snapshot of the acute challenges that LGBTI+ movements and communities across the Commonwealth are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The evidence gathered was collected over the course of April 2020 via two methods: a rapid-response call on 7 April, followed by an online survey from 16-23 April. 

 

The rapid-response call included 24 representatives from 18 TCEN member organisations in the following 17 countries:

  • Africa: Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, eSwatini, South Africa

  • Americas: Barbados, Belize, Canada, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago

  • Asia: Malaysia, Singapore

  • Europe: Cyprus, United Kingdom

30 participants responded to the online survey. These respondents represented 26 TCEN member organisations covering 31 Commonwealth countries:

  • Africa: Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Mauritius, eSwatini, South Africa, Zambia

  • Americas: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines

  • Asia: Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka

  • Europe: Cyprus, Malta, United Kingdom

  • Pacific: Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu

Overall, this consultation reached 41 individuals from 34 organisations covering 37 Commonwealth countries. 

It should be noted that all ‘Snapshot’ data represented in graphs and statistics reflect the consultative survey responses only. However, ‘Spotlight’ information such as quotations comes from both the rapid-response call and the survey. The report is not exhaustive but provides real-time insight into the needs of LGBTI+ people, communities and organisations across the Commonwealth in the COVID-19 era. 

 

Finally, it is worth noting that a number of members’ work also extends to non-Commonwealth countries and territories, such as the Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands, Niue, Palau, St Croix and St Martin.

The majority of our diverse TCEN member representatives belong to LGBTI+ communities themselves. As a result, we recognise the impact this pandemic is having not only on their organisations, but on them as activists, human rights defenders and, simply, people. We are immensely grateful to them for the tireless work they do for their communities.  

The following are based off 30 responses to the survey.

Respondents also noted belonging to other under-represented or minority groups, including people living with HIV, ethnic minorities, youth, part of a language minority, black, and/or immigrant. Almost half of survey respondents (46.6%) also noted that they had caregiving responsibilities and 20% noted that they were young (under age 30).

 

The COVID-19 pandemic is dealing a devastating blow to LGBTI+ communities and the organisations that support, provide services to and advocate with and for them.

 

Survey respondents cited a wide range of concerns, from loss of income on already limited budgets to the safety and wellbeing of their communities, staff and partners. The simultaneous upending of working methods and funding has put both these community-based organisations and the communities they serve under severe threat.

Of the different concerns identified, there is high consensus among respondents on the most pressing: 88% of organisations identified the wellbeing of their staff and volunteers; 85% identified the wellbeing of their service users; and 81% identified loss of income.

In addition to the ability to continue operating and the repercussions on the livelihoods and wellbeing of both staff and LGBTI+ communities, concerns also include degrading treatment by state agents, inaccessibility of medical treatment, mental health and physical safety, homelessness, and domestic and intimate partner violence. 

 

Many of the TCEN member organisations surveyed dedicate their work to the most vulnerable LGBTI+ people, providing direct services to people living with HIV, victims of abuse and violence, and homeless LGBTI+ people, among others. Others also support LGBTI+ communities more indirectly, through human rights advocacy with decision-makers and policymakers across sectors at national, regional and international level, to tackle the entrenched structural drivers of the inequality, discrimination and exclusion LGBTI+ people face.

 

COVID-19 has built a wall between these organisations and their constituencies, as access and communication has become obstructed or severed due to restrictions on movement and inadequate IT infrastructure – at a time when this support is urgently needed.

Almost half of the 26 organisations surveyed (46%) have no reserves, and the same number have lost earnings and/or existing or potential income. Just one organisation reported earning the same as before. In many places, there is often only one or a small handful LGBTI+ civil society organisations supporting, providing services to and advocating with and for LGBTI+ people. The very survival of many LGBTI+ civil society organisations across the Commonwealth is on the line.

 
 

Ongoing issues of inequality, exclusion, discrimination and poverty that LGBTI+ people face are being exacerbated by the pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak and state responses to it which are not sensitive to the particular needs of different groups are forcing many LGBTI+ communities into increasingly precarious situations.

Spotlight

Discrimination and stigmatisation are manifesting in new ways or are putting up barriers for LGBTI+ communities. For example, it has been reported that LGBTI+ people are being blamed for causing coronavirus, and there is concern of the impact of neglect of responsibilities by or violence at the hands of law enforcement and other state agents.

 

Spotlight

 Economic Impact of COVID-19 and on Mental and Physical Safety and Wellbeing

The economic disruptions of the coronavirus outbreak to date have been severe. The livelihoods and wellbeing of LGBTI+ people are at heightened risk due to their marginalisation. Employment, housing, access to health services, and even access to basic supplies like food are in doubt. In particular, loss of income puts LGBTI+ people at increased risk of eviction, and may force them to return to homes where they face discrimination or to become homeless at a time when movement is restricted and shelter space is inaccessible. Impoverishment is a real threat and the negative effects on mental and physical wellbeing and safety are of grave concern.

 

Efforts to effect changes to legislation that is discriminatory or fails to protect people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and sex characteristics are experiencing delays, and access to justice has become harder, as courts across the Commonwealth adapt to restrictions to movement, physical distancing and other new regulations.

Case Studies:

  • In Botswana, LeGaBiBo have reported that their decriminalisation court case appeal, which was due to be heard in July, is unlikely to take place until next year and that they cannot communicate or advocate as planned.

 

  • The Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality launched constitutional challenges to buggery and indecency laws in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Saint Lucia and St Kitts and Nevis last year which are now delayed because of the new emergency measures in place in the respective countries. 

 

  • In Pakistan, NAZ had submitted a petition to the Lahore High Court to address gaps in the Trans Protection Acts, including sections of the act which impair trans people’s right to love and right to matrimony. However, the project under which the petition is funded ends in December and because of the disruptions, they anticipate cases will go into next year – but will no longer have the funds to pursue it.

 

Spotlight

New Challenges in Accessing Justice

As the pandemic aggravates issues of inequality, exclusion, discrimination and poverty that LGBTI+ people face, the plans, priorities and progress of organisations that support these communities – from human rights work to direct service provision – are being either disrupted as expected funding disappears or are having to be hastily reworked, often within inflexible frameworks. State responses have not taken these considerations – or the vulnerable positions that it places many LGBTI+ people in – sufficiently into account. 

 

The survival of LGBTI+ civil society organisations and the wellbeing and livelihoods of their staff and volunteers are under threat, as funding decreases or disappears. Among their top concerns, 88% of the organisations reported the wellbeing of their staff and volunteers, 85% identified the wellbeing of their service users and 81% highlighted loss of income. Of the TCEN members surveyed, nearly half have already lost earnings and/or existing or potential income since the pandemic began and 46% have no reserves. In many places, the number of LGBTI+ civil society organisations supporting, providing services to and advocating with and for LGBTI+ people can be counted on one hand.

Additionally, restrictions on movement and physical distancing to combat the transmission of coronavirus have meant working methods have had to rapidly adapt. Whilst some are able to move fairly seamlessly into working from home, many are experiencing challenges due to the type of direct service support they provide to LGBTI+ people, or due to their non-urban locations or inadequate IT infrastructure. In some instances, this has even caused critical work to come to a halt.

Now more than ever do marginalised communities and the organisations working in their interest need support, to ensure that they are not left even further behind. 

 
 

The COVID-19 pandemic is having drastic, wide-ranging effects across the Commonwealth – and a disproportionate impact on marginalised communities.

 

During a crisis, marginalised communities and groups are particularly vulnerable, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer and gender-diverse (LGBTI+) people – and the organisations that support, provide services to and advocate with and for them – are no exception.

 

The inequality, exclusion and discrimination – and associated risks and effects – that LGBTI+ people face on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics, are heightened in circumstances such as those we are facing today. And we know that the intersectional realities that make LGBTI+ people’s experiences different depending on who they are even within the LGBTI+ umbrella compound the impact of the pandemic even further.

 

This report provides a snapshot of the acute challenges that LGBTI+ movements and communities across the Commonwealth are facing. As we have seen from the testimonies of TCEN’s LGBTI+ human rights defenders, interrelated social stigma, criminalisation and lack of protection aggravate the impact of this crisis situation on LGBTI+ people. 

 

This consultation has found that survival of LGBTI+ civil society organisations and the wellbeing and livelihoods of staff and volunteers are under threat, as expected funding disappears or decreases, and new barriers to carrying out the essential work to support, provide services to and advocate with and for LGBTI+ people in contexts that are already difficult are emerging. 

 

Additionally, discrimination against and stigmatisation of LGBTI+ people and communities, including at the hands of state agents, is putting them at risk; LGBTI+ people’s physical safety and mental wellbeing are at risk both outside and within the home; there is a heightened possibility of impoverishment as already precarious employment and housing are threatened; barriers to accessing critical emergency goods and services, such as food, medication, and shelter, have emerged or intensified; and access to justice for LGBTI+ people has become more difficult, as judicial proceedings have been disrupted and delayed.

 

In short, despite expressions of hope and solidarity across the globe conveying that COVID-19 does not discriminate, we know all too intimately that the structures and systems in place across Commonwealth societies means that it has discriminatory effects – ones to which this report bears witness.

We therefore call on governments and funders to urgently allocate financial resources for:

 

  • Consultations and data gathering with LGBTI+ organisations and communities about their needs resulting from the immediate and emerging impacts of COVID-19.

 

  • Flexible emergency response funds for LGBTI+ civil society, for the support and services they are providing to LGBTI+ communities, and to ensure their organisations survive.

 

  • LGBTI+ civil society to sustain their ongoing, longer-term work to address entrenched structural drivers of the inequality, discrimination and exclusion LGBTI+ people face, during the pandemic and beyond.

 

Funders must also allow greater flexibility with existing funding, so organisations under duress are better able to adapt and respond to the ever-changing and difficult circumstances of the pandemic.

Commonwealth governments must also:

 

  • Uphold the principles outlined in the Commonwealth Charter in all aspects of response and recovery efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, but not limited to, those of equality, and respect for the promotion and protection of human rights for all without discrimination on any grounds, as articulated in article II, and access to health, education, food and shelter, as articulated in article XI.

 

  • Ensure that any response and recovery efforts are inclusive of LGBTI+ people and their needs, and that these efforts will reach the most marginalised and vulnerable and not worsen existing inequalities and marginalisation. This includes, but is not limited to, access to healthcare services; employment and paid leave; welfare, benefits and emergency economic support; access to education; food security; and access to housing; and access to justice.

 

  • Introduce and implement policies that ensure the safety and security of all persons, without discrimination, including support for those who are victims of domestic and intimate partner violence or who are made homeless, and that ensure state agents, including the police and the military, are accountable for any decisions or actions they take.

 

  • Ensure that data gathered during the pandemic is disaggregated by sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics, among other grounds and identities, in support of the above.

 

Below, we share an overview of TCEN’s Policy Manifesto, to remind the world that LGBTI+ human rights still remain of utmost importance, especially during a crisis, and that COVID-19 must not undo years and decades of progress on human rights.