LGBTQ communities in Asia hit hard by pandemic restrictions

Transgender people in Dhaka, Bangladesh, waiting to collect relief material during a government-imposed lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, on 6 May, 2020. (Photo: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP via Getty Images)

By Teng Yong Ping

For the first time ever, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ people in Singapore has a waiting list of people asking to stay there after the city-state imposed safe distancing measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The people seeking sanctuary at the T Project were facing heightened discrimination and abuse amid the restrictions, said transgender activist June Chua, who founded the shelter.

Among them were a trans woman who was forced to leave her home after suffering constant psychological abuse from her mother, and a trans man who was kicked out of his flat after his landlord found out that he is transgender.

Before movement restrictions were implemented, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people could leave the confines of their homes and avoid their families if they were unsafe or faced abuse. But the COVID-19 restrictions make this impossible.

“With COVID-19, trans people are forced to stay at home. Conflicts come with transphobic families,” said Chua. 

The predicament faced by LGBTQ people in Chua’s shelter is mirrored in the experiences of their peers elsewhere around the world during the pandemic.

Already more vulnerable before the lockdowns, the pandemic has further aggravated their situation. Many queer people in Asia found themselves trapped with hostile family members, isolated from their normal support networks.

The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, called for more support for them last month in a message commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia: "Among the many severe impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased vulnerability of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people. Already facing bias, attacks and murder simply for who they are or whom they love, many LGBTI people are experiencing heightened stigma as a result of the virus, as well as new obstacles when seeking health care. There are also reports of COVID-19 directives being misused by police to target LGBTI individuals and organisations." 

Queer communities across the region have attempted to adapt to the pandemic and provide support to each other.

A Malaysian queer group, who wishes to remain anonymous, is streaming online live performances for the community to connect while watching musical and drag acts. In June - traditionally commemorated by queer people worldwide as Pride Month - many pride events have been cancelled because of lockdown orders. Nonetheless, Pink Dot, an annual demonstration in Singapore calling for LGBTQ equality, is moving online, with plans to livestream a concert in place of a physical event. 

Despite these efforts, the challenges faced by LGBTQ people are daunting. In a research report, Outright Action International, an LGBTQ non-government organisation (NGO), identifies seven categories of threats to the community during the pandemic, including food and shelter insecurity; more family violence as people follow stay-home orders; the closing of queer community spaces and isolation from support networks; barriers to healthcare access; increased stigma and societal violence; abuse of state power directed at LGBTQ people; and the risk of community organisations not being able to survive the crisis.

In Asia, where homosexuality is illegal in many countries and societies have traditionally not been supportive of queer people, the community is even more vulnerable. Jean Chong, a programme coordinator with Outright, said, “Asian governments are very hostile to LGBT people, so when you’re in a crisis, whether it’s a pandemic or climate crisis, it’s very hard for LGBT people to access resources.” 

LGBTQ people are often scapegoated by society when crises occur, and have been blamed for the spread of the current pandemic in some countries. Gay people in South Korea are facing intense cyber abuse and were blamed in some quarters for the second wave of COVID-19 infections in the country. The infections occurred after restrictions were relaxed in early May, and were traced to nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon area, known to be a gathering place for gay people. 

Ryan Thoreson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote on the NGO’s website, “Some media initially described the nightclubs as gay clubs, setting off a firestorm of online harassment and intimidation targeting LGBT people. The backlash has exacerbated the already high levels of hostility LGBT people in South Korea face.”

Mental health professionals have noticed the enormous stress faced by the community in Asia.

Camellia Wong, a psychologist in Singapore, says that symptoms of depression and anxiety have increased among her queer clients since the government banned social gatherings in early April. Leow Yangfa, executive director of Oogachaga, an NGO that provides counselling services for the LGBTQ community in Singapore, said that some fear domestic violence while closeted youth experienced tensions with family members while at home, as schools and workplaces closed.

Gianina Kon, a therapist in Malaysia who counsels queer people, says LGBTQ people who have to stay at home for long periods with homophobic family members can suffer from intense isolation and emotional stress. “They find it difficult to cope with their current situation because they cannot seek support outside the home…They are constantly in fear of trying to express themselves at home within non-queer-affirming families,” said Kon.

In Malaysia, a queer community space in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur had to close after the nationwide lockdown began in March. The place held regular events like music performances, film screenings, drag shows and poetry readings, said its founders, who requested for anonymity.

Users of the space, who often face societal stigma in the largely Muslim and conservative country, lamented the loss of the space.

Among them is Kai Ho, a 23-year-old tutor in Kuala Lumpur who identifies as pansexual and non-binary, who said: “It was probably the first accessible place (for queers) to be physically connected to a space and people. With a political climate that still criminalises and demonises queer affairs, you almost don't believe community is possible beyond online spaces. It felt like being alive and fully immersed. Being away from all that felt like the world was just a little greyer again.”

Mohazah (not her real name), a 33-year-old lesbian, agrees and yearns for the day when she can return to the space. “There is a spirit there that cannot be denied – the feeling that we are all united despite the hate we may receive from outside society,” she said.

Another key challenge in the pandemic that the community in Asia faces is the lack of access to healthcare.

In the Philippines, which is facing the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the Asia Pacific region, volunteer groups are helping LGBTQ people with HIV to get medicine. Higher rates of HIV in the LGBTQ community mean many of them may have compromised immune systems, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.

Love Yourself, a Philippine charity helping people with HIV, has been getting antiretroviral drugs to patients directly due to a halt in public transport services and other movement restrictions. Volunteers arrange for medicines to be delivered to the patients’ homes but patients pay for the service. James Soliman, a counsellor with Love Yourself, says he makes regular calls to his patients to check on their mental well-being.

Activists are calling on governments to look out for the LGBTQ community as they face greater risks than other segments of society during the pandemic.

Chong from Outright said governments should strive to make their pandemic-related initiatives more inclusive.

“Invite LGBT people to domestic violence task forces for consultations. Explicitly name LGBT people as a vulnerable group. Social service organisations also need to increase their capacity; they don’t have enough sensitisation training. Why should LGBT people go to you when you cannot even address them properly or understand what they’re going through?”