LGBT+ community losing safe spaces due to coronavirus

Ljubljana, 1 May - LGBT+ rights NGOs have had to adapt their services to the current extreme circumstances to help contain the Covid-19 spread. Activists are aware that preventive measures are key but also warn that lockdown restrictions have resulted in the loss of safe spaces and aggravated the community's situation.

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"The closure of physical social spaces is definitely restricting safe spaces available to LGBTI persons. Most notably that affects those who have had to return to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic environments; unfortunately a lot of parents or guardians are still not accepting of LGBTI persons, even when those persons are their family members," Lana Gobec, the head of the Legebitra NGO, has told the STA.

Quite a few youths have turned to the organisation for support after university dorms were shut down, for they were unable to return to their primary environments either because they had strained relations with their parents or guardians or because they were not allowed to return due to their sexual orientation and/or identity.

"Following the intervention by student organisations, university dorms were then reopened for those who have no other accommodation options," added Gobec, highlighting that this was not the case for persons residing in secondary school dormitories, who are hence often left with only an option of going back to discriminatory and potentially violent environments.

Legebitra can assist in such cases by helping the person seek shelter in a safe house.

The results of the 2019 Eurobarometer on the social acceptance of LGBT+ people in the EU show that 32% of Slovenians would feel totally uncomfortable if one of their potential children was in a romantic relationship with a person of the same sex as the offspring.

In the case of them being in a relationship with a transgender person or intersex person that figure dominates at 39% or 37%, respectively.

Crisis amplifies social inequalities and mental health problems

Institute TransAkcija, the first Slovenian trans-specific NGO, has warned that the Covid-19 crisis has been highlighting and deepening the gap between the privileged centre and marginalised minorities.

"First and foremost, I believe that the anti-crisis measures have been drawn up in such a way that most of them require a certain privilege from the get-go, so that a conscientious citizen could heed them.

"#StayHome, for example, sure, naturally, but what if one does not have a home? Or one does have a bed, but in an extremely toxic environment? The measures are primarily drawn up for persons whose circumstances stem from a number of normative groups, while minorities are, as always, faced with situations that require self-organisation," Linn Julian Koletnik, the founder and head of TransAkcija, has told the STA.

They have also pointed out that only a handful of spaces in Ljubljana are available to the LGBT+ community and almost zero elsewhere. The current circumstances have only aggravated the situation.

"Community spaces mean safer spaces where people can relax and express themselves the way they are; so many are struggling now because those spaces are missing. But there are online efforts aiming to maintain the sense of community, which is great."

Various factors, including a temporary loss of physical safe spaces and rejections experienced in primary environments, have exacerbated mental health problems for some, with LGBT+ persons being more likely to struggle with mental health in general, according to numerous international studies.

Individuals who seek help via Legebitra support and counselling programmes and were residing in dormitories prior to the introduction of the measures have been reporting intensified feelings of anxiety, gender dysphoria and depressive moods.

Such reports have been coming mostly from younger members of the community who are not enjoying the support of their families, since their parents are not accepting their sexual identities, Gobec has highlighted. Legebitra believes that many more LGBT+ persons face similar difficulties.

The organisation has not detected any increase in various types of violence against LGBT+ persons so far, however it has warned that the lack of such information could be misleading, since not only risk factors are multiplied during times of crisis but also it is more difficult to access mental health services.

Moreover, the community has been facing prejudices and stigmatisation regardless of the crisis, which may also result in suffering abuse and violence. Experts have been pointing out that if reported, which is quite rarely the case, such incidents are not recorded separately as hate crimes against the LGBT+ community and are thus not reflected in statistical data.

The 2019 Universal Periodic Review report on the situation of LGBT+ persons in Slovenia, which was sent to the United Nations by several organisations, including Legebitra and TransAkcija, shows that in the five years leading up to 2019, 60% of LGBT+ survey respondents were victims of harassment.

Almost a third did not report the worst incident to the police since they believed that nothing would change because of that. More than 20% experienced physical and/or sexual violence and those were even less likely to report the crimes.

Many users of TransAkcija counselling and support services also report about amplified struggles during the epidemic in the wake of their environments rejecting them. Some trans or non-binary persons are not out in their primary environments or they are not accepted and are hence not able to safely use their actual names or pronouns and express themselves in line with their identities, explained Koletnik.

Moreover, LGBT+ persons struggle more with unemployment compared to the general population, which may lead to some doing sex work, said Koletnik. Sex workers are currently faced with even more serious troubles.

If they are forced to continue working amid the epidemic due to their socio-economic situation, "they are considerably exposing themselves to the risk of getting infected with the novel coronavirus. Also, they have zero workers' rights," added Koletnik.

Accessing support and online safe spaces

Both organisations have restricted their services to non-personal forms of communication due to the epidemic. TransAkcija continues to provide support online, using Jitsi for video-counselling, a platform that is, according to the organisation, safe and easy to use - features that are essential but not ubiquitous in helping vulnerable social groups, Koletnik said.

The institute has mainly strived for transforming its programmes in such a way so as to acknowledge the trans-specific needs.

"Transgender persons who wanted to or were in line to initiate the medical transitioning process have now had to postpone that for an indefinite time, which certainly extremely negatively affects their mental health since the process duration has been found to be the primary cause for mental health issues among trans persons, according to a study," said Koletnik.

Meanwhile, Legebitra has launched an online youth centre after closing the only such facility in the physical world, mainly intended for LGBT+ persons. Using digital technologies, the organisation carries on with all of its support and educational services, including supporting individuals living with HIV and providing legal counsel.

Gobec has pointed out that many members of the community were seeking support already prior to the crisis, with Legebitra detecting a considerable increase in counselling requests in the LGBT+ community in the past few years.

© STA, 2020