Global LGBT organizations mobilize in face of pandemic

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday March 25, 2020
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A gay couple walks through the woods draped with a rainbow flag. Photo: Courtesy Human Rights Campaign
A gay couple walks through the woods draped with a rainbow flag. Photo: Courtesy Human Rights Campaign

Global LGBT organizations are responding to the impact of the coronavirus as they work to protect some of the most vulnerable queer people.

There have been 19,753 deaths around the world reported from coronavirus as of March 25, according to Worldometer. There have been 440,359 cases of people infected with the virus around the world.

"This is maybe the first time in history where we've had a problem that is so truly global that it really affects pretty much every single person on the planet," Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration Executive Director Steve Roth told the Bay Area Reporter. "No one is immune."

In addition to thinking about personal well-being in families and communities, Roth, a gay man, pointed out that "now more than ever we have to think about those who are most vulnerable among us."

Other LGBT agency officials noted that it is likely the beginning of the outbreak.

"We are still in the early days. We are going to hear a lot more as the pandemic unfolds across the world," said Maria Sjodin, deputy executive director at OutRight Action International.

"I think with a pandemic like this the people who are more vulnerable are often typically becoming even more vulnerable in times of crisis, in times of epidemic," said Sjodin.

Sjodin, a nonbinary lesbian who has advocated for LGBT rights for more than 20 years, said that despite LGBT people wanting to look to their families for safety and be with them, "LGBT people are not always safe with their families."

Speaking with their partners on the ground, global LGBT experts said that as the virus continues to spread, LGBT people living in repressive regions, refugees, and asylum seekers are being pushed further into isolation and danger.

"People who are forced to stay in their homes and can't leave ... that doesn't necessarily make for a safe existence for LGBTQI people if your family does not accept who you are," Sjodin said.

OutRight and Human Rights Campaign Global are currently surveying their partners across to get an understanding of how LGBT people are being affected by the pandemic.

Trapped at home

The lockdown in the Middle East, as Arab countries battle the pandemic, is a prime example of how isolated some LGBT communities can be. It has pushed a hidden queer community further into the closet. The cafes are shut. The parks are closed. Places of worship are closed. This has left many Middle Eastern LGBTs stuck at home either with their families, some of which are abusive, or totally by themselves.

"The environment we live in, unfortunately, can be aggressive toward LGBT+ people," Omar Al Khatib of the Palestinian LGBT+ group alQaws, which is based in Jerusalem, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Jay Gilliam, director of HRC Global, is concerned about the situation.

"What we are seeing at this time, particularly in places where it is hard to be out as LGBTQ or as living with HIV, these folks are particularly vulnerable in this moment when governments are calling for their citizens to quarantine," Gilliam told the B.A.R. "If you are in quarantine with family and your family is not a place where it is safe to be out, you are more vulnerable."

Middle Eastern LGBT organizations such as alQaws and Mawjoudin, based in Tunisia, are ramping up their helplines in response to increased calls and delivering HIV medications.

"They have been expressing their frustration," Hana, an LGBT advocate with Mawjoudin who only went by her first name to protect her privacy, told Reuters.

In Lebanon, Proud Lebanon's volunteers are delivering medications to its members. Some members are afraid to go out or simply can't come to the organization's Beirut offices due to lack of public transportation, director Bertho Makso told Reuters.

Sjodin said that more stories will develop as the pandemic continues.

"We will continue to hear more of those stories as well [as] people who are facing situations where they can no longer work and they have very few other means of income," they said. The difference is "they might in some cases might have fewer resources available."

Jeopardy: Queer asylum seekers and refugees

Those who have fled their home countries and who are waiting to be resettled in a new country are struggling for their survival and some are feeling abandoned and forgotten.

Refugees at the Greece-Turkey border have waited more than two weeks to cross, with few supplies and "no such thing as sanitation," an unidentified trans male refugee told Turkish LGBT organization Kaos GL Association.

"I have not taken a shower for 15 days, now. We have 20 washbasins for thousands of people. We use everything with great difficulty. The food line is quite long," he said.

"Everyone has forgotten about us," he continued. "The world is only thinking about corona now. No one thinks about us."

LGBT asylum seekers at the United States-Mexico border and refugees in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya are somewhat more fortunate.

ORAM, which at one time focused its efforts on LGBT refugees in Turkey, is mobilizing to aid asylum seekers and refugees, some of whom are HIV-positive, waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border and in Kenya's largest refugee camp, where the coronavirus hasn't reached them yet.

ORAM; its parent organization, Alight; Mossier, an LGBT employment advocacy group; and others on the ground are bracing for the potential arrival of the virus, which they estimated will arrive in a few weeks, Roth told the B.A.R.

In Tijuana, Mexico, the organization's team is gathering critical supplies for two LGBT migrant shelters. In Kenya, the organization is working as fast as possible to get the queer refugees' soap businesses up and running in the camp.

Additionally, ORAM is working to supply migrants and refugees with food and rent, clean water and soap, sanitation supplies, and education on how to protect themselves from the virus.

The resources are even more critical as the U.S. and Mexico — and governments around the world — are closing borders and shutting down processing asylum and refugee claims during the pandemic.

"It was really important for us to mobilize as quickly as possible to get resources to those people on the ground, particularly in the countries and the communities where we work," Roth said.

"We know how hard it is to find hand sanitizer in this country and even other basic cleaning products, so imagine how much more difficult in other places where there are less resources to begin with," Roth added.

Queer asylum seekers who made it into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and are being held in detention centers aren't fairing much better, according to a March 23 complaint filed by Immigration Equality against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

The asylum seekers are in danger, according to Bridget Crawford, the immigration organization's legal director, citing six plaintiffs who echoed past detainees' complaints that their rights were being denied.

ICE isn't providing adequate health care for HIV-positive LGBT asylum seekers, putting them at risk with overcrowding or adequate information for them to protect themselves from the coronavirus, among other issues, according to the complaint.

Crawford called the situation in ICE detention centers a "COVID-19 nightmare," accusing ICE and the DHS of "violating the law every day," noting complaints of individuals going weeks to months without medication and soap shortages in the organization's release.

"The accounts we have heard from detained people living with HIV have been outrageous," Crawford said.

DHS has denied people's release despite being parole eligible with a qualifying sponsor.

Opportunity to suppress human rights

Global LGBT experts warned that the world is just at the beginning of the pandemic.

Mandated self-isolation orders spreading around the world are creating another challenge by compounding human rights. LGBT advocates, other organizations, and even the United Nations don't have the ability to effectively respond to human rights violations and hold countries accountable during the pandemic, HRC's Gilliam said.

"You can't always go virtual," Gilliam explained, pointing out that key gatherings, like the convening of advocates at the United Nations and World Bank, are a tool that has been "taken away from these global advocates."

"Those are lost opportunities for advocates," he said, citing an International Center for Not-for-Profit Law's article about the danger of governments' ability to use crisis as a "pretext to infringe rights."

Additionally, LGBT advocates are concerned about resources and funding.

Sjodin questioned if governments that are supportive of LGBT rights will "be able to maintain their support" financially.

"These are the types of things that we want to be able to lift up so that people can understand even in the midst of this pandemic that there are other challenges that people are facing," said Gilliam. "We are figuring out how to respond right now."

He added advocates also want to "point to where our government needs to be able to really lead and support those most vulnerable groups in different places around the world" with how we "confront this global pandemic."

To help LGBT communities globally, visit,, or

SF refugee story available to stream

"From Baghdad to the Bay," gay Iraqi Ghazwan Alsharif's journey from Iraq to resettling in San Francisco, is streaming for audiences to enjoy at home.

The film will be available on Vimeo on a sliding scale basis until April 20, according to a release from the documentary's award-winning independent filmmaker, Erin Palmquist.

For more information, visit

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp: 415-517-7239, or Skype: heather.cassell, or [email protected]