As I noted in my last blog, “Is This Our First Chance to Get It Right?”, the LGBTQ community did a good job of caring for one another and for collectively fighting for rights during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States. Yet, this fight often further marginalized some of the most vulnerable members of the community and others who were also affected by HIV, such as LGBTQ people of color, transwomen, and intravenous drug users. My point here is not to tell the history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. but rather to think about how a national crisis, health crisis, etc. gives us an opportunity to see ourselves clearly and to examine what it is we are doing and how we can change.
When social inequalities exist before a crisis hits, much of the reaction to the crisis will reproduce those inequalities. This reproduction occurs because the policies and procedures used to respond are formed in institutions which structure society and are shaped by ideologies.
The most vulnerable among us are often made invisible in society. Those of us with privilege (and power) do not automatically encounter the most vulnerable because the structure hides and justifies the inequalities. In the U.S. we are often taught the American Dream which claims that anyone who is willing to work hard can make it in the U.S. and can indeed achieve extreme wealth. Folks like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are held up as modern-day examples of the American Dream coming true. If it were really all down to hard work, though, we would see farm workers who pick most of our fruit and vegetables in the U.S. living in mansions because tending, weeding, and picking hundreds of bushels a day while hunched over in the blazing sun has to be one of the most strenuous types of work. Or we would see public school teachers who labor 60+ hours a week during the school year and log uncounted hours in the summer make more in a year than what one professional basketball player makes while sitting on the bench for one game.
All of this is to say, we sometimes have to purposefully look for those who are the most vulnerable among us. And, then we need to ask why are they the most vulnerable? In other words, what structural policies are in place (supported by ideologies, like the American Dream, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) that make access to society’s resources (schooling, housing, medical care, jobs, etc.) easier for some and more difficult for others.
As we read the news regarding COVID-19, we can see how some social groups are disproportionately being affected by the virus. For instance, the Navajo (in New Mexico and Arizona), African Americans, Latinos, and the elderly. Some might say in regard to the elderly, “Well, they are more vulnerable because of age; their immune systems are weaker.” Yet, as a social scientist, I suggest we look outside of the individual and see what social forces exist that mold the various conditions which the elderly, the Navajo, African Americans, Latinos have to face. The pandemic then exacerbates these conditions and lays bare the inequalities—if we dare examine them and ourselves.
In sociological terms, we have a maldistribution of society’s resources and furthermore, the pathways to obtain those resources are not equally accessible by everyone. Ideologies, like the American Dream, racism, sexism, etc., justify the inequalities and make them appear as a natural consequence of our own effort or lack thereof. Furthermore, if we are some of those with resources the ideology and social system not only makes it easier for us to obtain more but also our confidence in the system can be reinforced. We then may not simply come to expect this access and quantity, we may likewise use our ‘success’ as a measure of others never seeing how the system helped us.
So, what does this mean during the COVID-19 crisis? Without a doubt we need to examine policies and procedures AND our ideologies. In the following couple of blogs I will address disaster capitalism and our values as examples before moving onto the topic of love and not taking ourselves too seriously.
Below I have posted a piece that I wrote for another outlet regarding one vulnerable group that has not been discussed in the news. It’s a bit more heady, but I hope you’ll read it.
LGBTQ+ Youth: Some of the Most Vulnerable Among Us
On March 22, 2020 Animal Politico reported that 15 LGBTQ+ young people in Mexico were kicked out of their homes in the last 10 days (Arteta 2020). Eleven days earlier, 100 U.S. LGBTQ+ organizations released an open letter to the media “outlining how COVID-19 may pose an increased risk to the LGBTQ+ population and laying out specific steps to minimize any disparity” (National LGBT Cancer Network 2020). Absent in this letter is the added risk that LGBTQ+ youth face during the COVID-19 crisis. With the shelter in place order, LGBTQ+ youth face extreme challenges not faced by other populations. Specifically, LGBTQ+ youth may either face expulsion from their homes because of lack of acceptance by family or lockdown in a home where they are not supported—or worse bullied, physically assaulted, or cut off from support systems. In recent decades around the globe, the LGBTQ+ community has experienced gains in civil rights from legalization of same-sex marriage, open participation in the military, and protection from targeted violence. Additionally, schools across the U.S. have implemented anti-bullying campaigns and adopted inclusive actions. However, LGBTQ+ folks still encounter inequalities that not only persist during the COVID-19 pandemic but that may be amplified–putting the most vulnerable members of the community at increased risk.
In the United States, LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately represented among homeless youth. LGBTQ+ “youth comprise approximately 5% to 8% of the U.S. youth population but comprise at least 40% of the population of youth experiencing homelessness” (Robinson 2018: 383). LGBTQ+ homeless youth self-report parental disapproval as a significant reason for their homelessness (Robinson 2018, Ryan et al 2010, Asakura 2016). Conversely, family acceptance is also linked to higher rates of self-esteem and lower rates of suicide and substance abuse in LGBTQ+ young adults (Ohio University 2018, Ryan et al 2010, Asakura 2016, Nash et al 2016). For transgender youth specifically, “lower acceptance and higher indifference [are] significantly related to negative psychosocial outcomes” (Pariseau et al 2019: 274). The Human Rights Campaign reports that in a survey of 10,000 LGBTQ+ youth, 56% state they are out to their families. Yet, these LGBTQ+ youth identified non-accepting families as their primary problem. 33% stated that their family was not accepting and almost half said their family was the place “where they most often hear negative messages about being LGBT” (Human Rights Campaign 2012).
During this pandemic, we must assure this vulnerable population among us remains safe and healthy, and can continue to thrive beyond this current crisis.
Asakura (2016) outlines how LGBTQ+ youth have been able to build resilience or the ability to overcome or cope “more effectively with social marginalization and exclusion” (1). Particularly telling in Asakura’s research are the number of youth that experience “emotional pain inflicted by external adversities that routinely target LGBTQ youth, such as family rejection, violence and erasure of LGBTQ identities” (2016: 6). Among the key components for resiliency are involvement in safer spaces, meaningful relationships, and collective healing and action. Resiliency does not reside within a person but rather depends on resources that support LGBTQ+ youth. Moreover, there is a great cost to LGBTQ+ youth who must shoulder the burden of external adversities alone. Social integration and acceptance continue to be key components to societal members’ well-being (Durkheim  1997).
How can social support and resources to build integration and resiliency be mobilized for LGBTQ+ youth during a shelter in place order?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ+ youth utilized online resources to find answers to their questions about sexual and gender identities, to connect with other LGBTQ+ youth, and to participate in supportive social media. In comparison to non-LGBTQ+ youth, LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to site online friends as providing support (Ybarra et al 2015). According to The Human Rights Campaign, 73% “of LGBT youth say they are more honest about themselves online than in the real world” (Human Rights Campaign 2012). Online resources have allowed LGBTQ+ youth to find acceptance and to participate in a virtual community (Nash et al 2015; Ybarra et al 2015). Virtual campaigns, such as “It Gets Better Global,” use YouTube as a means to deliver positive messages for LGBTQ+ youth. Correspondingly, many of the in-face opportunities for the larger LGBTQ+ community to celebrate together have turned to digital options: “the world’s biggest international Pride networks, Interpride and the European Pride Organisers Association, are organizing a “Global Pride” to be celebrated online on June 27” (Haynes 2020). This online alternative offers a wider array of folks the ability to participate, potentially including LGBTQ+ youth. Also, school and community LGBTQ+ youth groups could continue to meet virtually.
Yet, is the online option a panacea?
In one sense, it is clear that the online LGBTQ+ community offers respite and support for LGBTQ+ youth. However, we must ask ourselves—which LGBTQ+ youth? If we are speaking of the U.S. where 95% of teens “report they have a smartphone or access to one” (Anderson and Jiang 2018) and whose usage is not heavily moderated by adults in their home—though 61% of U.S. parents say they have monitored their children’s websites (Anderson 2016)—then perhaps the online community during the COVID-19 pandemic gives support and bolsters resiliency. Yet, if we are speaking globally, where 29% of youth do not have online access (UNICEF 2017), then relying on online resources is not sufficient. Furthermore, we know that online validation does not replace in person support in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth (Ybarra et al 2015, Nash et al 2015).
As social scientists we must continue to study the lives of LGBTQ+ youth; specifically, we must understand how this vulnerable population is affected by the shelter in place mandate and learn how to mitigate these risks in the future. Also, we can “share the burden carried by these youth” (Asakura 2016: 13). Besides ensuring that LGBTQ+ civil rights are protected during this crisis and that LGBTQ+ centers and hotlines are fully-funded, we can personally reach out to at least one LGBTQ+ youth in our lives and be their support.
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Arteta, Itxaro. 2020. “ONG detecta mayor expulsion de jóvenes LGBT+ de sus casas en contingencia por
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