‘You can’t cancel Pride’: the fight for LGBTQ+ rights amid the pandemic

This month, for the second year in a row, there will be no Pride parade in San Francisco, arguably the city most laden with history and symbolism for the LGBTQ+ community.

It is a decision Fred Lopez, who took over as executive director of San Francisco Pride at the beginning of last year describes as “heartbreaking”.

Critics have accused the organisation of “living in a state of fear”, he says, but the lingering uncertainty over the pandemic meant he had little choice. In the end, he says, it came down to ensuring that the event remained a safe space for everyone.

“Even one or two years of no parade doesn’t mean that there’s no Pride,” he says. “You can’t cancel Pride. The pride lives in all of our hearts. And we will absolutely return to parades and big festivals soon enough.”

The cancelling of San Francisco’s Pride parade is a move that has been replicated in other cities across the world. There will be no parade in Britain’s unofficial gay capital, Brighton, or in New York. In many cities, celebrations of the LGBTQ+ community will be toned down, often online, and, for the second year in a row, considerably less visible than usual.

Pride organisers have made these decisions amid a pandemic that has placed LGBTQ+ people and communities under unprecedented pressure, be that socio-economic, psychological or political.

In May 2020, a report by OutRight Action International, at the height of the first wave of Covid-19, warned that the LGBTQ+ community was likely to be disproportionately affected, particularly those living in countries where “stigma, discrimination, and criminalisation of same-sex relations or transgender identities prevail”.

“We were sounding the alarm and trying to prevent crisis,” says Jessica Stern, the executive director of OutRight Action International. She says many of the report’s grim predictions have come to pass. “Unfortunately, we were right to issue that warning,” she says.

Frank Mugisha, president of Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug), agrees with that assessment. Uganda is one of several countries where pre-existing prejudice has been emboldened and facilitated by new laws and restrictions to stop the spread of Covid. Life was already impossibly hard for LGBTQ+ people in the east African country, where gay sex is illegal and punishable by life imprisonment. But the pandemic has brought new troubles.

In March 2020, police detained 20 LGBT people on charges of disobeying rules on physical distancing and risking the spread of coronavirus. Mugisha says the action was “a clear case of discrimination” against the community – although this is denied by the police. Last month, 44 people, mostly gay men, were arrested at an LGBTQ+ shelter on the outskirts of Kampala and charged with engaging in activities likely to spread an infectious disease. They are due to stand trial in July.

“It’s another example of Covid laws being used to witch-hunt and harass the LGBT community,” says Mugisha.

When he heard of the arrests, Mugisha went to the police station where the 44 were being held. He says 17 of the group were subjected to rectal examinations. It was several days before they were released on bail.

Speaking to Reuters, a police spokesperson denied that the arrests were motivated by the sexuality of the people involved, or that any of them had been subjected to rectal examinations.

“It’s so exhausting,” says Mugisha, a veteran of the struggle for gay rights in Uganda. Mugisha was friends with David Kato, the co-founder of Smug who was murdered in 2011.

“Last week, when I spoke to the 44, I nearly broke down in the middle of the interview. I couldn’t go on any more after talking to a few of them, listening to the violations … and everything they went through when they were in police custody. It’s exhausting, but when I see that I am able to support people – for instance the same way I supported these 44 to get out of prison – I feel it is rewarding.”

Thousands of miles away, across the Arabian Sea, Aijaz Ahmad Bund is also trying to do his best for people who have had their lives stripped away. He cannot wait for the return of some semblance of normality so that the community he works with in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir can start to get back on its feet. “That is what I’m dreaming of,” he says, speaking via Zoom from his home in Srinagar.

Head of Sonzal Welfare Trust, a gay and transgender rights NGO, Aijaz works with some of the most marginalised people in this Muslim-majority region of India. He says these people were “already living invisible lives” before the pandemic. Jammu and Kashmir union territory, which was stripped of its semi-autonomous status in 2019, has been in some form of lockdown for the best part of two years.

The result has been disastrous for the LGBTQ+ community, says Aijaz. “The situation is very grim, because we had been able to create small safe spaces, but unfortunately, because of lockdown, people couldn’t access those spaces. We are seeing an increase in mental health issues because people are not able to vent their repressed feelings,” he says.

The impact on the trans community has been particularly harsh. They have lost not only their social interactions, says Aijaz, but also their livelihoods. Jammu and Kashmir is believed to be home to thousands of transgender people, according to the 2011 census, most of whom are unable to find work in the formal economy. In normal times many eke out a living through match-making and performing at marriage ceremonies. “Now they’re actually at the verge of starvation,” says Aijaz.

Khushi Mir can attest to that. A 19-year-old trans man, he wanted to work in physiotherapy and found a job at a clinic in order to support his family and his brother’s education. But, he says, he had to leave after a few months because of harassment from co-workers. “Some colleagues would make fun of me every day and it turned terrible after one of them started harassing me physically, touching my private parts,” says Mir, who continues to dress as a woman and use his birth name to avoid scrutiny.

With few options, Mir became a makeup artist, after training himself. His business had been growing until the military lockdown in 2019, followed last year by Covid restrictions. “Since then there is hardly any work,” says Mir. “It is frustrating.”

He has been able to get by, just, but is moved by the plight of others in the community. “They have hardly anyone to look after them,” he says. He has started an online campaign for local LGBTQ+ people and has raised money for more than 200 ration kits.

Around the world, the pandemic has driven many to poverty. But the situation has been even worse for some LGBTQ+ people who have often found themselves excluded from government help. Stern, whose organisation set up a Covid-19 emergency fund, says 60% of grant requests are for basic humanitarian needs.

Another barrier is the absence of recognition for same-sex partnerships. In the Philippines, which imposed one of the longest Covid lockdowns in the world, many families with same-sex parents have not received aid from the government because they are not recognised as families, says Dantón Remoto, a former university professor advocating for the rights of the Filipino LGBTQ+ community.

“They [village officials] are skipping the houses of lesbians and gays living together because they are not considered a household,” he says – even couples who have adopted children.

The pandemic has also forced LGBTQ+ people back into family homes marred by homophobia and stigma. “We’ve seen a precipitous drop in mental health,” says Stern, recalling one instance of a young man in St Lucia who had spoken to a local NGO while living with his homophobic family. “He was really depressed. And called them for support and [they asked him]: ‘Are you safe when you call; how are you calling?’ And he said: ‘Well, I take my phone, I go into a room and then I go into the closet and I close the door so that no one can hear me call you’.”

Matthieu Gatipon-Bachette is chair of Inter-LGBT, a French umbrella group for LGBT organisations, and head of an LGBTQ+ centre in Metz. He says the repeated lockdowns have affected young people’s mental health, particularly those forced to live with disapproving families. “This has done a lot of harm, harm in the immediate but also, in my opinion, long-term harm, which organisations are going to have to deal with.”

There are also fears for people’s physical health. In Brazil, researchers looking into the effects of Covid restrictions on the LGBTQ+ community’s sexual and mental health found a decrease in the number of people taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs, which reduce the risk of HIV transmission.

“Those who had difficulties taking it, they were at their parents’ house, or family home, and many of them hide the fact that they need PrEP, because talking about PrEP means talking about having a sexual life … so it’s very difficult, particularly because they’re young,” says Dulce Ferraz, a social psychologist at Université Lumière Lyon 2, one of the researchers who had been tracking PrEP use in about 2,000 people in several Brazilian cities before the pandemic.

A mental health crisis; a trampling of human rights; barriers to essential healthcare; poverty; stigma; exclusion – the litany of ills brought about by the pandemic is long. But amid the gloom there are chinks of light.

Gatipon-Bachette says his organisation has been able to reach far more people, particularly in rural France, than it did before it had to engage with users predominantly online. Stern believes online Pride events will mean that someone who may not have been able to attend a march in person will be able to log on and feel connected to a wider community.

There is no substitute, though, for the political impact of Pride at its loudest and boldest. As Stern says, “taking over the space, clearing the public space, refuting the idea that there’s just one way to be, and that way is heterosexual and cisgendered”. It is why, in Hungary, where activists are engaged in an increasingly bitter fight against Viktor Orbán’s government, a big Pride march will go ahead next month: the stakes are simply too high.

One day, Mugisha hopes such an event – celebratory and defiant – will return to the streets of Kampala. Some previous attempts have ended badly. Mugisha was one of about 20 people arrested in 2016 when police broke up a gay Pride event. This year, in this heightened climate of fear and stigma, with Covid continuing to spread, he says it is not worth the risk. “I think the government then would have a chance to … say we’re violating the Covid laws,” he says. “But we may find another way of doing it.”

Additional reporting by Aakash Hassan in Srinagar and Carmela Fonbuena in Manila.

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