Queer existence is resistance: Understanding the rising tide of COVID-related LGBTQIA+ discrimination as gender-based violence

December 8, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Oxfam’s Helen Wishart

What do LGBTQIA+ rights have to do with gender-based violence? Well, a lot actually. Think about it.

Patriarchal culture exists on the basis of an assumed gender binary that reinforces a power dynamic. Man/Woman: Man>Woman. Relationships between men and women are socially defined in relation to each other, reinforcing the binary through compulsory heterosexuality. The sex differences between males and females are used to justify a biologically determinist approach to gender roles in relationships and society, e.g. female = caregiver; male = strong. So what happens when a relationship is between two men? Or two women?

Anxious responses emerge from the heterosexuals! ‘But which one of you is the man/woman in the relationship?’ they are desperate to know. ‘Who wears the apron?’ ‘Who is on top?!’ Homosexual relationships can only be understood in heteronormative culture if they are seen to ‘perform’ heterosexuality and the gender binary by perceived appropriate adoption of ‘opposite’ gender roles.

Now think about the homophobic taunts we all heard growing up. What did people say about gay men? Typically, in our patriarchal culture, they are perceived to be feminine and not fulfilling ideals of (toxic) masculinity. Meanwhile, discriminatory stereotypes about lesbian women also play into a notion of failing to fulfil their gender roles as women; typecast as angry, hairy, and aggressive – not like ‘real’ women since they are not sexually available to men. Violence against gay and lesbian people is often meted out as a ‘punishment’ for transgressions of gender norms – so called ‘gay bashing’ and ‘corrective rape’.

Bisexual and pansexual people – who are open to relationships with people of all genders – obviously don’t really count because we don’t really exist. And yet in the meantime, biphobic tropes about sexual availability mean that bisexual people are more likely than people of any other sexuality to be victims of rape and sexual violence – and bisexual women in particular are five times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than heterosexual women. Not that it matters, because you can’t trust bisexual people anyway, and we’re all so promiscuous that we don’t need to give consent. And if bisexuality is not recognised as a ‘legitimate’ sexuality, how could you rape someone who doesn’t exist?  But – if you dare to assume for a moment that bisexual and pansexual people do exist – there is radical potential in embracing an outlook in which people of all genders are loved and accepted without privileging one over another. Little wonder then that patriarchal culture has a vested interest in maintaining bi erasure.

And what about transphobia? Transphobic responses emerge because the existence of trans people directly undermines the male/female sex binary that we are told must directly correspond to deeply enshrined cultural gender norms on which patriarchy is based ‒ and without which it falls apart. If we can’t know from the basis of birth sex who is a man and who is a woman (or neither), how can we know how the rest of their lives should be shaped from that point onwards? Who wears pink or blue?  Who gets dancing shoes and who plays football? Whose bodily autonomy should be limited by patriarchal norms and institutions? And who can wear a dress in public without fear of attack? By daring to refuse the gender binary even when it is dangerous to do so, trans people ‘are symbols of hope for many non-trans people, too, who see in our lives the possibility of living more fully and freely’. That this hope is a threat to patriarchy is evidenced by the shocking levels of violence towards trans people across the globe.

if you dare to assume for a moment that bisexual and pansexual people do exist – there is radical potential in embracing an outlook in which people of all genders are loved and accepted

While the numbers are hard to establish due to stigmatisation, according to one source, one in every two thousand babies are born intersex – they  have both male and female physical sex characteristics; but since their existence is inconvenient fact to those that insist that there are only two sexes, they are marginalised through total erasure in public consciousness. Further, many intersex people are subjected to invasive and non-consensual surgery as children – which can cause lifelong pain, infertility, incontinence and psychological suffering – in order to fit what is socially acceptable for a ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ to look like.

Taking all of this into account, we can understand ‘queerphobia’, i.e. discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people, to be a form of gender-based violence. LGBTQIA+ people are oppressed because our existence is a threat to patriarchy, and that oppression is part of the same toxic ideology that is held against heterosexual and cisgender women who refuse to conform to patriarchal gender norms.

To give an intersectional perspective on the 16 Days of Action on Gender-Based Violence, let’s look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed LGBTQIA+ people further into poverty, and therefore into situations in which they are more at risk of violence.

Due to discrimination in accessing employment, LGBTQIA+ people are more likely to work in the informal sector – meaning they have lower job security,  labour rights, and pay, and therefore will find it harder to make savings for crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. LGBTQIA+ People of Colour experience further, intersectional discrimination. In the US, The Human Rights Campaign found that 38% of LGBTQIA People of Colour have had their work hours reduced, compared to 29% of white LGBTQIA+ people, and 24% of the general population.

For many queer people, this financial insecurity forced them to move back into family homes during the lockdown, socially isolating them from their LGBTQIA+ communities and safe spaces. For those whose families are LGBTQIA+phobic, this meant being forced into the path of domestic intra-family violence because of their queer identity.

Domestic violence against women and girls has rightly been described as a ‘shadow pandemic’. Data from 10 countries shows calls to domestic violence or GBV helplines increased by 25 to 111% in the first months of the pandemic. Often missed from the statistics, though, are LGBTQIA+ people, who are more likely to experience domestic abuse in general, but have been pushed into more precarious situations during the pandemic;  the specialist organisation LGBT Foundation has received a 30% increase in calls to its domestic abuse helpline. Queer people with disabilities are at higher risk and are more likely to have felt threatened or experienced abuse at home than non-disabled queer people.

So what happens to those victims of abuse? Many people who flee violence end up on the streets. LGBTQIA+ people are already more likely to be forced into homelessness; in the UK, queer people make up just 7% of the population but 24% of homeless people. In 77% of cases homelessness is a result of family abuse or rejection. Homeless people are at heightened risk of violent abuse while living on the streets, but LGBTQIA+ people are particularly targeted, and are more likely to be victims of physical and verbal violence, or forced into survival sex. Trans people are more likely to experience abuse than other members of the LGBTQIA+ community. And of course, people living at the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination are also more likely to be affected; queer BIPOC people who are forced onto the streets are more likely again to experience abuse than queer white homeless people, and disabled LGBTQIA+ people are more likely to be forced into survival sex than non-disabled people.

our approach to activism against gender-based violence cannot leave queer people behind. We have an opportunity to strengthen our commitment to ending gender-based violence through committing in a meaningful way to LGBTQIA+ inclusion

Worse still, for the few who are lucky enough to get assistance, sheltered accommodation is not always a safe space – with anecdotal evidence of a queer person being forced to share accommodation with someone who had been released from prison on a charge of homophobic violence. Shelters may also not necessarily be ‘safe spaces’ for Black and People of Colour who can be subjected to racist abuse when seeking help. It is therefore not surprising that in the UK in 2021, less than half of LGBTQIA+ homeless people in the UK sought community support – and this statistic drops to just 17% of queer Black people and People of Colour.  There is only one grassroots LGBTQIA+ specialist shelter in the UK, and none at all in much of the rest of the world.

This is not just a UK poverty problem. Evidence emerging from around the world has shown how LGBTQIA+ people have been targeted under the cover of the pandemic. In Uganda, around twenty homeless young queer people were targeted by police, imprisoned and tortured. Meanwhile in Panama, police and private security officials discriminated against transgender people while enforcing a gender-based quarantine. In many countries, LGBTQIA+ people have actually been scapegoated as a cause of the pandemic, leaning on old discriminatory rhetoric of queer people as ‘vectors of disease.’ LGBTQIA+ refugees have also been pushed into further trauma and isolation.

All of this serves to show that our approach to activism against gender-based violence cannot leave queer people behind. We have an opportunity to strengthen our commitment to ending gender-based violence through committing in a meaningful way to LGBTQIA+ inclusion in our work. That inclusion requires investment, strategic partnerships,  an awareness of colonial legacies of discrimination, and making room for queer leadership in a space in which we have historically been excluded. 

The case I am making is not just that an intersectional approach to feminist action requires integration of LGBTQIA+ people and is the right thing to do; moreover, the reality is that a feminist movement that is not LGBTQIA+ inclusive will never truly be effective. Queer existence is resistance; it provides radical potential for rethinking what gender is and why it plays the role that it does in society. And that potential could give freedom to us all.

December 8, 2021
Duncan Green