A couple of weeks ago, I was walking through Newtown on my daily government-sanctioned exercise when I noticed something. Strung from a small block of apartments was a banner reading: “We’re all in this together Sydney.” Though it was a sweet sentiment, it felt eerily similar to the tokenism echoed by many mansion-ridden celebrities on social media. Despite the apartments not having private pools or stone columns, I felt a twinge of the same distaste seeing that sign in the Inner West, a queer paradise sitting on stolen Indigenous Gadigal land.
Many queer youth have made Newtown their home, drawn in by the supportive haven it offers. However, this, as well as its artistic and creative culture, has also drawn in a different and more financially stable crowd. The bitter reality is that well-off families and professionals are still able to afford the high rent throughout the COVID-19 crisis. But the people who are responsible for Newtown’s vibrance and diversity, the Indigenous people who hold sovereignty over this land and young queer people, are being disproportionately affected by the crisis. In a time where connection and community are needed most, this queer paradise is being threatened.
There are many social factors that put queer people, particularly queer people of colour, at a higher risk of extreme hardship during isolation and quarantine. Queer people already face higher rates of homelessness, unemployment, health inequalities and estrangement from their parents compared to the general population; all of which are likely to worsen during the course of the shutdown.
The same structures of oppression that existed before COVID-19 do not magically disappear. These structures continue to make people who are marginalised and from low socioeconomic backgrounds more vulnerable. This ensures that these are the people suffering the most from this pandemic.
Down the road from that well-intentioned sign is a half-empty share house with rainbow flags hanging from the windows. According to the National LGBTI Health Alliance, 51% of LGBTQIA+ young people including 71% of young gender diverse people between the ages of 14-21 do not live at home with family. With job cuts predominantly affecting young people who work part-time and casually, they are one of the groups under the most financial pressure right now.
With the dramatically increased rates of youth unemployment under COVID-19, many young people are being forced to move back in with parents in order to avoid homelessness. For many, this is a frustrating but manageable option; but for others moving back home can be dangerous.
Many young queer people are now being forced to choose between two equally bad options. They can either live somewhere safe and supportive but with an increased financial burden and risk of homelessness, or lose all access to safety for months in order to not bankrupt themselves. For the queer students moving back home, the sense of freedom and safety promised by suburbs like Newtown, or by virtue of living with people they choose, is now being stripped from them.
Those who are still closeted or not accepted at home are now completely on their own. Financial independence, support structures, and health services are out of reach because for many queer people their isolation is absolute. For many, safer spaces like Newtown were their only opportunity to access healthcare, given that queer people were already less likely to seek it out often due to fear and previous trauma. These spaces are especially important now as many would feel uncomfortable getting coronavirus testing elsewhere.
Considering that queer people already had disproportionately higher rates of disability, substance abuse, cancer, and HIV infection before the global pandemic, moving away from their usual queer friendly practioners can lead to poorer health outcomes. In effect, it condemns queer people to the possibility of worsened health conditions during a crisis caused by a virus that can be deadly to those with pre-existing health conditions.
With this necessary isolation comes a constant state of fear, potential physical danger, and emotional stress. Those who have to return to the closet to move back home are now forced to hide under constant surveillance. Sadly, this means many must pack up any queer memorabilia or clothing. Contact with the queer community has all but disappeared when Zoom calls with queer friends means whispering behind the backs of queerphobic or unaware family members. But it is not just social support structures that are being uprooted by quarantine; professional support is also affected. Many queer people are in situations where they are not able to talk to their therapists on the phone for fear that their new housemates might overhear. Additionally, some trans and gender diverse people have to access important lifesaving hormones in secret.
Exposure to any of these scenarios is likely to have a negative impact on mental health. Young queer people have some of the highest rates of depression and anxiety in the country, and the pandemic disproportionately harms them.
For those who cannot move back home, there are many more issues to be faced. Trans people face higher levels of abuse than other members of the queer community, and finding safe employment and housing was already difficult before the pandemic. Now, with an increased national reliance on government welfare, trans people attempting to navigate the application process are at risk of being misgendered and dead-named. The legal process to change their names is too arduous and some would not be allowed to change their gender on their birth certificates without surgery. Nevertheless, the process to change gender with Services Australia, including Medicare and Centrelink, only requires a statement from a doctor or psychologist; however, non-binary genders aren’t recorded.
Along with these barriers, people under 22 are also further disadvantaged as they are normally classified as ‘dependent’ on their parents for Centrelink, making access to welfare harder if they are socially estranged from family. Although there are exceptions for situations where it is “unreasonable to live at home,” the onus of proof remains on the person.
It is undeniable that the queer community is being hit hard by social isolation. For many, leaving high school and being able to attend university is a massive opportunity to explore facets of themselves that they previously could not have. It is a time when many students can comfortably explore their sexuality for the first time. Some are finally safe to come out, and it is often one of the first times young queer people can meet others who have similar experiences.
While the internet is a fantastic resource for queer education, it is used in tandem with in-person interactions and experiences where queer people are provided the best opportunity to flourish. In lockdown, first year queer students are being denied these formative experiences including Birdcage and other quintessential queer social events.These safe spaces are being forced to close their doors just as the gaybies were filling in their eyebrows or putting on their first binder. Being around other queer people is so important for many young queer people that even though not being able to go to parties is not the end of the world, being shut out of all queer social interactions is devastating.
Overall, the pandemic has clearly affected the large majority of people. However, to say that everyone is in the same boat is an oversimplification. The people hit the hardest by financial and emotional instability during COVID-19 are those who were already facing insecurity and health inequalities. Sending a message of support can be great but only if we remember that some people are having a much harder time. Until we acknowledge this and work to combat all the different inequalities people face, remember, we are not all in this together.