This article first appeared on the World Economic Forum Agenda,
and was co-authored by UN Envoy on Youth Jayathma Wickramanayake and ILGA World Youth Steering Committee.
We republish it in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License.
Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash
For young lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and gender-diverse (LGBTIQ) people, this is an important time to feel less isolated, see more representation and support, and sometimes even to come out. However, not only has COVID-19 cancelled most of the celebrations, measures to combat the pandemic have also created an environment where their rights are further being violated.
Young queer people rely on safe and inclusive youth LGBTIQ centres, groups and specialist support services that affirm their identities, where they can be their true selves, relate to others, and learn and socialize in a safe, non-judgemental space and environment.
But despite being an essential service, a large part of LGBTIQ youth organizations and networks across the world are voluntarily led, operating with minimum to no finances. Some of them have successfully moved into digital spaces after COVID-19, but many others have had to close down, leaving a large number of young queer people without any support. In contrast to the popular myth that all youth are digitally connected, many young LGBTIQ people have no access to the internet and are digitally excluded. For others, online platforms are not safe spaces to be: This is where they can face abuse, harassment or get outed. Being on online platforms can also be a triggering experience and reminder of past trauma.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand and need for support services has increased. For many young queer people, lockdown has equalled being trapped in hostile environments with abusive families and partners, with no help at hand. A survey on LGBTIQ adolescents and youth in south-east and east Asia, for example, showed that 62% of respondents were concerned about their mental health during the pandemic. As 65.4% of respondents were still living at home with parents, one of the most pressing concerns was to have their identities disclosed, with no peer support available.
We have seen an increase in violence – particularly targeting young trans women, young gender-diverse people of colour, and young LGBTIQ migrants and refugees, who often cannot access neither mainstream service provision nor specialist support. Homelessness and unemployment are disproportionately affecting queer youth, leaving many without access to basic needs such as food and shelter. With increased demand but limited access, LGBTIQ young people who are struggling with poor mental health are left with no support.
Last year during the Nairobi Summit on the International Conference on Population and Development, we saw a strong call to focus on the distinct needs and rights of LGBTIQ youth. However, it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated their challenges and silenced them further. Why does the world tend to forget the most marginalized when crises occur?
Isolation is not new to many queer youth: Many grow up experiencing it and living in it. However, the pandemic has caused additional barriers and discrimination, and has driven LGBTIQ youth issues further into the shadows. The pandemic supercharged already existing inequalities, and provided a perfect storm for increased hateful rhetoric and new regressive policies around the world.
We are worried by the recent dangerously regressive rhetoric and trend of removing legal recognition and protections, of trans youth especially.
To name some of the most recent cases, a new bill in Hungary – advanced and signed into law during the COVID-19 pandemic – made legal recognition impossible. In India, many trans people saw their livelihoods increasingly at risk, while being targeted in a malicious campaign accusing them of spreading the virus. Stakeholders need to protect LGBTIQ youth rights, bodies and lives, not introduce new harmful practices in times of crisis.
Sidelined and ignored despite their repeated calls to be included in decision-making fora, youth queer activists around the world have nevertheless stepped up to lead. They provide vital peer and crisis support for communities that their governments have largely disregarded. In Argentina, young people are raising funds to buy and distribute food and supplies to LGBTIQ people in need. A young activist from Togo is co-chairing the umbrella LGBTI network for Africa, Pan Africa ILGA, which puts together conferences and supports grassroots queer activists and organizations across the region. In Kiribati, a youth organization has concluded a one-year project offering practical tips on inclusive education to people who work in social services, health, education and sport, by using examples and campaigns developed in the Asia-Pacific region.
Moving forward, we need to invest more into LGBTIQ youth services and spaces. Not only are they essential, but often the only life-saving support young queer people can get when forced into hostile environments. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that queer youth voices are not only included, but have an active part in the decision-making and conversations that will impact their lives. They need spaces and structures for them to work together and advocate their rights, both online and in person. Finally, the international community must hold governments accountable and insist on implementing measures that protect young people against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics.