COVID-19 amplifying inequalities for transgender people

This International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, we must break our silence, and call for greater inclusion of LGBTI people in COVID-19-related social protection measures

May 15, 2020

The 17th of May is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, a worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities. This year’s theme is ‘Breaking the Silence’. Photo by Daniel James/Unsplash.

As the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold, countries around Asia and the Pacific began locking down. The roll-out of COVID-19 measures and the realization of imminent massive economic shocks have brought uncertainty and a range of challenges that are being felt especially hard by certain vulnerable groups in society. 

With any disaster, ‘othering’ often follows swiftly behind. COVID-19 has amplified existing societal fissures, including growing threats and stigma and discrimination that is pushing minorities and other vulnerable groups such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people to the margins of society. 

The outlook is particularly stark for transgender people. Concerns are mounting for their ability to access food, shelter, health care and other basic necessities.

According to the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz: “Those who already faced discrimination in accessing the health sector will only see existing barriers worsen” and “isolation may impose greater challenges upon those who carry out sex work and other types of informal work, as well as refugees, asylum seekers and other persons on the move.”

Ostracized by their families and unable to access formal employment due to their gender identity and/or expression, transgender people often live in urban, communal or crowded spaces. Their access to social safety nets is very limited. Many face discrimination and violence from landlords or surrounding communities. They may not have access to safe shelters or adequate sanitation facilities during the lockdowns, compounding the risk of contracting the virus.

Throughout the region, transgender people often earn their incomes through the informal sector or irregular work. They are now facing a particular risk of long-lasting financial impact of the lockdown, with no or limited access to social protection. Some are now homeless and without any income. 

People found violating emergency decrees are liable to new fines and increased jail times. This is even more punitive given the already limited earning potential of many transgender people. 

Many transgender people either do not qualify for their respective government COVID-19 response benefits or they are too afraid to apply. Barriers to access these benefits include needing documented income, filing taxes and legal gender recognition or government identification.

One transgender person we recently spoke to in Bangkok gave an example of their challenges: “After food and water was distributed by NGOs (to transgender sex workers), the next day the police showed up to monitor us and even arrested some of us. Those arrested were required to pay a fine for soliciting sex. The police come often to make arrests when many of the sex workers are working. But in this case, we were only there to receive food and water.”

In Thailand, UNDP is beginning work with four organizations – Sisters Foundation, Empower Foundation, SWING Thailand and Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand – to support the livelihoods and strengthen the resilience of LGBTI people who are sex workers in several provinces. The interventions will directly provide them with provisions for basic needs, such as food and water, as well as personal protective equipment for COVID-19 and aid to cover the costs of COVID-19 testing.

These efforts aim to make an immediate impact on the lives of LGBTI sex workers who are being affected by the closure of businesses and other establishments in the country.

Transgender people, and other sexual minorities, must be able to access financial aid and other measures to help them survive the pandemic. As we move forward with the opportunity of building a better society after COVID-19, efforts must be focused on creating more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies. We must work with governments to ensure that social protection measures, such as social security and universal health insurance schemes, don’t leave anyone behind.