Life in the pandemic for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT+) people in Scotland

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This guest blog was written by Professor Yvette Taylor of the University of Strathclyde, as part of a Fellowship exploring ‘The intersectional impact of COVID-19 on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT+) people in Scotland’ with the Scottish Parliament Information Centre. Yvette researches and teaches on intersecting social inequalities. She is part of a large EU funded project ‘Comparing Intersectional Lifecourse Inequalities among LGBTQI+ Citizens in 4 European Countries’, including Scotland.

The analysis and conclusions are made by the author. As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or the Scottish Parliament.

What have been the challenges arising from the pandemic for LGBT+ people in Scotland?

The COVID-19 crisis has had a big impact on LGBT+ community and individuals. The United Nations report ‘COVID-19 and the human rights of LGBT people’ highlights reduced and delayed access to medical services, discrimination and stigmatisation, unsafe living environments, and negative financial and employment impacts. Across international contexts, studies point to harms related to health and well-being, discrimination, and community or social loss.

In Scotland, the Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) Campaign notes the increasing time young people (13-24 yrs.) are spending online, with reported upsurges in homophobia and transphobia.  Negative impacts range from digital exclusion, harassment and exhaustion, to increased stigmatisation, curtailment of physical and sexual intimacy, and a ‘re-closeting’ as LGBT+ people conceal their sexual identities and gender expressions. That said, LGBT Youth Scotland (2020) emphasises some positives in creating ‘digital youth work’ to help young people feel less isolated and more supported.

So, what have been some of the big impacts of COVID-19 on LGBT+ people in Scotland? My research, which involved talking to a diverse group of 60 LGBT+ people, highlights challenges and changes intersecting with, for example, socio-economic status, age, disability, ethnicity and gender: 

  1. Re-visiting and re-opening ‘old wounds’, such as the discrimination experienced during the HIV/AIDS crisis and on-going social stigma.

I hope this last year has acted as a reminder to the mainstream that a life lived with conditions and restriction and fear is not fun. And that LGBTQI+ people might have been aware of this for quite a long time.

(Respondent 1)

  1. A fear of how the pandemic will affect the progress, and the resourcing, of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues.

I look forward to the resumption of progress on the GRA (Gender Recognition Act) in Scotland.

(Respondent 2)

All in all, massive progress has been made; but I hope the pandemic shows that we can do, and I would say should do, more to achieve equality. Is this too much to ask? … Please, once this is all said and done, return some focus to the massive issues of inequality that the pandemic has thrown up.

(Respondent 3)
  1. LGBT+ people are often full and active members of their communities, neighbourhoods, workplaces and families.  Some LGBT+ organisations have been lifelines for health and wellbeing.
  1. LGBT+ people across all age groups can become digitally invested and disinvested. LGBT+ youth and elders gave specific examples of meaningful online spaces, particularly relevant to those in more rural communities. Questions of ‘digital divides’ could usefully consider the quantity as well as quality of access, provision and knowledge/skills.
  1. For some, the LGBT+ community has previously been associated with specific formalised spaces and networks. Many respondents discussed the cancellation of annual Pride events, feeling a loss not only of physical and community space, but also of political and symbolic space.

I’ve been thankful during this time for online connections – voice notes on Facebook Messenger, Zoom calls, Thursday evening post-Drag Race catch ups being the most exciting and grounding activity to make us feel like there’s something going on in our lives. One of the most fun nights since March 2020 was a virtual birthday party with a playlist that would envy most queer bars.

(Respondent 4)

Hopefully we’ll finally get to go to a pride together by the end of this year!

(Respondent 5)
  1. LGBT+ people often do not feel confident in health and social care settings and often have specific concerns about ill health and end-of life decisions.  
  1. LGBT+ intimacy can already sit outside social expectations and traditional families and relationships. Many spoke of feeling pressure in terms of socially distancing and negotiating new conditions, including domestic arrangements and intimacy.

… government enforced monogamy with individuals who live in our own assigned zones – such a strange concept! Who knows what a possible reconnection will look like at the other side of this.

(Respondent 7)
  1. Many spoke about what ‘safe space’ means for LGBT+ people in times of pandemic, and how rules and regulations might be mobilised to justify or enact hostilities and/or unconscious bias. For example, one couple, who described themselves as an inter-racial queer, lesbian couple spoke of being asked in service and public encounters if they were ‘one household’ and suggested these questions would not be asked of heterosexually presenting couples.

What does this research tell us?

There are no simple answers.  Within the LGBT+ community there are a range of different needs and concerns, intersecting with socio-economic status, disability, age, ethnicity and gender. These intersectional positions can in turn impact on opportunities, choices, degrees of support, connectedness to community, family estrangement and sense of safety.

Equality legislation, which formally recognises ‘protected characteristics’, may not be felt in everyday experiences and encounters. Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI)  efforts, policies and provisions need to be sustained to counter the weight of historical and contemporary injustice. Listening to LGBT+ lived experience can complicate and texture the simple story of risk and victimhood, where LGBT+ perspectives can also offer learning opportunities, examples of resilience and stories of survival. 

Moving forward, it is important to include diverse LGBT+ voices within Covid-19 recovery plans. Much has been learned and provided in this time, including creative LGBT+ community responses, online Pride events and Mutual Aid schemes. These ad-hoc emergency provisions come with questions around access and sustainability, with more research needed in thinking through long-term investment. The context of NHS backlogs and catch-up, raises questions about priority and supports, with LGBT+ people often feeling at the back of the queue.

More generally, there is an opportunity to reconsider what inclusive ‘safe space?’ could be, where people have felt more subject to surveillance in public and private spaces. Everyday spaces, including in the street, online and at home, are often not taken-for-granted as safe for LGBT+ people and efforts to highlight the unacceptability of homophobia and transphobia should be sustained. Discussions of LGBT+ inclusion beyond schools, and across age-ranges, might ensure that questions of intimacy and relationships extend beyond compulsory sex education. As we return to normal, we may need to think hard about what constitutes a normal life, where LGBT+ people often still feel on the outside of this.

A full briefing report from the fellowship will be published soon.

Yvette Taylor, School of Education, University of Strathclyde.