Data gap complicates efforts to aid LGBTQ community during COVID-19

State and local health leaders have used data to guide critical decisions on battling the coronavirus, reopening the economy and learning how the virus disproportionately impacts people of color.

But when it comes to examining how the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community has fared during the pandemic, there are no numbers to analyze, said Maribel Martinez, director of the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

“That’s a huge data gap we have right now around COVID-19; we don’t know to what degree, if any, it’s impacting LGBTQ folks more or less, and how they are reaching resources,” Martinez told San José Spotlight. “We can create some contextual information … and we know just off of that, that anytime there’s an economic impact, it’s going to compound the inequities that folks feel already.”

That context comes in part from national studies from the UCLA Williams Institute and the Human Rights Campaign, which have highlighted challenges the LGBTQ community faced before the pandemic, including higher rates of poverty, respiratory issues and homelessness – all added risk factors for COVID-19. The top five industries LGBTQ adults work in are heavily impacted, studies show, affecting more than 5 million workers, while 40 percent of homeless youths identify as LGBTQ.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, has authored legislation to require anonymous, self-reported data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity for people diagnosed with COVID-19. The bill is working its way through the Legislature after clearing the Senate Health Committee last week.

For now, Martinez said contextual assumptions — in addition to community surveys and partnerships — have guided efforts to expand patient coverage, as well as publishing a FAQ webpage for LGBTQ-focused coronavirus resources. But until local, standardized questions are asked, health officials are in the dark about how the deadly virus affects the LGBTQ community.

Santa Clara County has a head start in identifying at-risk residents and looking at data after former county Supervisor Ken Yeager pushed for a Status of LGBTQ Health report in 2013 while board president.

“There’s so few studies done that if we wanted to at least get more resources for LGBTQ services, that we had to have some data … rather than just saying, ‘Take our word for it,’” said Yeager, who became Santa Clara County’s first openly gay elected official in 1992. “We have an obligation to provide everyone the best health care that we can and to understand the underlying conditions that are affecting people.”

The creation of the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs was an outcome of that report.

“LGBTQ people of any age are still under a tremendous amount of stress,” Yeager said. “In some ways, things are better, but in some senses they’re exactly the same, and it was just good to get more of that information.”

Creating community during a lonely time

Santa Clara County resident Cheryl Lander isn’t waiting for numbers to pour in about who’s been impacted by the pandemic. She stays in touch with the LGBTQ community through a resource group for LGBTQ+ employees at Oracle.

She considers herself lucky to have that built-in work community, but questions how others are coping and surviving — especially amid shelter-at-home orders.

“What I’m seeing is loneliness is a big issue,” Lander said. “I think we’re all drinking more, while I know quite a few that are in recovery. And the people who are lonely, some of them reach out, but others just spiral down. I worry about suicide and substance abuse in our community.”

People are seeking solace through Zoom happy hours, Instagram Live shows and Netflix watch parties, but the feeling of community for LGBTQ residents goes beyond a cure for boredom and need for attention, Lander said. Physical spaces offer a place of safety for individuals to be who they are, including younger people who may not find acceptance at home.

“There’s ways to have access to the LGBTQ community still, but let’s face it, it’s not the same,” said Lander, pointing to a recent example of watching her favorite lesbian comedian from home instead of a venue surrounded by others. “(My wife and I) both bawled our eyes out, because it was kind of a little taste of what it is to be part of that community that we’re not going to have for a long time.”

South Bay leaders like Gabrielle Antolovich, president of the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center, have tried to keep the community engaged while keeping the lights on.

Working from the now-empty building, she’s providing updates for her nearly 3,000 Facebook friends and 6,000 newsletter subscribers, while working to replace lost income to the organization from donations, fundraising events and space rentals.

“We’re the only minority rejected by our families, so being with each other is more important. We’re fighting to keep the center available for others,” said Antolovich, adding that San Jose only has a handful of directly gay-friendly spaces. “We’re confident the community wants us to be here, because we have provided a safe haven here.”

The Billy DeFrank building was recently tagged with “first home.” Antolovich said people realize the importance of the center more now that they’re stuck at home.

“I sometimes feel like I’m a dog or cat waiting for a family to come home, but they’re not coming home,” Antolovich said. “When you isolate from a community that nurtures you, it brings a depression. Being at (the Billy DeFrank Center), it’s actually nurturing me — I’m fully me, fully safe and valued.”

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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