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How the pandemic has complicated life for LGBT communities

“The pandemic has restricted movement and, by extension, community with chosen family. The absence of this means exposure to distress with little support,” says Aanu Jide-Ojo, a clinical psychologist working with the LGBT community in Nigeria.

Nigeria is one of 32 African countries that continue to uphold anti-gay laws which foment the violence and unfair discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people continue to endure. Even in countries like South Africa where homosexuality is legal, constitutional protection hasn’t wiped out queerphobia. This means LGBT folks in such countries still face some of the challenges those in countries criminalising homosexuality contend with. It’s no surprise then that LGBT folks are susceptible to mental health problems.

A study published in the European Journal of Public Health showed that the levels of depression, anxiety, suicidality (includes both suicidal ideation and actual suicide attempts), and substance use among LGBT people in Kenya and South Africa are higher than among the general population in these countries.

COVID-19 and the LGBT communities — Kenya and Zimbabwe

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the LGBT communities. The ongoing pandemic has only compounded the challenges LGBT folks already face. In Kenya, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) has reported recording up to 10 attacks per month that are perpetrated against members of their community. 

Gender-based violence has been on the rise and the LGBT community isn’t being spared by a society that frowns upon homosexuality. In Zimbabwe, *Grey recently fell victim to this gender-based violence. A few years ago, her mother found out about her sexual orientation after someone called to tell her that *Grey sleeps with women. Her aunt found out after *Grey attempted to kill herself in 2018. Even though they never talk about homosexuality or any of her relationships, Grey says her family has never said anything negative about it. While this has made being in lockdown with them bearable, this period has been a difficult one for *Grey.

“This lockdown has been traumatising. I was raped by my friend’s boyfriend because he wanted to turn me straight. I’m still recovering physically and emotionally. Some days are better because I have my family around. They make me laugh and make sure I have eaten.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the LGBT communities. File Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji from Pexels.

Zimbabwe’s anti-gay laws create a climate of intolerance that make it hard for people like *Grey to report queerphobic crimes. Societal and familial factors also make it hard for queer people to open up about the violence perpetrated against them as they also fear inadvertently outing themselves or being victim-blamed. Thankfully, LGBT organisations such as Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) and some LGBT-friendly organisations have resources that allow them to cater to queer people’s medical and mental health needs.  

*Grey, who was diagnosed with clinical depression a few years ago, is receiving counselling. The support and chatting with queer friends who empathise with what she’s going through, is helping her cope. On those days when she doesn’t feel like talking about her problems, *Grey likes to distract herself by playing games or designing architecture.

Mental effects of living in a closet during a pandemic

COVID-19 has exacerbated negative attitudes and practices prevalent before the pandemic and the most vulnerable and marginalised communities such as LGBT folks are the hardest hit by the pandemic. Since the pandemic started many LGBT people have been forced to move back into unsafe and often hostile domestic spaces. The pandemic has created a tricky situation for many, which has seen some LGBT people isolated and shunned, left without any support structures. Some queer people have had to pretend to be straight and hide their sexuality.

Distracting herself with work is how *Maureen has been faring during this pandemic. Like *Grey, she’s Zimbabwean and lives with her family who isn’t aware of her sexual orientation. “They’re against homosexuality and I’m scared to have them know I’m bisexual,” *Maureen, who’s finding the lockdown quite depressing, says.

File picture: Homosexuality is criminalised in many parts of Africa, and LGBTI people struggle to imagine a life of visibility and freedom.  Photo: lazyllama/Shutterstock

“I suffer from anxiety and depression. The phases come and go, but I’ve recently been really anxious about a lot of things. I’m literally on the edge almost all the time. But I understand myself more now and I try not to focus on it that much,” *Maureen tells This Is Africa.

*Maureen is supposed to be taking medication for her mental illness. But with the restricted movements, she’s been having a hard time accessing health facilities.

Owing to the lack of support many people are suffering in silence, and as a result loneliness, and isolation have become a reality and commonplace.

Challenges of living  with disapproving, queer-intolerant families

*Emma from Kenya told BBC that she lost her job as a chef due to the coronavirus. No longer able to make it on her own, she was forced to go back home to her parents who haven’t been accepting of her sexual orientation. This strained her mental health and she decided to seek therapy. Emma is one of several LGBT people in Kenya who are receiving online therapy sessions from a community-based organisation, Q-Initiative.

Accessing therapy is often a challenge for queer people. Some lack funds because they don’t come from financially privileged homes. Others have a hard time securing employment or other sources of income in a queerphobic environment. Organisations working with or for LGBT communities are aware of this reality. This is why they put measures in place to enable members to access much-needed mental healthcare services.

The demand for mental healthcare services for LGBT people is likely to keep increasing. File Photo by Team Maestroo from Pexels.

Free resources for LGBT communities: Medication and therapy services

Aanu Jide-Ojo who works at The Initiative for Equal Rights in Nigeria (TIERs) mentions this difficulty in accessing medication as one of the many challenges that LGBT people are currently facing. Other challenges include loss of physical community with other queer people, socio-economic consequences such as loss of jobs and livelihood, and consistent exposure to problematic family members with most escape options being reduced or taken away.

At TIERs, LGBT folks can access psychotherapy services free of charge as all costs are covered by the organisation. The services are also available virtually. One only needs a good internet connection.

“Organisations like International Centre for Advocacy on Right to Health (ICARH), One Actions Foundation also offer free therapy services,” the psychologist adds.

Psychologists working with queer people understand that some of their clients are locked in their homes with queer-intolerant families or relatives. This situation makes it hard for some of them to hold virtual therapy sessions. Luckily, Aanu says clients may let their psychologist know about this so the two are able to agree on a more private medium of communicating.

File photo of a Doctor advising a patient online during the pandemic. Photo credit: Unsplash.

While some queer people are able to have one-on-one conversations with counsellors, others are relying on mental health professionals who use their social media platforms to provide tips on how to take care of one’s mental health. Ola, a non-binary Nigerian, is one such person.

Having also taken part in the June protests against rape in Nigeria, Ola says this worsened their depression. Besides taking advantage of the online mental health platforms, Ola has been minimising exposure to news that may trigger a depressive episode or panic attacks. They also say cutting off queerphobic friends and relatives has been helping them cope during this tumultuous period.

A psychologist’s advice to LGBT people on how to safeguard their mental health

*Grey, *Maureen, and Ola have figured out ways to help themselves get through this global health crisis. Aanu shared a few other ways LGBT people can safeguard their mental health.

“Focus on activities within your control. Take up behavioural activation skills such as taking walks, doing breathing exercises, and so on. These activities help to regulate stress. They may help you navigate feelings of helplessness that come with the restrictions you currently live with.

Safely explore online communities that are opening up to queer people and connect with them.

Find ways to help other queer people. Times like this bring up questions like “What’s the point?” So when you extend a helping hand to others, this may instil a sense of hope for you and other queer people.”

LGBT folks have been affected by the pandemic, though to varying degrees. The demand for mental healthcare services is likely to keep increasing. This means it’s crucial that organisations working with queer people are able to continue offering the necessary support in order to make navigating this new normal more bearable.  

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the person.

The series is a creative storytelling collaboration between This is Africa and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).

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