Queer(y)ing Corona

Dr Peter Mathews, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

Dr Peter Matthews discusses the differing experiences of the coronavirus pandemic among LGBT people, in the latest COVID-19 bite-sized lecture.

Watch the lecture online or read the transcript below.

Hi, I’m Dr. Peter Matthews, a senior lecturer in social policy from the University of Stirling, and in this bite-sized lecture, I want to queer the Coronavirus and particularly the policy response to the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK and across the globe.

This lecture will contain issues that some people may find offensive or troubling, particularly discussions of sex, sexual identity, gender identity and domestic abuse and domestic violence.

On the 23rd of March, of course, Boris Johnson and the other leaders in the UK announced that we must all stay at home to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus and and protect us from catching the Coronavirus. It looks like, although it’s taken far longer than many of us hoped, it has worked in protecting us from this novel virus. But within that announcement that we must stay at home there were implicit assumptions: that the home was somewhere safe and that everyone also had a home to go to protect themselves from this pathogen.

But very rapidly, once the lockdown was announced, it was recognized that people aren’t necessarily safe at home. It was swiftly recognized that for many people, home was a risky place and there were increased risks of domestic abuse and domestic violence. This was revealed in the increased calls to domestic abuse and domestic violence, support services and research that has been carried out during the Coronavirus lockdown. The economic impact of the lockdown has led to many people having reduced incomes through the furlough scheme – the UK Government’s furlough scheme that only pays out 80 percent of people’s salaries – but also the threat of redundancy and also actual redundancies now coming through due to the economic slowdown.

This means that for many households, the threat of homelessness is there in their lives. Although outward policy announcements like the mortgage holiday and help for renters has prevented homelessness emerging, it’s very likely that homelessness will grow very rapidly once the lockdown eases and the policy response to the lockdown eases as well. Also, when we look at the data around where the key clusters of Coronavirus have occurred, we see that they are strongly linked to deprivation and urban deprivation, to poor quality housing and also overcrowded housing.

Right now, as I record this lecture, Leicester has gone back into lockdown and there is a suggestion that that is caused by overcrowding within the deprived inner city areas of Leicester, and these overcrowded areas led to a quicker spread of the pathogen. So, we can immediately say that although home was presumed to be safe, not everyone was safe in their home.

I want to queery this, though, first by focussing on LGBT people drawing on my own research and the research of others.

So, what do we know about the LGBT population in the UK? Well, around 3 percent of the population, just under 3 percent of the population, say they have a non-heterosexual sexual identity. We don’t really know how many people in the UK define themselves as trans or non-binary, but the estimates are around 120,000 people. From the data, particularly on non-heterosexual people, we know that this group are more likely to be single. They’re more likely to have lower wellbeing and poor mental health and also more likely to live alone or in shared accommodation. So therefore, though research on the impacts of Coronavirus on LGBT people has not been published yet, we can surmise from this that LGBT people were more likely to feel isolated during lockdown. The impacts on wellbeing everyone has experienced since lockdown began will have been worse for LGBT people, and if they lived in shared accommodation then had higher risk of catching the Coronavirus because of that overcrowding in shared accommodation.

Also, there anecdotal evidence emerging that many young people in particular were forced to return to the closet on lockdown, returning to a family home, particularly groups like students in higher education. When returning to that home they had to return to the closet, could not be open about their sexual or gender identity, and that was a very negative experience for them. If they were out of the closet, then returning to a homophobic or transphobic, or biphobic household, then there is increased risk for them of domestic abuse and domestic violence. There is also evidence that LGBT support services got increased calls and increased levels of people wanting to access their services for wider mental health and wellbeing support. From my own research as well, which showed that the risk of familial rejection for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people has reduced slightly, the risk of familial rejection for trans people is still very high. So therefore, for people who identify as trans, there is a high risk for them in being in a home which is transphobic or not supportive of their transition.

So from that initial way of thinking about queerying Coronavirus, we can suggest that LGBT people are much more likely to be negatively impacted by the lockdown and this idea of being at home.

Also you could also queer this idea of home and what it means by using the concept of sexual citizenship or intimate citizenship. In Scotland, the comedian Janey Godley did fantastic, very, very funny voiceovers of Nicola Sturgeon’s press briefings and talked about how Nicola Sturgeon had had a ban on ‘pumping’ and we all laughed about this. The flip side of this was Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College professor who was a member of SAGE, who was forced to resign because of his sexual intimacy with his lover that broke the lockdown.

Although we can joke about this, the lockdown was a government measure to interfere with our sexual intimacy for many, many people, and particularly for gay men in the UK, that has a long history in terms of sexual intimacy being banned, being made a criminal act by the state. So this was a return to a form of policy and legal censure that had long, long gone in the UK.

So we can therefore think, if we use this idea of sexual citizenship, that you lost your citizenship as a sexual being. It has been taken away by lockdown, and we can think about lockdown in home as a moral act. We can think about this a number of ways.

First of all, the concept of homonormativity is useful here. Homonormativity, is the idea that homosexual lives have had to have become increasingly heteronormative. They’ve been increasingly like heterosexual lives. And the argument is that this is because homosexual citizenship is only accepted by heterosexuals (the majority) because it increasingly mimics heterosexual norms. Homosexuals form long lasting relationships. These relationships are now allowed to be legally recognized in marriage, and they can form households with children. They are forming these heterosexual-like family units that are accepted by heterosexual norms and in society.

So therefore, we can think of home as being heterosexual as it is being used in lockdown. You’re expected to go back to your genetic family and your genetic family would support one another in a sealed house. It’s a very heterosexual normative idea of home that’s at work within this lockdown.

Now, for people who aren’t heterosexual, this leads to particular challenges. So, first of all, one of the key ideas in LGBT studies and queer studies is the idea that for LGBT people, if they are rejected by their families of birth, they can access families of choice in communities that will support them and give them that support that a family would otherwise give. Now the lockdown, by focussing on this idea of the heterosexual heteronormative home, has meant that for LGBT people they might be unable to access those families of choice, or they might have had to make a very difficult decision at the start of lockdown into which family of choice they wish to join in this idea of home.

You also have the issue of separated couples as well that Neil Ferguson’s story highlights in a heterosexual context. If LGBT people are more likely to live alone if they are in a relationship, they’re more likely to be physically distant and therefore under the lockdown rules, they can’t reconnect. They can’t connect to have sexual intimacy.

And for gay men in particular, through the discussion of lockdown and the risk of transmission of Coronavirus, we’ve seen a return of this idea of ‘safer sex’ and ‘bad sex’: that ‘safer sex’ is sex with a long time term partner you live with, and ‘bad sex’ is the sort of sex that Neil Ferguson did, sex that breaks the lockdown rules and increases a risk of spreading coronavirus. So therefore, sexual intimacy moves from being a pleasurable, deeply human experience to being something that is dangerous and full of shame and moral judgment by wider society.

So while we might think that sex is a laughing matter and I think in the UK we’re particularly bad at this and to go back to Nicola Sturgeons ban on pumping, in the UK we like to laugh about this. We like to say just make this a funny issue that actually, oh, it doesn’t matter if people can’t have sex, they think this just going to pass. Actually, I’d argue sex isn’t a laughing matter. Sex and sexual citizenship and intimate citizenship is a key part of our wider citizenship and during the Coronavirus lockdown the state passed laws within that realm of sexual citizenship, in a way they have not done for a very long time, they were limiting our sexual freedoms and our intimate freedoms. And to put it bluntly, if you were in a relationship, could you imagine not having physical intimacy for three months because of the lockdown?

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