As the world’s focus has shifted to the pandemic, LGBT issues have fallen by the wayside — at least according to a discussion during the “COVID-19 in The Americas: Re-Thinking Everything” conference last week.

Erika Castellanos, director of Programs at Global Action for Trans Equality, moderated. Leaders within the LGBT community examined the impact of the pandemic on activism.

“When something like the COVID emergency happens usually we fall very rapidly to the bottom of the priorities in any area of the action of the state,” said Simón Cazal, president and founder of SOMOSGAY A.C. Paraguay and general secretary of the Latin American GayLatino Network.

The virtual event presented a series of panel discussions and plenary sessions focused on how the pandemic impacts North, Central and South America. One panel on LGBT activism was held Thursday.

“Now the media is not covering us, not covering our needs, not covering our stories, we are not part of their priority now in that way,” Alessia Injoque, president of Fundación Iguales, the largest LGBT advocacy organization in Chile, said.

Injoque said the shift hinders their ability to combat HIV, as well as the ability to provide access to hormones and surgery without long lines.

The Chilean government also delayed providing unemployment aid to LGBT people, Injoque said.

“But most of the LGBT community here, especially the trans community, works outside of the normal job market, and they didn't receive help until months later,” Injoque said.

Mexico's LGBT community found difficulty in receiving government support for services like food banks.

“So what we ended up doing is making a charter or an agreement with a local food bank so that they provided services for people from the LGBT community who are particularly vulnerable,” Elsa Concha Cornejo, co-founder and current coordinator of Diverciudad, said.

The impact on LGBT rights pushes organizations to adapt both their funding and focus.

“We've been advocating not only for HIV access, not only for HIV prevention and treatment, but also for preventing homelessness, addressing food insecurity, as well as economic issues and poverty issues,” Mohan Sundararaj, interim executive director at MPact Global Action for Gay Men’s Health and Rights, said.

In the Caribbean, LGBT communities face hurricanes on top of the pandemic and food issues. LGBT organizations have coordinated fundings in response.

“In addition to repurposing money from our donors, we're also able to launch one of those fundraising activities online where we're also able to bring in some additional flexible cash that allowed us to transfer to different organizations providing the services on the ground,” Kenita Placide, founder and executive director of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, said.

Placide said that the lack of attention on LGBT issues is both positive and negative. The community faces less scrutiny, but LGBT issues are even less prominent.

A bulk of LGBT activism occurred online in 2020. Organizations had to learn how to adapt to this new virtual standard.

“HIV 2020 was initially planned to be one of the largest key population events that was community-led in Mexico City in July and it did not take place because of the COVID pandemic,” Sundararaj said. “But it was moved to the virtual world, and ended up reaching thousands of individuals from around the world.”

Other groups, such as those in Mexico, have also expanded their reach.

“And now with the pandemic everyone's getting used to being online, having Zoom meetings,” Cornejo said. “And so, for the first time, our Pride Month events were jam-packed with people from all over the world, participating in panels and conferences, and helping us do advocacy, which would have been prohibitive if we had had to fly them into Sonora.”

Mexico is a conservative country still without marriage equality. Cornejo hopes an online presence will influence a new generation.

“Hopefully we're gonna try to leverage the power that we have that has more to do with social media and has more to do with the work that we're doing with younger people,” Cornejo said. “So that once they get to positions of power they don't bring with them the same prejudices that older people tend to have.”

In some countries, though, technology is being used to target LGBT people, not help them.

The Paraguayan government uses apps and technology to track LGBT citizens and deny them services, Cazal said. His organization is developing virtual tools to provide safe access to counseling and services.

Virtual spaces are versatile, but issues such as Zoom fatigue also persist.

“Certainly, in some cases, it's been easier to participate, because it's as simple as sending out the Zoom link,” Sundararaj said. “But I know that everybody in this group understands that even though we have the virtual technologies, it's hard to do three-day or four-day meetings at a stretch.”

Placide emphasized the importance of mental health in the virtual year.

“Just being able to shut down on technology, even if it's half an hour to an hour, and just take a breather,” Placide said.

Even with these barriers, the panel is focusing on providing aid to LGBT groups.

“We have to be on the ball. We have to keep on the front foot, pushing, challenging," Placide said. "But more importantly, making sure that we are aware, we are educated and we are keeping abreast of the situation so that we can actually respond and not be on the back foot."

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Global Public Health Institute, the Institute of Advanced Study of The Americas and the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care sponsored the event.

The conference will hold virtual sessions until March 2021.

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