It’s known that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning+ (LGBTQ+) community face health disparities driven by social stigma and discrimination. But what happens when you introduce a global pandemic?
Laurie Drabble, associate dean for research and faculty with the San José State University College of Health and Human Sciences, explored the impact of COVID-19 on the LGBTQ+ community by serving as co-editor of a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, which was published earlier this year.
The issue also featured her recent research exploring alcohol and marijuana use among LGBTQ+ women during the pandemic.
The SJSU Editorial and News team sat down with Drabble to learn more:
What is the biggest takeaway from this special issue?
Laurie Drabble (LD): Social stigma and discrimination are important drivers of disparities in risk for depression, anxiety and suicidality among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender non-binary groups. LGBTQ+ people also reported more job loss and financial difficulty compared to heterosexual and cisgender people. These risks were amplified during the with COVID-19 pandemic and need to be addressed.
What surprised you about the research findings?
LD: Research in the special issue found that LGBTQ+ individuals were more likely than heterosexual people to adhere to social distancing guidelines. This may not be entirely surprising, given collective experience with the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.
That past experience heightened community buy-in about the importance of public health strategies to curb disease transmission—and contributed to viewing adherence to public health guidelines as more of a collective responsibility than an individual choice.
However, adhering to guidelines was also associated with psychological distress, which underscores the importance of both formal and social support in public health crises.
This issue pulls together data and research that spans the globe. Did the U.S. stand out?
LD: I was struck by the commonalities between countries. In particular, studies described the negative impact of losing access to LGBTQ+ positive spaces, reduced access to social support, and concerns about invisibility and potential discrimination.
It was also notable that LGBTQ+ people across countries use technology to connect with community, friends and family more than heterosexual and cisgender groups. This is likely a consequence of being part of a community that is defined by common identity rather than location. So, many LGBTQ+ people already used apps, social media and technology tools to find community before the pandemic.
Health disparities already existed in the LGBTQ+ community. Are we making any progress in closing these gaps?
LD: We were making progress in some ways. For example, research has consistently found that reducing structural stigma—such as the legalization of same-sex marriage—has helped reduce disparities in mental health outcomes.
However, research from our special issue and other studies suggest that LGBTQ+ people—particularly LGBTQ people of color—are disproportionately experiencing health and economic harms associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to make sure that policies and services intended to address the impact of the pandemic include the needs of LGBTQ+ populations.
Let’s talk about your research focusing on LGBTQ+ women and marijuana and alcohol use during the pandemic. What surprised you about what you learned?
LD: One of the more interesting findings was the degree to which routines or norms associated with alcohol and marijuana use were disrupted or changed.
For example, some study participants described drinking more because they used alcohol to mark the end of the day, and many described using more alcohol and marijuana to simply relieve stress or boredom. Others used less, because they were not spending time in social settings where they would typically drink alcohol or use marijuana with friends.
Sexual minority women had greater risks for hazardous drinking and drug use compared to heterosexual women before the pandemic, so it will be important to continue to study [post pandemic] whether or not these risks have been amplified over time.
Now that we have this information, what do we need to do about it?
LD: First, we need to continue to reduce stigma and address the economic impacts of the pandemic that disproportionately impact people of color and sexual and gender minorities.
For example, a growing number of states have passed harmful laws allowing health and social service providers to be exempt on religious grounds from laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex or gender identity. These trends are deeply concerning, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, given our research suggesting that LGBTQ+ people are frequent users of Internet-based communications and apps, enhancing access to online and remote health and mental health services would be timely.
Third, the research in this issue highlighted the importance of access to community and social support. So it is critical to provide financial support to ensure the survival of LGBTQ+ health and social service organizations, as well as LGBTQ+-centered physical spaces.
How can this information help us better care for the LGBTQ+ members of our SJSU community?
LD: For many LGBTQ+ young adults, university communities are important for finding safe and affirming support, particularly for students who may need to live with unsupportive families for financial reasons. Providing opportunities for social support and counseling—such as those provided by the SJSU PRIDE Center and Student Services—are crucial.