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'It is bleak': How the pandemic economy has affected LGBTQ people

The pandemic has exacerbated existing issues LGBTQ people face, including discrimination and higher rates of mental health problems.
Image: Illustration shows a match with a burning head in the shape of a Covid spore burning through a rainbow dollar bill.
The pandemic economy has had a disproportionately harsh impact on LGBTQ people, who already face higher rates of discrimination and mental health issues.Ari Liloan / for NBC News

It’s been over a year since Michael Bates, a massage therapist, has worked with a client.

One year ago, he was recovering from pancreatic cancer, and his doctors told him he was cleared to go back to work. Then, the pandemic hit, and the same week he thought he’d begin booking clients he was in lockdown inside his home.

“It was a rough time because I was healthy again. And then I couldn’t go anywhere. It's been an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “It's very difficult when you're a tactile person to begin with.”

A licensed massage therapist for a decade, Bates, 63, of Gainesville, Florida, has not been able to earn an income for the last year. Then, in December, his cancer returned, and he started treatment again in January.

“So even if they lifted lockdown now, because of my white blood cell count, they don't want me working,” he said. “So it's like, great, here we go again."

Michael Bates.Michael Bates

Bates is one of the many LGBTQ Americans who have experienced job and income loss from the pandemic. Sixty-four percent of LGBTQ people and their families experienced a job loss or disruption, compared to just under half (45 percent) of non-LGBTQ households, according to a study by the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank.

“The pandemic just kind of dug in and found all of the inequalities and just turned that into this whole other kind of nightmare for people,” said M.V. Lee Badgett, a professor of economics and co-director of the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It is bleak. I mean, there's really no way around that.”

The pandemic has exacerbated the existing issues members of the LGBTQ community face, including employment and housing discrimination, food insecurity, vulnerability to homelessness, unequal health care and higher rates of mental health issues.

Angela, 28, of Norwalk, Connecticut, who has asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons, lost her job last year. She was employed with the same company for the last six years, working as a coordinator for a business facilitating study abroad programs for college students. She was laid off two months into the pandemic, after scrambling to help families get their kids home from overseas.

Angela has been looking for a job since July, after taking some time to process both the pandemic and her job loss, though its impact still lingers.

“Finding a job has been very difficult because I’ve been wading through depression, anxiety, insomnia,” she said. “I've had two surgeries in the last year. I've lost a family member. There's just a lot to get through. And all the while, I need a job. If you had told me a year ago that I would still be unemployed in March of 2021, I would not have believed you.”

Angela has written 30 cover letters in the last week and in the last 10 days has submitted more applications than she has in the last six months, all while grappling with what she wants to do next and what jobs are actually available. “The entire industry I thought I could’ve been a part of came to a screeching halt,” she said.

Angela said she’s been looking for jobs that are more mission-focused. “I want to at least try to feel like what I’m doing is meaningful to someone or getting someone support where they otherwise may not have had it,” she said.

Though job loss and economic pain has been felt across the LGBTQ spectrum, the pandemic has had an additional impact on those who are especially vulnerable to higher rates of discrimination.

“When we dig a little deeper into the LGBT data, it does show two very clear patterns,” Badgett said. “One is that transgender people overall are experiencing a harder time, and LGBT people of color are experiencing an extra disadvantage, which is, again, not surprising.”

Prior to the pandemic, over half a million transgender adults lived below 200 percent of the federal poverty line (an annual income of $25,520 for those living alone), according to data from the Williams Institute, a public policy research institute at UCLA.

Of any group of workers in the U.S., Black transgender workers face the highest levels of discrimination. Though the exact impact of the pandemic on trans and nonbinary workers is not yet known, the Williams Institute found high rates of unemployment claims among queer and trans people at the start of the pandemic, with around 8.9 percent of all workers who filed for unemployment identifying as LGBTQ.

Once unemployed, trans and nonbinary workers must then navigate the discrimination that comes with the job application process, something Cedar Sutter, 22, of Frankfort, Illinois, has been experiencing since they lost their job earlier this year. Unemployment and extended job loss has left them and their boyfriend in a bad spot financially, and they are facing eviction and homelessness at the end of this month if they cannot find a way to pay the bills.

Cedar Sutter.Cedar Sutter

Sutter has been applying to jobs since November. Their previous position was at a library, and they’ve applied for all kinds of openings, including jobs at restaurants, breweries and retail outlets. Often, they never hear back from an application. Their mother recommended they remove their pronouns from their resume and replace their name with their dead name.

“It's hard to think about going into a job interview and not being able to be myself, not being able to present myself the way that I would like, and the way that I'm comfortable, and how I am,” they said. “Having to pretend to be someone that I'm not at work or for an interview — it's exhausting.”

After much reluctance, Sutter did remove their pronouns but left their name. “That was hard, extremely hard,” they said. “But I couldn't bring myself to use my dead name on my resume. It just feels so disingenuous.”

Once they removed their pronouns, responses to job applications rolled in. “I don't know if just the existence of the pronouns on my resume had something to do with it or if I wasn't applying at the right places,” they said. “I would hate for [my pronouns] to be the reason why I haven't been getting hired anywhere.”

Still, they are bracing themselves for rejoining the workforce and potentially having to defend their pronouns and name. “I don't want to have to listen to my employer tell me that my pronouns and my identities are invalid just to get a job,” they said.

When it comes to the business sector, LGBTQ-owned businesses have had to improvise to stay afloat, while others have closed, including establishments that serve queer communities.

Gregory Canillas, 52, is a Black business owner and president and CEO of Soul2Soul Global, a company he founded in 2018 that hosts retreats for queer couples, particularly newlyweds or those about to get married. The retreats combine travel with relationship-building workshops, hosted by Canillas, who is a psychologist and associate professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles.

Before the pandemic hit, Canillas’ business was growing, with retreats planned in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and Long Beach, California. Those were canceled.

“I've been able to keep the business open, but barely,” Canillas said. Revenue has dropped by half since the pandemic began, and while some of his business has gone online, the experience of travel, a crucial element of the workshop, cannot be replicated via Zoom.

Gregory Canillas.Hallo Smith

Canillas founded his company to fill a void: He saw people in his clinical work who were managing stressors specific to being LGBTQ, including issues around family of origin, acceptance and sexuality.

His retreats join together the shared experience of travel, which has been shown to strengthen relationships, with the structured element of a supportive workshop. The goal of the retreats is to give couples tools for a thriving marriage before it even begins.

“I went to graduate school to help people,” Canillas said. “That’s always been my thing. It’s always been part of who I am. Not being able to do that, it has not felt good. Helping people and helping couples — we need it. LGBT people need it as much as anybody else, maybe more so.”

Canillas is a member of a number of chambers of commerce and has been able to connect with other entrepreneurs who identify as LGBTQ, which he said “has been a tremendous support.” But, he said, “The larger business community, I don't know that they're always accepting.”

Canillas has applied for a number of grants. “This is probably an unprecedented time where you can access grants as LGBT and African American,” he said. “And I’ve applied for everything but really haven’t gotten anything. And some of that I think is related to being LGBT. Many of them were for Black entrepreneurs, but not necessarily Black LGBT entrepreneurs.”

As the world begins to rebound, and more and more people get vaccinated, economic growth is expected, but that growth could mask an unequal recovery for workers, according to McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm. It recently released a report that said, “Unless bold action is taken, the postpandemic recovery will further exacerbate inequality.”

The report detailed the job losses that have disproportionately affected minority populations and suggested that both private- and public-sector businesses focus on developing new training and career pathways for displaced workers as a way to battle inequality.

For Badgett, moving forward requires a consideration of policy reform, such as paid family leave, access to health care and supplemental income for people making low wages.

“For the LGBT community, it’s recognizing that our community is diverse, that people aren't all having the same experience,” Badgett said. “And that if we are a community, not just a market, not just a voting bloc, but a community, that we need to be thinking about people with low incomes, thinking about how low-wage workers, how people of color in our community are faring and supporting policies that will make their lives better, too. Not just policies that are good for people in relationships or people with good jobs at a big corporation — but everybody.”

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