In east London, volunteers leave groceries on doorsteps for the elderly or walk dogs for those now told to stay indoors. Charity workers take calls to the helpline from their own front rooms. In Manchester, condoms that used to be given out in bars are now stuffed into envelopes to post. A new befriending scheme for the over-70s is nearly ready. Elsewhere, an entire online scene is forming: Zoom room clubbing, virtual gyms, a community centre with space to talk and to grieve.
This is queer Britain in 2020; a community mobilised once again, this time in the face of the coronavirus. Isolation is not new here. It is the cold air from everyone’s past: the closet. Many are not novices to community efforts either, having gathered on tiny marches in the 1970s just to be seen, or galvanised in the 1980s for a pandemic that was allowed to happen — or more recently, marching for Pride, or signing a petition against threats to hard-won rights.
Today’s threat is to everyone. But pandemics exploit inequality, and for LGBTQ people the instinct to shield and fight back is felt as much as ever. It has led to the launch of a London “mutual aid” group to provide targeted support during the coronavirus outbreak, as organisers fear the most vulnerable within this community are at particular risk from poverty, isolation and serious illness.
It forms part of a nationwide effort from a vast range of LGBTQ businesses, charities, individuals, and voluntary organisations to protect lives, mental health, and human connection during the worst pandemic since the AIDS crisis.
Mainstream mutual aid groups have sprung up across the country to help others in the local area, but as these are based on locality rather than any particular community, Carla Ecola, a homelessness worker, spotted a gap through which some could fall and cofounded the London LGBTIQ+ COVID-19 Mutual Aid group.
“People don't always feel safe or comfortable with neighbours knowing their identity,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Some people may have already fallen out with their neighbours or experienced low-level hate crimes on their street with comments like, ‘those trannies, those queers’. If they don't trust their neighbours, or feel safe in contacting them, they may not feel uncomfortable in joining those kind of [mainstream] mutual aid groups.”
Research by the University of Surrey in 2018 of LGBTQ people in social housing found that a third felt that their neighbourhood was unsafe for their community and that a fifth of gay men modify things in their home that might reveal their sexuality before a repairs person or landlord visits.
Earlier this week, Helena Dalli, the EU Commissioner for Equality, issued a call to all member states to address particular challenges faced by LGBT+ people during the coronavirus crisis, including to ensure this community are “protected against domestic violence …. Have access to prevention and protection measures for homeless persons and access to equal social protection and healthcare services”.
Ecola’s group, which now has over 100 volunteers and over 1,000 members, aims to bypass the obstacles that can face vulnerable LGBT people trying to access help. Members can join the group on Facebook and submit a request for anything they might need during self-isolation or shielding.
“So far we’ve had requests for collecting shopping, dog walking, friendly phone calls, picking up medication, posting letters, and we've had one request for care, because the care company has broken down," she said.
On the London LGBTIQ+ mutual aid Facebook page, members post links to free services they’re offering, from online yoga classes to writing workshops, queer workout sessions, meditation classes, live musical performances, DJ sets, and mental health support groups.
As the lockdown continues, Ecola and her team of volunteers also aim to work with mainstream mutual aid groups where possible, and form a bridge between them and service users. “We are going to need to be advocating for support and we might need to step in and make sure that there isn't any discrimination,” she said.
Plans have also begun with the tech company ThoughtWorks to establish a 24-hour virtual LGBT community centre. This, hopes Ecola — who founded the Outside Project, the first LGBTQ homeless shelter — will provide a “space to socialise in with other queer people at a time where we feel even more isolated and even more cut off from our own community.”
The idea, she said, “is that people will be able to ‘step’ into a reception area, and choose a room that suits their needs, whether it's youth, older people, homelessness support or social support. We're going to have a kitchen where people can sit and eat together. I'm really just trying to bring people together.”
They hope to offer a room for people to discuss grief with others as the numbers of bereaved people rise as a result of the crisis, and have begun talking to other organisations about setting up funeral funds to financially assist people who’ve lost loved ones.
In Manchester, the LGBT Foundation, which has been supporting community efforts for the last 30 years, is next week launching a befriending service called Rainbow Brew Buddies. This will provide phone calls and emotional support to isolated LGBTQ people in the greater Manchester area during the lockdown.
“Our message with Rainbow Brew Buddies is simple — no LGBT person should feel that they are alone,” said Paul Martin, CEO of the LGBT Foundation. “We know that many LGBT people are facing an uncertain and worrying few weeks and months, particularly those most at-risk members of our communities — people over 70, those with underlying health conditions, and those unemployed or without a support network. Through Rainbow Brew Buddies, those who are feeling particularly isolated at this time can know that there is always someone that is just a phone call away for a cup of tea, a check-in, and a chat.”
And after 25 years of distributing free condoms in queer nightlife venues across Manchester, the foundation has also launched a free sexual health delivery service, where people who would normally visit pubs and clubs, can fill in a form online and have packs of condom and lubricant sent to their home.
“Some members of our communities are currently unable to access PrEP, PEP, or any form of sexual health testing which may impact their sex lives,” said Martin, referring to the medication that can prevent HIV either before or after exposure. “That is why we have chosen to start this scheme — to enable people from our communities to protect themselves, their partners, and reduce strain on our National Health Service.”
The pub and club scene, which became central points of fundraising and support during the AIDS crisis, has responded with an array of practical help during the COVID-19 outbreak. Orange Nation, the company that runs Fire in London and On Bar in Manchester, has “offered the use of all of our sites in London and Manchester to the NHS, police or any authority to use it to help with the fight against COVID-19”, its CEO Craig Elder, announced.
Manchester-based gay pub The Eagle even began delivering poppers to people’s homes earlier this month, before deciding to pause all services during the lockdown. And in London, the Dalston Superstore — one of the original hipster East End queer venues —has launched a hardship fund to provide financial assistance to self-employed members of the scene who've lost work and income during the coronavirus crisis.
LGBTQ charities have pivoted to online, telephone and video platforms to ensure people in need of psychological support continue to receive it. Switchboard, the longest-running telephone counselling service for LGBTQ people, has shifted to a remote service so that its counsellors can continue giving telephone support to people from their own homes. The LGBT Foundation now offers phone, email and video options for a range of services including counselling, domestic abuse assistance, befriending, sexual health and substance use programmes. And Mermaids, the charity for trans young people and their families, is holding its first Digifest 2020 on Saturday, April 4 — an interactive festival beaming live music, discussion, and chats with celebrity guests through Twitch.
Other charities have launched crowdfunding services in an attempt to secure the extra resources needed to cope with the surge in demand. Opening Doors London, which provides help to older LGBTQ people, is hoping to secure £15,000 from donations to train up new volunteers needed for their telephone befriending service as the pandemic disproportionately hits the elderly. Organisers have said the COVID-19 outbreak has “resulted in the charity having to halt hundreds of face-to-face services to prevent any risk to their older members, so there’s a real issue with reaching lonely and socially isolated members of LGTQ communities, many having no access to digital services.”
Arts and entertainment organisations dedicated to this community have moved onto digital platforms to ensure the continued running of their shows. BFI Flare, the London LGBT film festival – cancelled its cinema screenings but set up a home viewing platform providing a selection of the short and feature-length films and documentaries. The Leeds Queer Film Festival has provided links to dozens of documentaries and feature films to be viewed through Vimeo or YouTube.
Damian Barr’s Literary Salon — not LGBT-specific but with a gay host, and many queer guest authors and attendees — broadcast its latest salon live through Facebook yesterday. And Armistead Maupin, the celebrated author of the Tales of the City series, has been performing readings of queer novelists through Facebook Live, as well as an exclusive first reading of his new novel, Mona of the Manor.
Every Friday night, a new online COVID-19-era club night is now gaining attention: the Queer House Party. Starting at 9pm and broadcast through Zoom, DJs Harry Gay, Wacha, and Passer play music and invite guests such as drag queens Lydia L’Scabies and Rhys’ Pieces to bring east London LGBT nightlife into people’s living rooms.
"The response has been incredible and we have seen thousands of queers from across the world join us every Friday night," said Harry Gay. "We're a bunch of queers living in an overpriced house-share in south-east London who wanted to put something out there to bring joy during this crisis."