LGBTIQ+ migrants in Europe* have encountered many challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic situation, including the cancellation of community empowerment events like LGBTIQ+ Pride marches. Can a digital form of togetherness be created for LGBTIQ+ migrants in Europe? How are they impacted by the pandemic, and how do they feel about Pride month?
Méfi, a queer black woman originally from France, lives in Brighton and moved to the UK around six years ago. She is a team leader managing a French market.
Jose, a gay Venezuelan musician living in London, moved to the UK three-and-a-half years ago.
Demhat, Bella is a trans Kurdish woman from Turkey who has been living in Stockholm, Sweden for the last three years. She is an artist, trans refugee and an activist for trans refugees.
Pia is a queer Spanish woman living in Istanbul, Turkey for the last six years. She works as a front-end web-developer.
Janus is a gay man who has been living in London, UK for the last five years.
How did COVID-19 impact your life?
Janus: On the first days of the pandemic, because I am HIV+, I was thinking my immune system might be fragile and this worried me. Then HIV charities started to make announcements that as long as you continue to take your medication, your viral load is undetectable and you’re not severely immunocompromised, there is no evidence you would be at a greater risk than HIV- people, which made me feel relieved.
Demhat: Here, I am working at an LGBTQI-friendly restaurant/bar and playing music at techno parties on weekends, so my life is totally affected by COVID-19. I have lost my job and endured financial difficulties. I could not meet the ones I missed and loved. Apart from that, psychologically, I immediately adapted to the new measures, as these norms are not something completely new to me.
Pia: I am actually quite happy to be here during the lockdown. To be honest, I feel safe compared to the rest of the world… I just want to have a nice hug soon (laughing). I went to the hospital the other day for twenty minutes. They had two hundred cases and two people died there. So, it is real.
Méfi: It had a massive impact on my mental health as I tried to handle everything including the current situation of racial injustice;,(I) had to end some of my direct reports’ contracts and currently going through a break-up. The breakup happened two weeks ago, however with the pandemic we still have to live together. But work from home also enables me to invest more time in myself. I have been writing poetry… and I have been involved in activism online.
Jose: I have the privilege of being furloughed because a lot of people did not get that, but you don’t really know for how long this will last. I really was not scared when toilet papers were running out or when people started to have problems finding pasta, rice. Toilet paper could disappear, water could disappear, power could disappear, but you will still have family, friends, and people. The fact that you can’t just go and see them or hold them has a larger impact on me than I thought.
As an LGBTIQ+ migrant, did you have any previous experience similar to the current challenges?
Demhat: If you are a migrant, LGBTIQ+ and especially trans, you are subject to social isolation. The locations you are able to stay are distant to the social scenes. If you are not able to socialize with others, you cannot pop that isolating balloon around you to connect with friends’ circles, you are possibly going to go through a major depression. You can only get through that feeling with the help of a fighter soul. If you have an identity that is not welcome by the society… you are going to be isolated.
Janus: I am used to the idea of fighting to be and to remain who I am as a gay, and then HIV+ man. I am feeling strong in that sense; I have been ‘trained’ on health-related issues. With Covid-19, I didn’t feel that much affected apart from worries about my home country. At the time of my diagnosis, there was some turmoil back home which made me experience anxiety at such a high level, about being labelled as HIV+ and not being able to disclose my status in situations like going to a dentist or a doctor.
Jose: As a person who lived in Venezuela until early 2017, I feel I was trained for the early stages of lockdown. You have a beautiful endless water supply here. In Venezuela, it was an issue on top of the scarcity of basic products and it was a lot worse, especially financially as well as for safety and LGBTIQ+ issues. I am coming from a place where there is different news every day. You kind of learn how to adapt very quickly. Because the next challenge is going to be completely different and you will have to deal with that. So, in that way, I was ready for it, I guess.
What do you think about the LGBTIQ+ Pride month and cancellation of Pride events this year due to the pandemic?
Demhat: I have a very special relationship with the Pride month. It is like a Bayram, nationally celebrated festival, of LGBTIQ+ to me. I attended a beautiful Pride march last year. The Pride Committee here donates each group to rent a small truck to join the march. We, as the workers of queer techno nightlife, were on a small truck and I was a DJ with my set-up on the truck. It was beautiful. We have to declare that countries with LGBTIQ+ rights have to do something for others where LGBTIQ+ individuals are not free.
Pia: Pride is where people come together. My move to Turkey in 2014 when I was in my 40s is also about that. I went there and saw the 2014 Istanbul Pride march. It was incredible. I never had such experience in my life. I decided to move here after that Pride. I now realize moving from Spain to the UK when I was 25 was [also] because I was a lesbian. Spain was a conservative, Catholic country. I was living in Sagunto, a small city close to Valencia and went to London for Easter with a friend. We went to South London, there were people from everywhere, Japan, South African. I came back to Sagunto and understood that I don’t belong to Sagunto anymore. I moved to London and I became myself there. So, this year we are going to miss that, being ourselves.
Méfi: Since I live in Brighton, I almost never attended Pride without being part of the march. Recently, I [was contacted] by a photographer to be part of a campaign called Prideinside [and] made a placard saying Queer Trans Black Lives Matter. It is important to remind people why [Pride] started. It was a riot against police Pride is the best moment to protest and work for acceptance. People even within the community exclude trans people, queer people of colour like myself. That’s how I see Pride.
*LGBTIQ+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer. The plus sign is inclusive of individuals with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions and/or sex characteristics who use other terms or no terms to describe themselves.
*Please see Equalcity project for IOM’s work on safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ people in Europe.
Artunc Yavuz is an Operations Assistant at IOM UK.