When LGBTQ+ people have been denied support in the most challenging times, mutual aid networks have helped them build communities of care and resilience.
As a queer Latine woman, I have witnessed the daily battles LGBTQ+ individuals endure for acceptance and equality. Our journey toward liberation has seen progress in some parts of the world, yet challenges persist in others. However, this hard-won progress is threatened by the unpredictable and devastating nature of disasters and crises.
Disasters have a way of magnifying inequalities. They unravel the safety nets we have carefully woven and disrupt the very fabric of queer safe spaces. But in the tapestry of LGBTQ+ history, the threads of resilience and collective care have always been intricately intertwined.
In challenging times, mutual aid networks become sanctuaries of compassion, offering solace, support, and vital resources.
The history of LGBTQ+ mutual aid
LGBTQ+ individuals have long relied on clandestine networks and covert alliances for support. From ancient Greece’s secret gathering spots to the Harlem Renaissance drag balls, early forms of mutual aid offered emotional support and a sense of belonging. Even during the colonial era, hidden pockets of mutual support emerged to navigate oppressive laws and provide aid in times of crisis.
The Stonewall Riots in 1969 marked a turning point, as LGBTQ+ individuals fought back and mutual aid organizations thrived, providing legal resources, health care, and emotional support. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s further emphasized vulnerabilities, leading to mutual aid networks becoming first responders. They provided emergency medical care and assistance. Today, LGBTQ+ communities worldwide still face challenges. And mutual aid remains a vital lifeline, addressing disparities caused by discrimination and providing support during crises.
Here are three ways LGBTQ+ mutual aid networks serve as lifelines during times of disaster:
1. Mutual aid networks bridge gaps to essential resources and support.
Mutual aid networks ensure that LGBTQ+ individuals can access the resources they need and receive the support they deserve. The recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria presented new challenges for the LGBTQ+ community, exposing them to threats and discrimination as a result of displacement. The Guardians of Equality Movement (GEM), a queer-led organization working in Syria, played a crucial role in filling the gaps in aid delivery worsened by homophobia.
Sami*, a member of GEM, shared, “It is possible that affected individuals will be denied assistance because they are gay or show signs considered evidence of a different sexual orientation according to local customs.”
“I always live in a state of fear and anticipation because of my sexual orientation and queer activity.”
Before the earthquakes, Sami lived privately to avoid persecution or clashes with anyone. The aftermath of the earthquakes put Sami in direct confrontation with people he had tried to avoid.
GEM received numerous reports of discrimination faced by Syrian LGBTQ+ individuals from aid workers and organizations, solely based on their identities or refugee status. However, amid these challenges, GEM’s networks have been instrumental in delivering essential aid that is accessible and secure to LGBTQ+ earthquake survivors and their families.
2. Mutual aid networks address LGBTQ+ isolation.
For the first time since its inception in 2012, the latest FEMA National Preparedness Report acknowledged the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals during disasters in the United States. The report noted that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be socially isolated and face disrespect or harassment in settings such as emergency shelters. In addition, homeless LGBTQ+ youth, comprising 25-40% of the homeless youth population, face limited access to emergency information, evacuation resources, and affordable post-disaster housing.
In response, mutual aid networks have emerged to create safe spaces where LGBTQ+ individuals can connect, find support, and access emergency resources. Waves Ahead, an LGBTQ+-led organization focused on elderly and vulnerable populations in Puerto Rico, took action through its Reconstruye Q project, providing mental health services, safe spaces, and emergency aid through community centers across Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Its efforts addressed the lack of accessible services and the need for greater sensitivity toward the LGBTQ+ population. It’s just one way mutual aid networks foster community, understanding, and solidarity.
“Much of the work of organizations like ours is not possible without the support of mutual aid.”
— Waves Ahead
3. Mutual aid networks empower LGBTQ+ individuals.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), 70 United Nations Member States, including Tanzania, criminalized same-sex sexual acts as of March 2019. Organizations like LGBT Voice of Tanzania actively work toward decriminalization and combat discrimination, playing a crucial role in advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBT Voice of Tanzania diligently documented cases of homophobia and discrimination. The organization then launched a project to train 25 LGBTQ+ activists, equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge to become local advocates. Maria, Fundraising and Advocacy Manager for LGBT Voice of Tanzania, shared that, “this period highlighted the importance of mutual aid and community care for the LGBT community, pushing us to become more involved in health-related advocacy to defend, promote, and protect their rights.”
Supporting LGBTQ+ communities together
LGBTQ+ communities face escalating threats to their well-being and safety as discriminatory policies and discrimination persist. Elise Colomer-Cheadle, Director of Development for OutRight International, emphasized that the LGBTQ+ movement is woefully underfunded. The resources available to LGBTQ+ organizations fall significantly short of meeting the actual needs of the communities they serve.
Now, more than ever, we must stand together to ensure the resilience and empowerment of LGBTQ+ individuals. We should foster a society where equality and inclusivity don’t exist only in fleeting moments, but are principles that guide our response to every disaster and crisis.
Support LGBTQ+ mutual aid networks caring for their communities.
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*Name has been changed for safety reasons.
Featured Photo: Stop LGBTQ Suicide through Parent Education by Mama Dragons