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COVID while gay: 'Horrificness' for an already marginalized community

Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Buffalo celebrates the LGBTQ community during a recent Pride Parade.

Counting the transgender population is tricky, as many avoid revealing their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination or worse. Transgender women of color, for example, remain the most abused and murdered group in America. So it takes a special kind of courage and compassion to dedicate your adult trans life to helping others on the same journey.

Patti Jones was born Peter Jones in 1953, more than a decade before the word "transgender" became part of the English language. "Happily married to a wonderful woman" for 24 years and with a daughter, Jones officially transitioned in 2004 at age 50. It was soon after, she became dedicated to raising awareness around trans issues.

"I've yet to talk to anyone, even the most staunch advocate against trans, who after talking with me hasn't had a changed view or at least an increased understanding. And that's how you create change, by changing people's minds," Jones said. "One of the biggest things that we fight is ignorance about what the journey means. That's where I've been working behind the scenes: just changing the dialogue. I think we need to slowly change people's minds. Being that pebble in the water, interacting with small groups and bringing the face of what transgender is to people, humanizes it."

Credit Patti Jones
Patti Jones (l) and her daughter Katie.

Jones has held a variety of leadership roles in the Western New York LGBTQ community, but perhaps most fulfilling, she said, has been facilitating a trans support group for parents at Gay & Lesbian Youth Services Western New York. Jones helped parents understand and come to terms with children struggling with their sexuality.

"They come in and they bare their soul to the group and the emotions flow. The parents share and you watch, within weeks or months, they come back and more and more dialogue. And then to see these parents within a very short time become the support of another parent that comes in to share. And they say, 'Well, I was just like you two months ago.' It's just so rewarding to be part of all that dynamic. It was such a positive, positive thing."

Jones also fondly remembered one particular teenager she met at a day-long Gay Straight Alliance conference for the LGBTQ youth of Western New York. The young girl and her foster parents were struggling, so Jones had a conversation with them. The following year, the girl had been able to actualize her transition more and grow her hair.

"She came running up with two or three other girls and, 'Patti, Patti' and I didn't recognize her. I said, 'How ya doin,' Aaron?' and she said, 'No, it's Adrian.' And I say, 'Oh my God! Oh, my God!' She just says, 'So glad to see you. Thank you for what you did.' And she just looked like any other high school student and her girlfriends running around, having a great time. It meant a lot seeing her be true to herself, being who she needed to be," Jones said. "It was wonderful to see that, knowing I had a small part of it."

After some 15 years, however, Jones is retiring. She said the pandemic helped make the decision.

"I've reached a point of time where I've been doing this long enough and putting myself out there for so long, there's not a lot of rewards associated with it," she said. "And not that it's a negative. I've valued what I've done and I've done it solely because I think there's been a need. And that, I truly, truly will miss. I just can't mediate the risk factors and I don't like doing things via the computer. It doesn't feel real to me."

GLYS is among the many organizations that had to limit activity and referrals during the pandemic. It is slowly reopening, but now approaching 70, Jones believes it may be time for younger activists to step in. She will be honored during GLYS' annual GAYLATuesday evening, which is virtual this year.

Credit GLYS Western New York
This year's GLYS GAYLA will be held virtually because of COVID-19.

"I'm just a trans person. I transitioned and have some, you know, seasoning. I have some years. But, I mean, my understanding and skill sets are not extraordinary, and there are others out there," Jones said. "There's not a lot of us, but they are there and there are others that are capable. They just don't know that they are."

Although the LGBTQ community is about 10% of the general population, it is estimated that only 0.6% of the adult population identify as transgender and there are more females than males. Researchers have yet to figure out how many children identify as trans.

The numbers become more significant in the era of COVID-19 because it can be so isolating, particularly for sexual minorities, who are more likely to have experienced a lifetime of feeling alone, rejected and criticized.

In fact, a University at Buffalo researcher has found the pandemic is driving an increase in risky health behaviors by the LGBTQ community.

Credit University at Buffalo
Amy Hequembourg's research finds the pandemic is driving an increase in risky health behaviors in the LGBTQ community.

Amy Hequembourg is an associate professor at UB's School of Nursing. She talked to WBFO about the LGBTQ community as a very diverse group that already reports a variety of chronic health problems at a higher rate than the general population.

"These include things like diabetes, coronary artery disease, asthma, hypertension. They report higher rates of certain cancers and higher rates of sexually transmitted infections. And that's just to name a few," Hequembourg said.

She said the community also reports higher rates of lifetime victimization, including hate crimes targeting sexual orientation and gender identity, but also higher rates of interpersonal violence, such as sexual abuse in childhood and sexual assault in adulthood. Prejudice can also be much more subtle.

"Use of the phrase 'that's so gay' that's often used to belittle someone, when people misgender a transgender individual or ask them inappropriate questions about their physical anatomy," Hequembourg said. "My colleague, Dr. Wendy Bostwick, and I conducted research that identified microaggressions that were reported by bisexual women, that they're, you know, often told they just kind of need to make up their mind."

As resilient a person may be, she said a lifetime of trauma on top of trauma can be a heavy burden to carry.

Now add a pandemic that doesn't allow working out these traumas through normal means. For example, GLYS was helping several young people who came out to their families as gay just before the pandemic began, but then it had to shut down.

"We worry about youth that are at home for prolonged periods of time. Maybe in negative home environments and having to stay within, you know, those four walls," said GLYS Executive Director Robert Rousch. "We have seen a couple of additional cases of suicidality amongst our youth. Hopefully, we were able to head some of that off before it actually became yet another statistic."

However, the statistics were "pretty shocking" even before the pandemic, Rousch said.

"We're told by the Child Psychiatric Center that at any given time, an inpatient adolescent has an 80% chance of identifying as LGBTQ. LGBTQ youth are about 8 times more likely to engage in substance use. We hear about that on a regular basis," he said. "So COVID may have made a lot of things worse, but this situation was bad to begin with."

Credit Eileen Buckley / WBFO News
The Dignity For All Students Act (DASA) or Dignity Act seeks to provide a discrimination-free zone for children in schools.

Rousch said new laws - like New York's Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which seeks to provide a discrimination-free zone in schools - are a double-edge sword: they may make kids feel more comfortable using the restroom, but all of a sudden there is also more unwanted attention on those kids.

"Someone else said this to me today," Rousch said. "The youth were sent to the nurse's office to use the restroom in the nurse's office because there was no gender-neutral choice except in the nurse's office. But during COVID, students may be sent to the nurse's office to keep them isolated until a parent comes in. So if a transgender student needs to use the restroom, is it really fair for them to be entering into an area where there may be COVID-positive students?"

Buffalo's Compass House already sees many LGBTQ youth.

"They have so many struggles to be accepted. Just coming out is so excruciatingly painful for some people that running away and becoming homeless, those things unfortunately happen more often than not," said Compass House Executive Director Lisa Freeman.

Compass House is an emergency shelter for youth who run away, are homeless or are living in an unsafe evironment. They can stay up to 30 days while staff help mend a relationship or housing situation that put them there. In 2019, more than 1,000 people age 5-24 were homeless in Erie County and it is estimated that 40% of homeless youth were gay.

Credit Compass House
Buffalo's Compass House provides emergency shelter to homeless youth.

"Our Rapid Rehousing program takes kids that are literally living on the streets, ages 18-24, and sets them up in apartments and helps stabilize them, so that by the end of the time they're in the program, they're able to pay their rent on their own, they have whatever services they need, they have jobs that can help them sustain all of that," she said.

Freeman worries about the shortage of affordable apartments in Buffalo and what may happen when New York State ends its moratorium on evictions. It was set to expire this month, but New York State extended it until Jan. 1, 2021.

"I think there's going to be a lot more people out in the community not able to keep their apartments. And I think there's also not a lot of apartments out in the community that are a reasonable amount of money, that the kids are able to pay for. So once the eviction process starts, I think we're going to have quite a mess on our hands," Freeman said. "The whole thing is just been mind boggling to me."

Jones said conversations about these issues will become more frequent as more people "push back against gender norms."

"They are expressing and embracing the gender variant that they want," Jones said. "You've seen so many more people - I hate to use the term 'experimentation,' but - they're trying to find out their place in life, so that now because of the openness of acceptance of some of the gender norms that are out there, they're trying to see if they fit, if it's right for them."

Hequembourg is working with Georgia State University to develop and test a brief web-based behavioral intervention to reduce COVID-related stress among sexual minorities.

"I don't want to diminish the horrificness that everyone's experiencing during COVID, but I think for populations that were already disadvantaged, all these things are combining to make this a particularly stressful and damaging time for them," she said.

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