As COVID-19 vaccines reach more Americans and pandemic restrictions continue to loosen, many LGBTQ+ folks will be able to leave isolated households and their limited (or nonexistent) support systems in search of queer-affirming relationships and communities. For many people, this liberation is about more than just closing the physical distance between each other and fulfilling relationship needs, both physical and emotional. Many folks continue to believe that “the greatest act of resistance” against homophobia, sexism, racism, and transphobia is the act of queer sex (Alex Garner, 2017).” Self-identified agents of resistance, many with over a year’s worth of bottled-up energy, have likely tracked the growing pool of potential vaccinated partners with excitement– but how revolutionary is queer sex today when the act itself puts participants at risk of airborne infection?
Queer sex as resistance is an ideology that is, unlike the 2019 strain of coronavirus, not new– the liberating power and self-agency found through queer sex was an influential force during a similarly devastating public health crisis forty years ago. In June of 1981, the CDC published a weekly report with the news that five seemingly healthy gay men from L.A. had developed a rare lung infection. The scientists who wrote it (and the entire world) would soon learn the name and devastating power of this unfamiliar affliction: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS (Law, 2021).
It’s been forty years since the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic– in that time, the illness and its resulting complications have killed an estimated 34.7 million people, with 534,000 of those deaths occurring in the U.S. between 1990 and 2018 (UNAIDS, 2021). One HIV-positive woman, Gina Brown, remembers when the epidemic unfolded during the early 80s in America; the little information that she did see on the illness was usually misinformation. And four decades later, she sees a clear parallel between the two health crises and how they have been handled by the government, society at large, and local community members. Brown referenced the isolation that HIV-positive and COVID-positive folks have experienced, pointing out that “both illnesses cause you to look at your fellow man as if they are a disease” (Law, 2021).
Before gay bars were more widely accepted by and incorporated into society, LGBTQ+ folks often met at public parks and bathhouses to partake in sexual activity deemed illegal at the time (Law, 2021). It was a liberation that came with the risk of being found, harmed, and/or imprisoned by law enforcement (Law, 2021) for the crime of being yourself– and with the outbreak of HIV/AIDS came the increased risk of virus transmission during these sexual encounters. Unfortunately, the lack of accurate information meant that many queer folks were unaware of the newfound danger associated with unprotected sex.
Since last year, COVID-19 has killed more than 600,000 people in the U.S. and over 3.7 million globally (Law, 2021), and the queer community has been (and continues to be) disproportionately underserved and overlooked by healthcare providers. Studies suggest that public assistance hasn’t been inclusive of LGBTQ+ needs (Gruberg, 2020)– higher rates of poverty, unstable housing, unemployment, lack of access to affirming health care and insurance (Fish et al., 2021), the above-average likelihood of LGBTQ+ folks working in industries with a higher risk for COVID-19 contact, having a lower average income when compared to their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts, and relying on government assistance (Whittington et al., 2020).
Additionally, LGBTQ+ folks are at a higher risk for physical, mental, and behavioral health complications (Gonzales & Henning-Smith, 2017). Almost 65 percent of LGBTQ+ adults have pre-existing conditions (Huelskoetter & Gee, 2017) and about 37 percent of LGBTQ+ adults smoke tobacco daily– compared to 27 percent of cisgender and heterosexual folks (Whittington et al., 2020). And since the start of the pandemic, these negative consequences have continued to disproportionately harm LGBTQ+ individuals and their relationships; interpersonal conflicts are often left unaddressed for fear of further disruption. This is called “complaint avoidance,” an unhealthy coping mechanism that is directly related to lower relationship satisfaction, increased rumination on ending relationships, and increased anxiety, depression, and substance use (Li & Samp, 2021).
Many LGBTQ+ folks have experienced more complaint avoidance within relationships after moving in with their partner during the pandemic; this is potentially due to decisions made hastily or ones based on financial need, rather than a desire to be closer to one another (Fish et al., 2021). But now that pandemic restrictions are loosening, LGBTQ+ couples will likely have more time to reevaluate their experiences and what they’re looking for in a relationship. And since it’s been established that queer folks are massively under supported by friends, family, community members, and service providers, allies might consider educating themselves so that they can offer queer-affirming, trauma-informed, non-judgmental, and harm-reduction-focused support to LGBTQ+ folks.