Covid-19

The sexual politics of lockdown

by Gavin Brown, University of Leicester, UK

On 14 May 2020, ahead of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, a joint statementwas issued by the United Nations declaring that governments must ensure that emergency responses to Covid-19 do not worsen inequalities faced by people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, nor should they lead to increased violence or discrimination against them. The declaration was signed by 96 United Nations and international human rights experts and endorsed by the 31 nations that constitute the UN LGBTI Core Group and a further 24 nations. The UN LGBTI Core Group stated,

actions must not target LGBTI persons in the guise of protecting health and that the use of emergency powers should be strictly limited to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

This statement represents one of the most significant declarations from the United Nations about the importance of protecting people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities around the world. It demonstrates both that sexuality and gender identity have become key matters of diplomatic concern in the early 21st century, but also that the Covid-19 pandemic has a sexual politics.

There are numerous examples from around the world of ways in which Covid-19 has either amplified prejudice against LGBT people, or been used as a pretext for arbitrary harassment of them. In Uganda, 23 residents of a shelter for vulnerable LGBT people in Kampala were arrested on 29 March accused of ‘a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease,’ and ‘disobedience of lawful orders’ regarding the Covid-19 lockdown. In South Korea, a cluster of more than 100 COVID-19 cases linked to LGBT bars and clubs in Seoul has spurred an increase in homophobic propaganda within the country encouraged by conservative Protestant churches. As critical human geographers have long argued, it is problematic to suggest that homophobia and transphobia occur ‘over there’ while presenting the UK, North America and Western Europe as paragons of social progress. Indeed, the Trump administration has been condemned for its attempt to pressurize the United Nations into removing references to sexual and reproductive health from its Covid-19 humanitarian response plan. And, while there is less direct evidence of a link to Covid-19, there is evidence that recent geopolitical changes have inspired an increase in hate crimes against LGBT people in Western Europe. 

The lockdowns that have been imposed across the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have required citizens to stay in their homes for their own and others’ safety. However, geographers of sexuality and gender have consistently highlighted that women and sexual/gendered minorities have a very ambiguous relationship to home.

Women’s use of public space remains highly constrained in many societies, leading many to contest the assumption that women’s ‘natural’ place is in the home. Similarly, LGBT people have frequently been told to keep their sexuality and/or gender identity ‘private’ (even as the material constraints of shared accommodation, or a lack of secure housing, mean that many can only ever find privacy in public spaces). For some LGBT young people, the lockdowns have forced them to return to live with families who do not understand or affirm their sexuality or gender identity. For many trans and non-binary people, life in enforced lockdown with unsupportive family members can mean trying to cope with constant misgendering, or the threat of violence.

Thinking about the sexual politics of Covid-19 lockdowns is not simply about risks and threats, but also about analysing what might be presented as ‘opportunities’. The 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic in London has been exploring the potential of the lockdown to help combat HIV infections amongst gay and bisexual men in the city. Their argument rests on the assumption that lockdowns and social distancing impact on the spread of all infectious diseases, not just Covid-19. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis in the UK, the Dean Street clinic has been monitoring new cases of gonorrhoea and prescriptions for Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), an antiretroviral treatment which is highly effective in stopping HIV infection if taken within 72 hours of exposure to HIV. They have used these two markers because they are things that people are unlikely to put off seeking urgent treatment for, if they need it.

In both cases, the clinic has recorded a sharp decline in new cases since strict social distancing was put into effect in the UK; because, they believe, far fewer people are having unprotected sex with new partners at the present time. In a context where new HIV infections have dropped by 71% in London since 2012, the clinic and leading HIV charities are proposing that the lockdown provides an opportunity to test and identify the shrinking population of gay men in the capital who are HIV+ but not yet on antiretroviral treatments that suppress their viral load and prevent them from passing on the infection. As Dr Alan McOwan from the clinic said

“If we can now find the remaining people with HIV through testing and put them on treatment, we could remove anyone who is infectious from the population with long-lasting effects. We won’t get this two-month window of no sex again.”

While the ambition of the Dean Street clinic is highly laudable, there are critical questions to be asked about how they represent people with HIV in their statements. It seems in many ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has inadvertently revived outdated tropes of people with HIV as unhygienic disease vectors. Given that sexual health services in the UK have been significantly reduced during the current crisis, both to reduce risks of Covid-19 infection in clinics and to redeploy health professionals to treat the pandemic, the aspiration to make a ‘long-lasting’ impact on HIV infections at the present time seems somewhat utopian. It also overlooks how two months of enforced abstinence may be experienced as anything but a positive opportunity for many of the people being addressed by these interventions.

Geographers have a lot to offer an analysis of the sexual politics of the pandemic. While it is tempting to draw parallels between life in lockdown and quarantine with the longer history of LGBT people being ‘closeted’ – forced to comply (and be complicit) with societal pressure to keep their sexuality and gender identity ‘private’ and out of the public eye – the current situation is more complex and uneven than that. It is certainly true that some LGBT people have been forced back into domestic situations where they are forced to conceal their sexuality or gender identity for their own safety. Similarly, the use of emergency lockdown regulations as a pretence to attack and harass LGBT people physically in places like Uganda, or the US government’s attempt to restrict the incorporation of sexual and reproductive health in humanitarian responses to the pandemic, demonstrate wider political attacks on recent advances in gender equality and LGBT rights internationally. At the same time, the declaration issued by human rights experts at the United Nations demonstrate that these attacks are contested and new coalitions are being forged to advance human rights around sexual orientation and gender identity internationally.

As geographers, we have a key role to play in analysing the ambivalent and uneven ways in which sexual politics is being contested through the pandemic. This is not just about analysing the impacts of the pandemic, directly and indirectly, on LGBT people around the world, but also interrogating how new ways of experiencing and understanding sexuality are being produced in this moment.


About the author: Gavin Brown is Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities at the University of Leicester. He has recently been awarded a small COVID-19 Urgency Grant by the Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies to explore “The Epistemologies Of ‘Lockdown’: The Spatialization Of Sexual And Gender Politics In A Time Of Pandemic” with collaborators in India, Ireland and the UK.

Suggested Further Reading

Brickell, K. (2012), ‘Geopolitics of home’, Geography Compass, 6(10), 575-588. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2012.00511.x

Brown, G., Browne, K., Elmhirst, R., and Hutta, S. (2010), ‘Sexualities in/of the Global South’, Geography Compass,4(10), 1567-1579. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2010.00382.x

Brown, M. P. (2000), Closet space: Geographies of metaphor from the body to the globe, London: Routledge.

Maguire, H., McCartan, A., Nash, C. J., and Browne, K. (2019), ‘The enduring field: Exploring researcher emotions in covert research with antagonistic organisations’, Area, 51(2), 299-306. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12464

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