Expert Commentary

Covering the impact of COVID-19 on the LGBTQ community: 4 tips and 5 questions to get you started

As newsrooms cover COVID-19 and its impacts on groups disproportionately affected by the disease, journalists often overlook or give less attention to the LGBTQ population.

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

LGBTQ Americans are more likely than the general population to live in poverty, lack access to medical care, health insurance and paid medical leave, and be at greater risk of health complications due to COVID-19, research has shown. Systemic discrimination and economic disparities are among the drivers of this population’s increased vulnerability.

The LGTBQ population, which is estimated to include between 9 to 14 million adults in the United States — also is at a high risk for substance abuse, poor mental health and domestic violence, problems health officials/academics/advocates worry have worsened during the pandemic.

As newsrooms cover COVID-19 and its impacts on groups disproportionately affected by the disease, journalists often overlook or give less attention to the LGBTQ population.

To help journalists understand why such stories are important and guide their coverage, we compiled four reporting tips, gleaned from conversations with several experts. This tip sheet is a companion to our research roundup on the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ communities.

1. Keep in mind the LGBTQ population is not monolithic.

Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers University School of Public Health, makes this point in a recent editorial in Annals of LGBTQ Public and Population Health, of which he is the founding editor-in-chief. Gay men’s experiences and challenges differ from those of lesbians and transgender individuals. “I think we tend to want to put people in boxes and we know perfectly well that people just don’t fit in one box,” Halkitis tells Journalist’s Resource. “When we think about prevention and health-care delivery, how we deliver care to lesbians is different from gay men, is different from bi folks and from trans folks, and yet we somehow act as if the group is all the same.”

Even within each letter of the acronym, there’s enormous diversity, says Halkitis.

“A 22-year-old Black gay man who lives in New York City is going to have very different needs from health care than a 72-year-old Asian man who lives in Montana,” he says.

2. There’s a dearth of federal data about LGBTQ people. Note that in your stories.

Most government data collection efforts focused on COVID-19 don’t include questions about Americans’ sexual orientation and gender identity. Part of the reason for this dearth of data is a result of historical discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Progress has been made over recent decades and there’s hope there will be a move toward more equitable data collection under President Joe Biden, according to the experts interviewed for this tip sheet.

“We need this data because LGBT people have disparities of health and [economics] that have been documented for decades,” says Brad Sears, founding executive director of the Williams Institute, a public policy research institute based at the UCLA School of Law. “If we’re going to address the health of the American public, and include everyone in the economic recovery, we also need information about [the LGBT population].”

In the meantime, private or nonprofit groups such as the Williams Institute and the Human Rights Campaign have tried to fill this gap with their own surveys, although they are smaller than federal surveys such as the decennial census.

Sears advises journalists to “recognize that this is the best data we have and the reason for that is because these large surveys are not routinely asking this question, so it’s both drawing attention to the data gap and understanding that until we have these questions routinely asked from large government surveys, the only data that we have are these other efforts.”

In a 2019 opinion piece published on the website of the Association of American Medical Colleges, Dr. Carl G. Streed Jr. and colleagues encourage medical schools and teaching hospitals to improve LGBTQ health education.

“Creating more welcoming learning environments for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and patients can help us graduate more competent and compassionate physicians,” the authors write.

Here’s a list of states that collect sexual orientation and gender identity data as part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As part of its objectives, Healthy People 2030 wants to increase the number of states that collect this data to 37.

3. Include LGBTQ individuals in your everyday stories, instead of only siloed features.

“Don’t just say, ‘Let’s do a story on queer folks,’ advises Naomi Goldberg, LGBTQ program director at Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on policy analysis, messaging and communications research. “What’s actually worth doing is a story on communities of color being hit hard by COVID and include a personal story of a queer Black woman or a Latino gay man whose one of 70% of the Latinx households that are having a hard time [financially].”

4. If you’re not sure which terminology or pronouns to use to describe sources in a story, ask.

Ask your sources which ones they prefer, says Goldberg. Several organizations have created guides: MAP’s An Ally’s Guide to Terminology; GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide; HRC’s Glossary of Terms. Both LGBT and LGBTQ are acceptable acronyms, according to Associated Press style, which Journalist’s Resource follows.

“It really depends on if you’re talking about the specific community at large, a subset of the community or an individual,” says Tari Hanneman, Director of Health and Aging Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, an advocacy organization focused on the LGBTQ community.

“If you’re talking about the entire community, it’s usually LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA+ — there are many different variations of that depending on how inclusive you’re making the community.”

Researchers will specify which populations they have studied. Academic papers sometimes use the term “sexual and gender minority.”

“If it’s an individual, then you definitely want to be referring to terms of how they refer to themselves,” Hanneman says. “We’re a complex group and there’s lot of different identities and even a person can hold multiple identities.”

She cites herself as an example: “I’m bisexual, but I’ve been in a relationship with a woman for 20-some years, so I also identify as lesbian, but I really prefer the term queer.”

Some questions to get you started

These questions can help local reporters generate story ideas about the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ people in their communities:

  • What is your community doing to address the needs of its LGBTQ population?
  • Research shows that LGBTQ people are less likely to have access to primary care physicians or a regular place to seek medical care. What are the barriers they face in getting tested for COVID-19 or getting the vaccine?
  • Find out if your local LGBTQ centers have programs aimed at older adults. How are they making sure this population isn’t isolated?
  • As your state collects COVID-related data, is it collecting sexual orientation and gender identity information? If so, use this data to shed light on the impact of the pandemic on the LGBTQ community in your state.
  • Have local LGBTQ centers and health departments made changes to how they provide HIV treatment and testing during the pandemic? Are more patients having difficulty maintaining treatment?

Further reading

COVID-19 Continues to Adversely Impact LGBTQ People While Initial Phases of Reopening Create New Economic Problems
HRC Foundation, September 2020.

Understanding the Well-Being of LGBTQI+ Populations
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, October 2020.

LGBT Poverty in the United States
The Williams Institute, October 2019.

About The Author