'I lost everything': LGBTQ people are bearing a bigger brunt of the pandemic, report shows

Susan Miller

The world for Atlas Marshall, a popular Portland, Oregon, drag performer and karaoke company owner, imploded last spring.

Marci Perry, a Denver personal trainer with a beloved shoeshine business, felt her livelihood slip “right through my fingers” in March. 

COVID-19 has crushed a lot of souls in its lethal stampede across the nation. But for members of the LGBTQ community such as Marshall and Perry, the pandemic has been particularly pernicious, exposing vulnerabilities that often bubble beneath the surface.

A report out Wednesday documents the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on LGTBQ households, and the findings are sobering: greater economic upheaval, higher unemployment rates and deeper challenges in accessing health care.

“What you are seeing is a reflection of disparities that existed prior to COVID being exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Logan Casey, policy researcher for the Movement Advancement Project, which produced the report based on a national poll from July and August.

Some of the report’s findings from the poll by NPR, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:

• 64% of LGBTQ households have experienced job losses vs. 45% of non-LGBTQ households.

• 38% of LGBTQ households have been unable to get medical care or delayed going to a doctor for a serious problem vs. 19% of non-LGBTQ households.

• Specific groups within the community face even greater challenges: Nearly all, or 95%, of Black LGBTQ respondents and 70% of Latinos indicated they or someone in their household experienced one or more serious financial problems.

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The report notes that many LGBTQ adults are employed by industries devastated by COVID-19, said Naomi Goldberg, MAP policy research director. 

“LGBTQ people are more likely to work in retail, restaurants, health care … all places where we have seen job cuts,” she said. 

LGBTQ people are also more likely to live alone and lack a family support system, the report shows: 44% said they or someone in their home had a serious problem coping with social and physical isolation, compared with 23% of non-LGBTQ people.

“People across the nation are struggling,” Casey said, but the mental health repercussions for LGBTQ adults are “huge.” 

Atlas Marshall, a trans female from Portland, Oregon, has been hard hit by repercussions from the pandemic.

'The world pulled the rug from under me'

Marshall, 31, a transgender woman, has been on her own since she was 17. She moved to Portland five years ago before she transitioned and was thrilled to discover a city with “many different pockets of queerness.”

She started a karaoke company with weekly gigs at a “little hole-in-the wall dive bar” but a place that enabled her to help spirits stretch and soar.

“You would see all these beautiful, unique human beings,” she said. “Being able to create a space for people to come and sing and express themselves was always a huge passion of mine.”    

Marshall hosted drag shows all over the city, and soon the former "American Idol" contestant became an entrenched Portland entertainer. She was scheduled for gender-affirming surgery in April; life was good.

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Then came COVID-19. The bars shut down, and “I lost everything,” she said. “I moved here with nothing and built a career for myself, and then the world pulled the rug from under me.”  

Marshall started work as a cashier at a grocery store for three months. But when her surgery was rescheduled for June, her bosses said she didn’t qualify for paid time off and told her “you have to quit.”

She has struggled to get unemployment and is frustrated that she has had to provide letters from doctors’ offices showing that her surgery was not cosmetic.

“I need to validate my trans-ness and prove the surgery was medically necessary,” she said.

Another barb to Marshall’s existence cropped up at a COVID-19 testing site she used several times. Although she hasn't had the money to change her documentation, she would always tell the staff she was a transgender female.

But the same person at the site “misgendered me over and over,” and Marshall finally had to look for testing elsewhere. “I would say, ‘Could you just say my last name … can you put something down in a record.’”

Marshall feels the weight of an unknown future.

“Some of the bars aren’t even sure they will stay open” once COVID-19 is tamed, she said. “Or if they can afford to pay me to provide services.”

'It was the hardest thing to lose'

Perry, 33, a Black lesbian, embraced her livelihood as a personal trainer with gusto because it allowed her to be a “point of positive change” for people. 

In the spring, Perry halted training sessions days before her Denver gym closed, concerned that the demographic of her clients – most were over 50 – put them at risk. 

But her biggest heartbreak was shutting down what she calls her “passion project,” the Denver Shine Company.

Perry had shined shoes for a family member’s business as a summer job in college, and the interaction with customers “quickly became my favorite thing to do.” 

Marci Perry loves personal training because it allows her to be a "point of positivity" for clients.

In 2016, Perry launched her own shoeshine company with a walk-in location in downtown Denver and a mobile component for conventions, trade shows and board meetings. When COVID-19 crept in in early 2020, Perry knew “the writing was on the wall.” Her business, which was booked for events four or five months ahead of time, went dormant on March 16.

“It was the hardest thing to lose,” she said.

But in the midst of adversity she summoned an inner strength – and got creative.

“As a Black, gay woman I’ve faced a lot of challenges, but I’ve always prided myself on being resilient,” she said.

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Perry started a fitness Instagram account, hosted Zoom classes, met clients in parks, remodeled her garage for socially distanced training sessions.

“It wasn’t quite as busy as the gym, but by July it was sustainable," she said.

Perry isn’t surprised by the MAP report showing Black LGBTQ people struggling in the past nine months.

“It’s not shocking when you live in those categories. You are always the first to feel the brunt of what society is dealing with,” she said. “The second there is any rocking of the boat, it’s going to hit you first and you have farther to fall.” 

COVID-19 will have long-lasting repercussions 

Marshall is keenly aware of the bigger picture the pandemic has wrought: “Cool, a vaccine comes. But life is not going back to normal. The harm this year has done to marginalized communities is not just going to go away.”

Goldberg agrees. The MAP report doesn’t just document issues in the present – it is a red flag for the future, she said. There needs to be an investment in cornerstones from housing to health care for those often on the edge; explicit discrimination protections should be a priority, she said.

“What is really important is that the pandemic will end at some point … but this is a long game. We need to think about what this means for the most vulnerable, and that includes LGBTQ people,” she said.

“My hope is that we don’t just get a vaccine and move on.”

Marci Perry with Jasper Thurman, who worked at the Denver Shine Company's stand four days a week until it closed in March. Thurman is a 30-year shoe shine veteran who previously ran his own business in Las Vegas. "I miss working with him dearly," Perry said.