Lesbian experiences of the pandemic

It’s become a cliché. We’re all in the same storm, but not all in the same boat. We know that some people have made a lot of money out of Covid, while many have got much poorer. A few had parties while we missed our families, endured sickness and bereavement, learned, or did not, to live with loneliness.

I was interested to know about the specific experiences of lesbians – that class of humans constituted of adult human females sexually attracted to other adult human females. Experience in my networks suggested that there might be some trends that were exaggerated in our community and I wondered if anyone had taken a rigorous look.

Not so much.

Some surveys studied ‘the LGBT community’, as if we are all one group. There are financial inconsistencies between lesbians and gay men, for a start. That’s the sex pay-gap for you. The clear expectation that women will shoulder the burden of care, formal or informal, with the extra infection risks, although men seem to become more seriously ill. Plus there are now well-documented differences between ethnic communities, often rooted in distrust of the health system and financial inequality. Age plays a big role. None of the surveys I found looked solely at lesbians; most looked at the alphabet-defined ‘community’ as if that could tell me what I wanted to know.

Indeed, the evidence base is so poor, even the British Medical Journal seemed shocked in their 2021 systematic review. Noting the lack of robust evidence, they said ‘what has been published internationally suggests several potential health and well-being impacts’ but despite an extensive search they found no peer-reviewed studies. Surveys are self-selecting, with limited comparator groups, often badly structured and with small populations. The BMJ notes that the surveys they found largely came via charities. I found a few more but they do indeed come from lobby groups and the like, rather than academic, properly constructed and peer-reviewed studies.

Many are place specific, from Lancashire to Hong Kong to the US. While some look at women (including lesbians), and some look at men who have sex with men, none of the surveys in the BMJ research look specifically at lesbians. One (from London ) looks at older members of the LGBT communities. The TUC published some guidance for workers in Wales and the UK charity Just Like Us published a survey () suggesting young Welsh people were more affected than in the other nations.

Even the Diva/Stonewall survey (written up here but not separately published as far as I have found) covers ‘LGBT+ women and non-binary people’; they do say that of almost 2000 respondents, 72% (some 1400) self-described as lesbian, a goodly number but without any available breakdown by age, ethnicity or geography. Similarly, the report by EL*C (EuroCentralAsian Lesbian Community) explicitly expands the word ‘lesbian’ well beyond the category of women who have sex with women. This report received over 2000 responses, mostly from western European countries. It further highlighted increased fear of violence both in public spaces – including online – and from families during lockdown.

So –have lesbians living in Wales experienced anything specific during the pandemic? We simply don’t know.

Nonetheless, these surveys covering many different countries, are remarkably consistent on three findings.

Firstly significantly higher levels of mental stress than in other analyses. Various reasons were identified: loneliness, finance, fear of discovery if closeted, unhappy living arrangements in which to be confined all play a part.
Secondly, higher levels of financial stress, with more jobs lost or more precarious employment in the LGB and TQ communities than generally. In the UK this will be further exacerbated by the general increase in costs attributed to the pandemic, Brexit and global tensions, particularly affecting lesbians working in the ‘gig’ economy as performers, tradeswomen, carers and retail workers.

Thirdly, fear. It is not clear whether fear of crowds, public spaces and events is significantly greater among lesbians than others, and how much that fear has been increased by the high profile of violence against women generally during this time, but the issues of increased sexual assault and lesbophobic rhetoric figure in these surveys.

labKey parts of these survey chime with my own discussions with friends and networks over the past two years.

Many lesbians experience extreme family estrangement and we are less likely to have children. Building our own networks has been crucial for decades. The lockdowns and other strains have left many lesbians living alone and with few local support networks they can access. Zoom only goes so far for those birthday parties and other life events, let alone the regular meet-ups and shared experiences.

While there has been a growth in more commercial events and opportunities (festivals and the like), these are often too expensive for many women to access, especially with incomes so insecure. While businesses and organisers need to make a living, the difficulty of just meeting in the park, going to the pub or managing a safe book club have created new barriers for easy contact.
Discussions also reveal that many lesbians want *lesbian-only space*, with strong memories of the self-organised groups which flourished in South Wales pre March 2020 with low financial barriers to engagement.

Exploring these issues also reveals a sense of de-skilling – particularly regarding outdoor activity (so popular in many communities in the pandemic), making music or dancing together and general social skills which have become rusty if socialising with more than two or three people. I have lost count of the number of lesbians who say they have no idea how they will socialise if we are ever able to rebuild our fractured community.

I have also found a pervasive sense that lesbians feel their community has become poorer and attenuated through the pandemic. It has always been a feature of our lives that we build our connections ourselves. The pandemic has severed so many of our bonds; lesbians are desperate for safe, accessible opportunities to meet old friends and make new ones.

So – like all busy women – we have begun organising in new ways. In a few days, we hope to publish a short programme of Lesbian Reconnection Events in the Swansea area during March. Watch this space.