Queering Disasters: Counting LGBT Experiences During Natural Disasters

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By Dale Dominey-Howes

As we head into summer, it’s time to remember that “disaster season” is almost here.

When disaster strikes, not everyone is affected in the same way. Research shows that the experiences of LGBTIQA + people are often very different from those of heterosexuals. While LGBTIQA + people are often lumped together in a single “community”, in reality there are several communities, and each has particular experiences of disasters.

Together with Andrew Gorman Murray and Scott McKinnon, I started to explore the experiences of LGBTIQA + people during and after disasters such as bushfires, floods, tropical cyclones and earthquakes in Australia and New Zealand.

We looked at how disasters affected these people and communities, their experiences with government and other support agencies and the positive experiences they have had with resilience, to face and adapt.

“You never know if you will be treated properly and with respect”

LGBTIQA + people experience vulnerability to disasters in unique ways. Fear, marginalization, misunderstanding, exclusion and discrimination are all factors to be managed, in addition to the other devastating personal and financial effects of disasters.

Many LGBTIQA + people do not disclose their sexual and gender identities. For example, if your house is damaged or if you have to evacuate to a public shelter shared with hundreds of strangers, your identity becomes truly visible.

A anybody told us that following the floods in Brisbane in 2011: “I wasn’t completely out at the time so I already had to hide things.

In many cases, becoming “visible” when a disaster strikes has resulted in verbal abuse or worse. One person tell us while filming the Brisbane floods, he was accused of being a pedophile.

Accessing support services can be stressful and problematic, with just one person story we: “It’s always a bit of a worry outing myself.

“I had to close part of my identity at home”

Pride of Midsumma March 2021

Uncertainty can weigh heavily on some. Alice a trans woman from queensland Explain :

Discrimination when accessing traditional services is always a problem – you never know if you will be treated properly and with respect.

Another noted: “I would have worried that my relationship had not been accepted into mainstream support services. “

A genderqueer person describe How? ‘Or’ What, “I was concerned that if I needed direct contact assistance, I would either have been tried or misidentified regarding my gender.

If your home is damaged, moving in with relatives or another family is not always an easy fix, as some people’s stories have shown: “I came home and was stuck in the house all week with my family because I can’t drive and there was no public transportation […] My family didn’t know at the time that I was dating someone – and it wasn’t something I was going to reveal – so it wasn’t something I could talk about.

“I stayed with my cousins, who were quite conservative […] I had to hide part of my identity for a little while.

We also found a absence of queer stories in most mainstream media coverage contributed to a narrative that constructed catastrophes experienced exclusively by heterosexual families.

Unwelcoming spaces

In evacuation shelters, bathrooms and toilets are usually divided into “male” and “female” spaces. For some LGBTIQA + people, being forced to go to a female / male washroom space where their body becomes visible to others can be very traumatic. This is often due to previous experiences of discrimination, harassment and violence.

For trans people, especially those in transition, female / male public toilets are really problematic.

Some people have spoken of being blamed for the disaster. After the Christchurch earthquake, a gay man from Christchurch explained:

There were religious lunatics saying that homosexuals caused the earthquakes.

Following the floods, a person noted: “People were targeting gay groups in town because our “behavior” had brought it to the community as a whole.

Emergency response services are generally subcontracted to third faith-based institutions. As many know, these organizations have not always been particularly welcoming to LGBTIQA + people!

Pandemics are also disasters

The current COVID-19 pandemic is also a disaster and an example of how pandemics can be experienced differently by many LGBTIQA + people (especially those who are younger and have a job or insecure housing).

The current pandemic has forced some LGBTIQA + people to move to their parental home after losing their job or their own home. It can force people back into the closet as they try to adjust to the expectations of unwelcoming families – an incredibly stressful experience.

Resilience and mutual aid

We also learned a lot of good news about resilience, coping and coping. In the aftermath of a disaster, for example, online support communities spontaneously emerged where people advertised safe housing for others and provided care and support packages.

Some people spoke of relying on the LGBTIQA + community for help: “I wasn’t going to leave my seat but my LGBT friends (who live 10 houses away) woke me up in the middle of the night to inform me that both ends of our road had been flooded. We ended up getting out of my car, through the back yard access, and knocking down a fence.

Where from here?

The United Nations States Disaster preparedness, response and recovery services should be accessible to all, but sensitive to the specific needs of different members of the community. With colleagues from all over the world, I work with the The UN Office of Disasters to achieve LGBTIQA + inclusion people on the international disaster agenda – much remains to be done.

More research is needed on the experiences and needs of LGBTIQA + people (including faith-based people) and how faith-based institutions could support inclusive LGBTIQA + response and recovery. We also need to understand the experiences of queer members of emergency services to ensure they are supportive and inclusive.

Professor Dale Dominey-Howes (School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney) works on disaster and risk assessment and management of natural (and man-made) events and how communities can be more resilient to their impacts.



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