Sexual Orientation and COVID-19

News media tends to leave out the LGBTQ voice; a single source from the nonheterosexual community doesn’t cut it.

By Martin G. Reynolds

Mainstream news outlets frame the coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the LGBTQ community through a lens of fear and risk. And although outlets that serve this constituency also highlight risks facing their audiences, the tone of the coverage is decidedly different, rooted in community, resources and resilience.

On the mainstream side, this NBC News piece talks about how the coronavirus pandemic is “a perfect storm for LGBTQ homeless youth.” The story reports that “school closures, reduced services at LGBTQ community centers and a lack of family support, leaves these young Americans particularly vulnerable.”

This is an important story, and largely well reported. However, only one person impacted by this issue is quoted. The rest of the story features people working for organizations that serve folks like Nez Marquez, 23, who is featured in the story. As such, the community is being written about and not being afforded the opportunity to speak for itself. It’s a classic mainstream journalistic approach, but who does it actually serve?

It is vital for journalists to understand the societal Fault Lines of Race, Class, Gender, Generation, Geography and Sexual orientation. How journalists align across these social fault lines impacts how they see the world. It influences how they approach stories and the framing of coverage, asserted Maynard Institute co-founder Robert C. Maynard who developed this framework decades ago.

The Dallas Voice, which describes itself as “the premier media source LGBT Texas” produced a piece about how national LGBTQ health organizations warn about risks of COVID-19 for LGBTQ population.

Among the reasons for the increased risk, “LGBTQ+ people continue to experience discrimination, unwelcoming attitudes, and lack of understanding from providers and staff in many health care settings, and as a result, many are reluctant to seek medical care except in situations that feel urgent — and perhaps not even then.”

While the publication focused on the challenges facing the community around this disease, it also listed a roundup of other coronavirus news and information, including a webinar put on by The North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce to provide tips on how to manage stress brought on by COVID-19. “Attendees will learn how to identify symptoms of anxiety and be given advice and tools to alleviate stress and anxiety” the listing for the event read.

There is a clear difference in tone when a community is reporting about itself versus being reported on. There was a sense of empowerment and agency in the pieces produced by publications that serve this community and a lingering air of hopelessness or outright conflict in the stories by mainstream publications that serve a variety of audiences.

The difference may have also been rooted in that there was other content in the niche publications that provided a larger framing of the LGBTQ community which wasn’t present in one-off stories by mainstream organizations.

A piece which appears in the Washington Blade talks about how state health officials responsible for gathering data on COVID-19 “are declining to collect and report whether or not patients identify as LGBTQ — a practice that angers advocates “who say those answers could yield important information to combat the disease.”

The Blade is “the oldest LGBT newspaper in the U.S. covering the latest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender news in Washington, DC.

The Blade also published a story about comments made by White House Coronavirus Task Force member, Dr. Anthony Fauci. The headline of the story read, “Gay people lifted stigma with ‘incredible courage’ in HIV/AIDS epidemic, and went on to highlight COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on black Americans. The story quoted Fauci as saying the disease has ‘shed a light’ on health disparities in the United States much like HIV/AIDS did with LGBTQ people.

This story by the Blade actually reaches across the social Fault Lines of Sexual Orientation and Race to provide a more nuanced framing of two groups that are disproportionately affected by this pandemic. In doing so, it highlights the struggles of two communities in a way that connects them.

Another story by the Blade entitled “We’re going to party again,” highlighted how stay-at-home orders are not only affecting LGBTQ businesses, but also disrupting the fabric of the community. The piece revealed how bars and clubs serve as social safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community and the lockdown is leaving an often marginalized group feeling even more isolated. The story read like it was being written for the community, not about the community.

A piece by the Rainbow Times in Massachusetts highlights the economic challenges facing members of the LQBTQ community. The Boston-based publication describes itself as “the only minority-owned (partly women, partly Hispanic, partly transgender) publication dedicated to the LGBTQ community and its allies.”

The story is based on a report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s analysis that members of the LQBTQ community would face “compounded challenges” as a result of the pandemic.

The piece outlined “the top five industries in which LGBTQ adults in the United States are most likely to work.”

  • 2 million work in restaurants and food services (15%)
  • 1 million work in hospitals (7.5%)
  • Almost 1 million work in K-12 education (7%)
  • Almost 1 million work in colleges and universities (7% of LGBTQ adults)
  • Half a million work in retail (4% of LGBTQ adults)

This piece injected the Fault Line of Class to show how the pandemic will impact the overall health and financial wellness of members of the LGBTQ community. But it doesn’t do it from a fear or risk perspective, but rather from the perspective of sustainability and equity.

Finally, this story from The New York Times revealed how a police chief in Florida has been put on leave, “after suggesting that a Broward County sheriff’s deputy died from the coronavirus because he was gay,” according to a complaint filed.

The chief suggested that officer Shannon Bennett had contracted the coronavirus and died from it because “he was a homosexual who attended homosexual events,” the complaint said.

This story does feature a passage about how Bennett was called “a fine deputy and individual” by Sheriff Gregory Tony for being “instrumental in leading an initiative to foster unity between law enforcement and the L.G.B.T. community.”

However, nobody else from the LGBTQ community is quoted in the story, which is often typical of how mainstream news outlets approach coverage. The people who are most affected by an issue are spoken of by experts, but often not afforded the chance to speak for themselves.

MAYNARD INSTITUTE FAULT LINES COVID-19 COVERAGE EXERCISE:

Now that you have been exposed to this Fault Line, how would you approach the coverage of COVID-19 that reaches across the social Fault Line of Sexual Orientation?

Things to keep in mind as you brainstorm:

  • Are you trusted by members of the LQBTQ+ community? If not, how will you gain trust?
  • Are you sharing resources and statistics relevant to the LGBTQ+ community?
  • Are there collaborations you could foster to help connect you to folks across this Fault Line?
  • Do you have people who align across this fault line making content decisions?
  • Does your community engagement strategy reach across the Fault Line of Sexual Orientation?

Martin G. Reynolds is the Co-Executive Director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. For more information about remote Fault Lines training please email Martin at mreynolds@mije.org.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

Fighting for newsrooms that represent America since 1977.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

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The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society. mije.org & bit.ly/39iiNOA

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society.