LGBTQ activists say COVID’s transition to normal doesn’t exist

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Robert McGruer
LGBTQ activist Robert McGruer

LGBTQ Health

To Robert McGruer a return to normalcy is in reference to something that is pretty ugly. Speaking calmy he knows exactly what to say. He remembers something Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick said in late March of 2020 about old peoples’ willingness to die of COVID for the good of the economy. McGruer says it is an example of the ways the pandemic has been used to fuel eugenics arguments over who gets to live and who gets to die.

“Society has emphasized normalcy over the course of the 19th century,” said McGruer. “In particular, people who were not heterosexual people, who were not abled and part of the status quo, became outcasts, the ones on the “abnormal side of life,” he explained

McGruer is a queer and crip cultural studies and critical theory professor at George Washington University. He is also the author of Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance, The Queer Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities, and Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability.

As the country drops COVID restrictions many communities are combatting the argument for normalcy while fighting for COVID relief to ensure medical care to at-risk communities. These are communities that have long had to take care of themselves.

“[Normalcy] kind of carries this ugly, ghosted history with it and has never been a history that has benefited queer and disabled people,” McGruer continues. “And I think, you know, the return to normalcy is capitalist speak, right? There is this sense that we’re going to return to what was really, already, a very dysfunctional society, so one would have hoped that we would have learned a lot more than we have, I think, from the pandemic.”

Populations most vulnerable to COVID make up millions of Americans. Approximately 31 million Americans are uninsured according to the CDC. Approximately 37 million Americans are low-income (according to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau). At least 7 million Americans (3% of the population) are immunocompromised. Over half a million people are homeless on a given night in the United States. And BIPOC, LGBTQ populations, as diverse communities of various age groups, disproportionately experience all four of these conditions.

Today, mass populations of people are forced to return to a “normal” life, while COVID continues to linger.

US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle (appointed by former President Donald Trump) on Mon. April 18 issued a ruling that the federal mask mandate on public transportation is unlawful. All this while the United States was on the brink of one million COVID deaths.

Although the country is experiencing the lowest levels of infections since March 2020, Omicron subvariant BA.2, the newest, most contagious strain, is the dominant strain in increasing infection rates.

“This is no time to let our guards down,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House coronavirus response coordinator in a CNN op-ed.

Before judge Mizelle’s block on the mask mandate, she was deemed unqualified to serve as a US District Judge by the American Bar Association. However, her decision is being praised by some. Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union — known as the nation’s original grassroots conservative organization — tweeted: “Two years of mask craziness on airlines were ended overnight by one Trump-appointed judge who had the courage to strike down the idea that the CDC can force mandates on the American people. God Bless Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle!”

Meanwhile the far-right is continuing the rhetoric. While the mask mandate is made out to be an oppressive measure stripping people of their rights in some cases, parents of transgender children are making GoFundMes in order to afford the travel to another state for gender-affirming care in Alabama. Doctors are banned from performing any gender-affirming care as of May 8 in the state. The lifesaving care will be considered a felony. Legislators — similarly to outlawing gender-affirming care — are now ensuring that people in need of abortions that are banned in Texas cannot go to Oklahoma without legal problems.

This is not uncommon in our culture says McGruer. “[There’s] a sort of lack of will to collectively take care of each other too when we live in a culture where, you know, someone’s right to not wear a mask is privileged more over someone’s right to live actually,” said the George Washington University professor.

While COVID relief funds run thin, Congress has approved $10 billion dollars offset by previously authorized relief funds not yet spent from the Democrats’ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package back in 2021. The package will cover antiviral mitigation spending and research as well as researching emerging variants.

The Biden administration in April announced it would increase antiviral pills — in particular Pfizer’s Paxlovid — to treat COVID. It is said to be effective, said Dr. Jha, and is the first step to treat the virus in addition with “test-to-treat” facilities. Test-to-treat facilities are prescribing antiviral pills to patients who test positive for COVID to reduce hospitalization and virus mortality rates. This could include other preventative medicinal therapy such as Evusheld, a new FDA-approved drug used to prevent COVID for those with immune systems unresponsive to the vaccine, said Dr. Jha.

Even with potential new measures of protection on the way, most think the pandemic went over the edge long before Omicron’s subvariant. Former President Trump in late March of 2020 held a briefing with his top aides and projected COVID deaths to reach 100,000 to 240,000 people. This projection was just not precise.

President Ronald Reagan in 1985 finally considered AIDS a “top priority” of his administration after more than five years of silence and tens of thousands of deaths. Adrian Shanker, editor of the 2022 anthology Crisis and Care: Queer Activist Responses to a Global Pandemic, says COVID is not different.

“I think that the LGBTQ+ community has a long and storied history of always needing to be our own health care advocates,” said Shanker. “That was certainly true during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, that was certainly true during COVID-19, and that will be true in the next pandemic as well.”

The 2022 anthology, soon to be released, shares the point of view of LGBTQ activists around the country that fought for LGBTQ inclusive measures throughout the pandemic. Shanker begs the questions, “Why would LGBTQ+ people be at higher risk for COVID-19?” He says the LGBTQ and BIPOC community has higher instances of smoking, higher instances of cancer and other comorbidities, higher instances of incarceration, and higher instances of unsuppressed HIV.

HIV and AIDS disproportionately affected Black communities from the beginning and that disparity still exists according to a 2020 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Transgender youth are four-times more likely to smoke tobacco than cisgender youth and LGB adults are 1.3 times more likely to smoke tobacco than straight adults, according to the Truth Initiative, America’s largest nonprofit public health organization committed to ending tobacco use.

Meanwhile, 20 states have introduced more than 25 bills banning gender-affirming care increasing inadequate LGBTQ healthcare among transgender and nonbinary youth, according to Freedom for All Americans.

“Queer communities built up mutual aid funds, started knitting masks, and demanded health data on the LGBTQ+ community, de-carceration, and immediate organization to ensure both governmental protections and community care initiatives met the diverse needs of a diverse community. This is a knee jerk reaction; communities have been organizing with or without a pandemic, with or without the help of government, in the fight for whatever the relativity of normalcy is for a people,” shares Shanker. “You know, it’s an ongoing pandemic and there’s ongoing community issues that are raised from disability justice to data equity to kind of the long-term economic ramifications for people who might have been out of work for a long period of time, perhaps, especially those whose jobs didn’t qualify them for unemployment.”

Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.