It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our world upside down and affected every single one of us in different ways. It is impossible to turn on the news or read the newspaper and not hear reporters talk about the number of cases, the economic damage, or the latest predictions — however, there’s an urgent matter that very few seem to be talking about: the particular vulnerability of the LGBTQI+ community during this time.
It is estimated that approximately 20 to 40 percent of the homeless youth in the United States identifies as LGBTQI+ — as a result of the pandemic, many of the centers that they rely on for housing have either closed down, been forced to reduce their working times, or are not allowing as many people as they used to. In addition, homophobia regularly causes the LGBTQI+ community to struggle when it comes to accessing health services and facing disproportionate rates of domestic violence — which is exacerbated during this time when folks are forced to stay home in unhealthy, abusive environments.
We have reached out to Plan International USA (Plan), the non-profit organization known for its extensive work to assist young people all over the globe, to find out more about what their projects are to help the LGBTQI+ community during this pandemic. We were able to connect with Jorge, a member of the Youth Advisory Board who’s currently a high school senior in an under-resourced community in Oklahoma City, and he told us everything about how the organization is working to tackle the previously mentioned issues.
Affinity Magazine: First of all, Jorge, I would like to know a little bit more about your background. What sparked your interest in activism and helping others?
Jorge: I felt there was a need for a voice in my community. I knew there were food pantries in our schools, but my peers still suffered from food insecurity. I knew about the countless volunteer opportunities in my community, but I was drawn to addressing food insecurity and knew I had to step in. Although I admired so many people who had overcome obstacles i and were giving back, I never saw someone like me.
As a low-income, Hispanic student, I believe it is my responsibility to set an example for those who look like me and those who need representation. I realized that my community desperately needed unity and I began to work alongside community leaders and activists to address issues occurring in our country.
AM: You’ve done some volunteer work at the Regional Food Bank. Has that experience inspired you to work with Plan International USA? In what way?
Jorge: I began volunteering at the Regional Food Bank when I was nine. Throughout the years, my leadership skills and ability to communicate with others developed and so did my position. I became an intern and was able to continue my passion for helping others. Thanks to my incredible experience with the Food Bank, I realized my impact could go far beyond Oklahoma City.
I recall my experience at the food bank as a life-changing experience that exposed me to young leaders that then led me to Plan. Throughout my time with Plan, I have cultivated relationships with young leaders and change-makers around the country who are working to address inequalities, particularly gender, for girls, femmes and non-binary people all over the world. From coast to coast, I have collaborated with passionate young leaders every month to raise awareness, advocate and address some of the most pressing issues young people are facing. We manage a heavy workload but we also laugh, share memories and encourage each other to be the change we want to see in our communities. Plan has taught me the importance of youth voice; my opinion and perspective matter and my involvement with them betters the lives of those who are underrepresented.
AM: You are a member of the Youth Advisory Board at Plan International USA. Can you tell us a bit more about what the organization is currently working on to help people all over the world during this difficult moment?
Jorge: Right now, Plan is working with so many different vulnerable groups, including the LGBTQI+ community, in about 50 countries around the world to address their needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Plan is exploring how to support LGBTQI+ centers for Venezuelan refugees. In Colombia, Plan is focusing on prevention and response to gender-based violence among LGBTQI+ migrant, refugee, returnee and host communities. And in Senegal, Plan is providing services, including contraception counseling and provision, mental-health counseling related to gender-based violence and is working against stigma and discrimination of LGBTQI+ people in the health care system.
AM: Plan is definitely doing a lot of work in order to help those that have been affected by the pandemic. Why have you and Plan International USA set helping the LGBTQI+ community as one of your priorities?
Jorge: Here in the US, LGBTQI+ youth are significantly over-represented in homeless populations compared with their proportion of the U.S. population. Now, while searching for housing, and on the streets, these youths not only endure traumatic experiences, such as harassment and abuse from peers and shelter staff, they also are exposed to more people in shelters that don’t abide by safeguarding guidelines that keep them safe from the virus. LGBTQI+ youth across the world face similar, if not more dire, situations. And in those countries where Plan is working, they seek to support the most marginalized populations.
I can speak from experience and say that even when you are in a house full of family members, you can still feel alone. The isolation I have experienced during this pandemic has influenced my interest and concern for the issues that queer youth might experience during this crisis. Some LGBTQI+ youth are now trapped in homophobic homes and exposed to harassment from family members. Before, young people were in school with supportive teachers and friends or could find safe spaces to spend time, like the library — but the pandemic has exposed queer youth to more time in uncomfortable situations in their own homes.
That’s why I think the work Plan is doing around the world with LGBTQI+ communities is important: Plan is raising awareness about gender-based violence, providing psychosocial support, and establishing centers to provide services and safe spaces to LGBTQI+ youth which is extremely helpful, especially during these difficult times.
AM: What do you feel are the biggest challenges of finding solutions to these issues while having to work remotely? Can people contribute from their homes as well?
Jorge: I believe communication is a challenge we did not expect during this pandemic. Working and online classes are now in people’s homes and not everyone has access to devices and reliable internet. The new work environment has combined people’s personal and professional lives, and the change can be difficult to adapt to. We’re all physically cut off from our friends, networks and safe spaces we frequented. This change has encouraged me to talk to old friends and rekindle relationships because I realize that queer youth can have difficult experiences in their homes and I want to be a resource to them.
Some LGBTQI+ youths are experiencing more time in homophobic homes and trapped in difficult, sometimes dangerous, situations. Communicate with one another and remind friends and family members that they are not alone during this crisis. Some may be in their home with many people but still feel isolated from the support they need to get through a day. Although this new environment can be difficult to adjust to, remember there are always people that can benefit from a warm text, friendly call or a heartfelt check-in..
AM: After this pandemic is over, in what ways do you plan to continue working with Plan to help the LGBTQI+ community?
Jorge: I will continue to work with Plan as a member of the YAB and assure the LGBTQI+ community is involved and represented in our conversations. The YAB provides a space where I can voice my opinion and interact with other passionate young leaders that are working to address inequality in our communities.
Plan is always open to suggestions and seeks to deepen their outreach, to ensure the LGBTQI+ community has a voice in the conversation when it regards the enhancement and improvement of their experiences in their communities. The YAB is continuously making decisions and programs that are inclusive and allow young people to strive for a just world.
AM: What advice would you give to kids and teenagers who are striving to become activists but don’t know where to begin, especially in this context?
Jorge: Take small steps and speak up when you see a need or someone to help. I began to see my 12-year-old sister clean dishes and wash clothes, but I was never asked to do that. My family’s idea of normal perpetuated gender inequality, and that is not what I wanted, so I stepped in and began to do the work my younger sister was asked to do. You can create change in your own home and help your family develop more progressive practices at home.
Whether it is in your home, school, or state, change is what we need in our communities to move forward together and create a safe, comfortable and equitable environment for all. You can begin by making small changes with your family and friends. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and support your passion for change. When you engage with people and networks that agree that there should be a change in your community, your voice is louder and stronger. There were times when I compared my accomplishments to my peers but the goal is to enrich our community in any way that we can — do not compare your journey to others’, because your desire to help your peers will help you create your own unique and impactful path.
If you’re feeling inspired after reading Jorge’s story and Plan’s mission to help the LGBTQI+ community and young people everywhere, you can read more about them here or donate here. Helping the most vulnerable ones during this time should be our collective goal, and there are countless ways you can contribute!
Photo: Plan International USA