Dumfries and Galloway LGBT Plus

Response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Scotland:

LGBT Plus aims to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, pansexuals and others questioning or expressing their gender identity and sexuality (otherwise known as LGBT Plus), their families, friends, supporters and allies across Dumfries and Galloway. We support the LGBT community to feel safe, supported and engage more confidently within their local communities and become active citizens by providing a range of events and support services.

D&G offer a range of services including support, advice and organising events. These include gender transition support information, immediate help, one-to-one counselling, and advice for coming out, health and wellbeing, sexual health, hate crime, domestic abuse and tailored advice to families and carers.

Similar to other organisations, service delivery and engagement with people they work with had to move online. Lockdown has overcomplicated the issues that LGBT+ people in the area are facing and has challenged the organisation to explore new ways of working.

Successes

D&G LGBT+ talked extensively about the benefits of operating in a responsive and accommodating funding and policy-making landscape. They found that funders have changed their practices to be more understanding to the situation and are able to process applications and requests far more efficiently and quickly than ever before. This has enabled organisations on the ground to develop or continue the delivery of vital services during lockdown which ultimately led to safeguarding people’s physical and mental wellbeing. 

Even though the pandemic has put additional pressures on services to adjust quickly, digital engagement has enabled organisations such as LGBT+ to reach out to people they wouldn’t have the opportunity to engage with otherwise. Younger LGBT+ people feel more confident to embrace IT and have found new ways to ask for what they need online.

D&G LGBT+ highlighted the importance of a strong board of trustees. They found that their board has been very engaging and supportive, have contributed to an understanding ethos in the organisation, and proactively seek out to look after colleagues’ needs and wellbeing. 

Much like other organisations across Scotland and the world, D&G LGBT+ found that homeworking offers flexibility to staff and volunteers. However, it is important to maintain a working routine and boundaries in order to find a balance between work and personal time. They found that encouraging colleagues to take more breaks and avoiding overworking, they are better equipped to deal with the additional pressures posed by the pandemic.

In terms of the people they work with, the organisation found that maintaining a regular connection amongst them has been vital. Beyond the individually tailored support offered to people, regular online social activities have been important for people to keep in touch with their LGBT+ identity and their peers. Ultimately, these regular online meetups have curbed intense feelings of isolation or loneliness for some.  

Challenges in services

The main challenge has been the lack of face-to-face interaction with people. Many of the people supported by the organisation find refuge at D&G LGBT Plus’ physical premises. For example, many are able to go into the premises while they are in town shopping. Without the ability to physically visit the organisation, people who are in unstable home environments are finding it extremely difficult to benefit from the organisation’s digital services. Many of the organisation’s service users have said that they are unable to find a safe space to participate in the social events or even telephone befriending / counselling. For example, some people have to go on long walks in order to take a phone call from D&G LGBT+ Plus which means they are unable to commit to a regular set of activities. Other barriers include poor broadband because of rurality, limited mobile phone data, and limited access to the internet. Others are finding it difficult to engage because of finances. 

The lack of face-to-face interactions makes the organisation’s counselling services particularly complex. Counsellors find it difficult to engage meaningfully with their clients and have to limit their methods they are using. For example, trauma-related therapies can be particularly triggering and require in-person interactions so the counsellor can read their client’s body language and support them in the right way.

Even people that are able to access the digital world, they find the interactions awkward and uncomfortable. They don’t seem to “get” the appeal of socialising online, find it difficult to participate and as a result, feel lonelier. 

Challenges faced by the organisation

Like many other organisations, D&G LGBT+ are in a complex situation where they are suddenly expected to readjust their delivery model while supporting their communities and staff. This new way of working has added to many people’s workloads. With face-to-face interactions, staff and volunteers are able to dedicate a certain amount of time per person and to debrief. The uncertain nature of digital services means that staff are faced with additional pressures and their workload per person is a lot more demanding. This causes a strain to the organisation’s supportive capacity.

Furthermore, the tight budgets and reallocation of resources to emergency service provision pose challenges to the organisation’s ability to maintain and readjust its physical premises to resume in-person service delivery with the appropriate safety measures in place.

An added pressure in the world of digital is safeguarding. Even though physical events and in-person working are very much ruled by safeguarding policies, interactions and activities on platforms such as Zoom are more difficult to monitor. D&G LGBT+ are trying to find a balance between safeguarding individuals without policing them in order to create a safe digital space for people to hang out without fearing their information may be leaked or they could come under attack because of their gender or sexual orientation.

Arguably, the most pressing challenge is moving forward. During these uncertain times, D&G LGBT+ are working tirelessly to ensure their digital services are robust enough to withstand the possibility of a second wave while supporting their community, educating partner agencies and securing buy-in from the people they work with. It is vital to ensure that LGBT organisations across Scotland are well-resourced to deal with the possibility of a second wave, but also to support LGBT+ people recover from lockdown and to start interacting in-person again. Because lockdown has exacerbated people’s mental health, loneliness, isolation and dysphoria, it is estimated that they will need additional resource, time and work to feel confident to reintegrate. This is a key message that funders and decision-makers should be aware of while allocating resources in the future.

Challenges faced by the people D&G LGBT+ works with

As with some LGBT+ people across Scotland, those supported by D&G LGBT+ have been finding it more difficult to cope with lockdown. Many feel scared and trapped in uncertain environments. For example, many people on a journey of self-discovery who are in heterosexual relationships with children are unable to access services from the organisation due to the lack of physical spaces. As a result, the momentum to help them in that journey is more difficult to maintain during the pandemic.

The organisation has noticed an increase in re-referrals. A lot of issues are resurfacing or exacerbated during the pandemic including family tensions or mental health problems. People lack the outlet to express themselves and end up internalising anger, negativity and anxiety. Additionally, people feel unable to dress or behave the way they feel comfortable which has a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing. The organisation has noticed people who were already isolating because of their gender or sexuality are finding it even more difficult to cope during the pandemic. Because of a fear of losing friends or family, people retreat to their homes even when that means their identity is stripped off and a lot of their social connections have to be cut off.

Throughout the counselling and support services of the organisation, the issues below appear to be more prominent:

·      Isolation and loneliness

·      Increased suicidal thoughts

·      Lack of boundaries for online socialising

·      Online bullying

·      Lack of ability to create safe spaces

·      Online personality disorders (people presenting different identities and who they are online)

·      Gaslighting and anxiety (taking on behaviours they didn’t take on before) 

Similar to other trans people in Scotland, those supported by the organisation are finding it difficult to cope with the lack of trans healthcare during the pandemic including the cancellation of vital appointments. As a result, some trans people are feeling frustrated, fragile and anxious. Another impact is people’s dysphoria which stops them from participating online because they are presenting a version of themselves which they are not comfortable with. Ultimately, this leads to a detriment in people’s wellbeing and sense of loneliness. 

An issue mostly relevant to MSM (men who have sex with men) has been meeting other people for sex. A lot of MSM rely on sex as a coping mechanism which means they are still meeting others for sex during lockdown often in unstable and unsafe environments. Additionally, this poses complications in the Covid-19 track and trace system and ultimately poses risks in exposing people’s identities and behaviours.

[1] Sarah Anderson and Ceridwen Ball, How Covid-19 is affecting LGBTQIA+ young people living in Scotland, available at https://www.lgbtyouth.org.uk/news/2020/how-covid-19-is-affecting-lgbtqiaplus-young-people-living-in-scotland/