When it became clear that Americans were on the precipice of a pandemic and shelter-in-place orders were handed down, a majority of people took to their homes and social distanced in order to stem the growth of the outbreak. Others in a wide swath of professions took to work. For some, the job shifted, like the HIV researcher who began working on COVID-19 or the store clerk who began making home deliveries clad in a mask and gloves.
Nearly every person in this compilation of LGBTQ+ people on the frontlines refuses to be called a hero, but they represent a cross section of essential workers who are keeping the wheels turning here in the United States.
From nurses to grocery store delivery people to research scientists, they are treating people in hospitals, stocking shelves in stores, and risking their lives to ensure a protective bubble for others until the quarantine is over. And we celebrate them.
As a resident physician in internal medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., Stephen Bohlman, MD, PhD, works at the epicenter of one of the hardest hit areas in the United States. Since the crisis began, he splits his time between caring for patients and ensuring their loved ones get the information they need—a difficult intersection.
“I think this pandemic has given me a new appreciation of how important face-to-face contact is to the practice of medicine and human connection,” he says. “The importance of that human connection is something that I will take with me and incorporate into my practice for the rest of my career when this pandemic is over.”
Some days, Bohlman is on the Code Team, a team that responds to immediate medical emergencies within the hospital. Before the pandemic, there were one or two codes per shift, he says, but at the height of the pandemic, they were anywhere between 10 and 15.
“Reach out to others and make sure they’re OK,” he says. “During the most stressful and emotionally difficult moments of this crisis, I had friends and family sending me texts every day asking, ‘Are you doing OK?’ That support allowed me to get through the worst of it.”
A trauma surgeon and intensivist at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Dr. LJ Punch has been working closely with COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.
Specializing in surgeries to treat infections and “nontraumatic intra-abdominal emergencies,” the genderqueer doctor is currently working with severe COVID patients in the intensive care unit of St. Louis’s Christian Hospital.
As a trauma surgeon, Punch is no stranger to handling dire situations, but dealing with the patients affected by the pandemic is unprecedented, they admit.
“COVID feels like a flood,” they explain. “Sometimes I can’t breathe as I watch so many people drowning in its invisible waters. Some swim, some come with a life jacket, but many already lived near the water’s edge and float into the abyss with no way to be saved.”
Punch studied medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in the late ’90s before turning to their General Surgery Internship and Residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and finishing their Surgical Critical Care Fellowship at R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, Md. in 2009.
Recently they’ve also transformed their nonprofit organization, Power4STL—whose mission is to reduce violence through community health outreach—to help the LGBTQ community “stop the virus through awareness, education, and PPE support,” they say. “We will never be the same after this. I hope our new world will have enough dry land for everyone.”
Before COVID-19, a normal day would find Brian Taussig, a third-year anesthesiology resident physician, in an operating room at one of New York City’s largest hospitals. “As anesthesiologists and anesthesiologists in training, we are essentially the critical care doctors of the operating room. Airway management (e.g., placing a breathing tube into the windpipe), invasive monitor placement, intravenous access, and hemodynamic monitoring and management comprise our wheelhouse.”
Now his days are spent in intensive care units where he describes dealing with COVID-19 as like something out of a science fiction movie. Healthcare providers are clad in head-to-toe protective gear and patients are all intubated on ventilators. There are no visitors; this is the hardest part. “For some of the patients we intubate, we are the last people they ever see or hear,” Taussig says. Patients are surrounded by nurses and doctors, but they’re “spending their final days struggling without loved ones by their sides…fighting this battle without a kiss, a handhold, or a warm embrace from those who know and love them.”
Adding to what is already physically and emotionally grueling work is the struggle of knowing that while he has been able to help fight this pandemic in many far-reaching ways, he is unable to help in one of the simplest: he cannot donate blood. “There is an increasing need for blood donations, and while the FDA has relaxed the restrictions on blood donations from men who have sex with men, an unnecessarily strict restriction still exists on donations from our community.” He says it feels like an affront: “‘Thank you for running into the fire every day but keep your blood to yourself.’”
Behind-the-scenes, the feeling of community within the hospital has been transformed. “There is a sense of caring and ‘We’re all in this together’ between nurses, physicians, medical aids, and all frontline workers that I had not seen until now,” Taussig says. “This experience has bonded us in ways that nothing else could and that is a positive takeaway.”
Since the pandemic hit, Monmouth County, New Jersey-based health inspector Margaret (Maggie) Karl has pivoted to contact tracing, which begins with contacting everyone in her jurisdiction who’s tested positive for COVID-19. Karl, who has a Bachelor’s degree in science from Cook College, Rutgers, is a Senior Registered Environmental Health Specialist, who used to spend most of her free time with her siblings, partner Felice, and her children. Now, her job entails working six days a week and remaining intermittently on-call around the clock in case of emergency.
“Contact tracing is very involved. It’s like putting a big puzzle together,” Karl says. “This is the most important part of our day now. We have many cases and keeping up is sometimes difficult. We communicate with those that are sick while they are contagious.”
The work includes contacting each COVID-19-positive person, gathering the names of everyone that person has come into close contact with, informing them they have been exposed and that they must quarantine for 14 days since their last interaction with the positive person.
“I find that when I make calls to our residents, people are really very sweet and understanding and just want to do the right thing and stay indoors,” she says. “Oftentimes I speak to someone who has just lost a family member. It is truly heartbreaking. However, the family members speak to us, they give us their 10 minutes and let us do our jobs even though it’s probably the last thing they want to do. I’ve cried with them. The people I speak with while contact tracing leave an impression on my heart.”
In her role, Dr. Rachel Levine helms the Keystone State’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic. She and Gov. Tom Wolf have received praise for their science-based actions, including closing public schools and rolling out stay-at-home orders to stem the spread of the virus. “We’re going to do whatever is possible, whatever it takes to protect the public health of Pennsylvania,” Levine said.
A graduate of Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, Levine is a trusted national speaker on issues ranging from the opioid crisis to LGBTQ health issues. Levine also happens to be a transgender woman—although it is her actions that should be focused on, not her gender identity, she stressed.
“I want to be judged upon my work in medicine and in public health and in this difficult time, in my work to help to protect the public health in the face of this global pandemic,” Levine said. “It doesn’t make any difference what someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation is. We’re really all in this together…I hope that there’ll be a light at the end of the tunnel and that the future after COVID-19 is even better.”
As a visual information specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jarrad Hogg translates complex data into well-designed, easily-understood visuals that provide the American public with the information they need to make decisions about their health.
Hogg isn’t new to infectious diseases. He was part of the response team for H1N1, Ebola, and Zika, and says those experiences equipped him with the discipline he needs in creating the global design for the CDC’s COVID-19 materials.
The volume of materials he has produced already is impressive, particularly given the constraints of quarantines. The staff is working from home full time, to develop new materials at a moment’s notice, as additional data and information become available. Specifically, Hogg ensures there is a uniform design to CDC’s COVID-19 materials.
“It has been very humbling to see the COVID-19 materials we create being utilized across the U.S. and around the world,” says Hogg, who’s been at the federal agency for over a decade. “The goal was to create a look and feel that could be immediately recognized and trusted from the experts and scientists at the CDC. Knowing we are putting tools into everyone’s hands to educate and protect the nation’s health makes me immensely proud.”
While those on the frontlines are caring for patients with COVID-19, David Bacci is supplying hospitals with the equipment they need.
As regional vice president of Hospital Council of Northern and Southern California, a nonprofit hospital system trade association, Bacci’s team represents nearly 200 hospitals statewide. In his role, the 35-year-old Bacci works directly with hospitals and public health officials to ensure facilities are ready to care for patients and have essential supplies—including personal protection equipment such as gloves, masks, and gowns.
“A lot of my work involves knowing and understanding the latest COVID-19 news and updates from the federal and state levels, so I’m constantly reading,” explains Bacci, who’s been working nonstop while self-isolating at home with his husband. “Our job is to bring everyone together—hospitals, local public health, local leaders. Since COVID-19 began, we’ve been entirely devoted to making sure that our hospitals are ready to care for every Californian who needs them.”
He says he’s “been humbled by the incredible work and dedication of our hospitals and health care providers. Each hospital is its own organization, with its own supply chain, and its own employees. However, during this epidemic I’ve watched as hospitals and health care workers have come together to collaborate, share, and make sure that we all make it through this. I’ve seen hospitals share supplies and PPE with organizations who did not have enough. I’ve seen hospitals send their own staff around the community to help totally separate organizations get ready for a possible surge. They’re not doing this because they will be paid for it. They do it because it’s the right thing to do—because none us of succeed unless all of us succeed.”
It’s hard to impress an angsty 14-year-old but that’s just what happened when queer delivery driver’s Kitty Santiago’s son saw her on TV.
Then, “when a commercial for Mattel’s new Thank You Heroes line of toys came on TV the other day, and one of the heroes is a delivery driver—the look on his face when he realized that his mom is a ‘hero’ was incredibly priceless,” says Santiago, who is queer and from Portland, Ore.
“I do feel like a hero of sorts," she adds. "I believe strongly that I am doing my part to be part of the solution. Being of service to others is what gives me purpose, and now I not only feel like I am making people’s lives easier, but I am actually helping to save lives. I am allowing people to stay home and self-isolate, thereby limiting the number of people out there spreading the virus.”
Santiago, 41, delivers for companies like Amazon, Instacart, Shipt, Roadie, Postmates, DoorDash, and GrubHub. “I have always loved my job, but now more than ever…I’m grateful that not only am I still working while others are struggling, but most of my apps keep me outside with little contact with others.”
Many people tell her “they personally don’t know anyone who has contracted COVID, but I don’t have that luxury. It is painfully obvious that continuing to do this work is definitely putting me at risk, especially…when I have to shop for and deliver groceries. Stores are becoming increasingly crowded as people are jumping the gun and ignoring continued stay at home orders. Many of them are not wearing masks, and not respecting six-foot [distance]. Each shopping trip feels like a deadly game of chance. That’s why, no matter which app I work for, I have an extensive sanitizing process for my car, my delivery bags, and myself between deliveries and when I get home.”
When Lukus Estok was turned away from donating blood plasma in New York City simply because he was gay—fueled by a draconion policy by the Food and Drug Administration barring queer men who’ve had sex within a limited time period from donating blood—he took matters into his own hands.
Estok, who previously contracted COVID-19, discovered he had antibodies to the disease in his blood, which could help with a potential vaccine. For that reason, he was eager to donate so he could help others. Though Estok was up front about his gay identity with health officials during multiple appointments, things took a turn at the final stage.
“At this point, I’ve passed the screening questions. I’ve passed the actual screening itself, I know I’m healthy,” he says. “I responded, ‘I’m a gay man.’ And the moment that happened, I saw the look in the eyes of the person I was speaking with change. Even though their face was covered, I could see their eyes grow cold. And the immediate response back to me was ‘Well, you will not be donating today.’”
Estok went through a traumatic ordeal with hospital staff, who showed him to a small office where an employee spoke about why he was unable to donate blood. The retort, according to Estok, was that it was an “administrative issue” and that implementing the FDA’s new guidelines required the clinic to “update our computers.”
Embarrassed and defeated, Estok shared his story publicly a few days later in a viral post that caught the attention of Good Morning America, ABC News, and other mainstream outlets. Estok has been using his voice to shine a light on the FDA’s policy that, in today’s world of modern HIV treatment and screenings, doesn’t reflect science.
“If I can in any way, shape, or form, put my voice into that conversation right now,” he says, “I think that’s something I want to do.”
As a food services employee at a hospital and a volunteer firefighter, Molly Sánchez is keeping people fed while also ensuring that people in her community of Chaplin, Conn., have a response team they can count on to keep them safe. At the end of a grueling day, Sánchez comes home to her fiancée, Kelsey Castell, and their 4-year-old daughter—both of whom, she says, keep her grounded. Then it starts all over again the next day.
“The outpouring of support and appreciation I’ve seen simply on my drive into work is beautiful,” she says. “Seeing people’s houses covered in hearts, and the highway fences saying ‘Thank You’ is a reminder of why I do this during this hard time. I hope people don’t stop the appreciation once we get through this pandemic.”
“She’s always looking for the brightest side of things,” Castell says of her fiancée. “I know right now the world seems dark, but she’s my bright side.”
As the COVID-19 crisis began to peak, many were inspired to turn feelings of helplessness into the actions of helpfulness. One such individual was Houston-based trans fashion designer Nghi Nguyen.
“I started making masks in March when I saw the CDC encouraging people to protect themselves and others,” says the Vietnamese-American designer. “I knew that there was a severe shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment] so I knew I had to help relieve the burden by making cloth masks.”
Nguyen first sold the masks on his clothing shop, Neewin.co, which quickly sold out, and has since switched to selling them via Etsy (Etsy.com/shop/NeewinCo).
Nguyen is also donating profits to the Houston Food Bank to support families who have been the most financially impacted.
Nguyen says he constructs the chic masks made of Louis Vuitton-inspired fabric in his home and stresses that he strictly follows safety guidelines. According to the CDC, these face masks are beneficial to those who don’t currently show COVID-19 symptoms because the virus can still be easily transmitted in public settings where social-distancing is difficult to uphold.
Pride Houston recently took to Facebook to share its appreciation for good-hearted citizens like Nguyen for doing their part to help others during the current health crisis: “During tough times Houstonians stick together! Thank you to Nghi Nguyen for using your talents to help Houston!”
Actor Javier Muñoz had just opened off-Broadway in A Sign of the Times when New York City became the epicenter of the pandemic. While theaters shut down temporarily, Muñoz turned his focus around to help others.
Muñoz co-created the Broadway Relief Project, a collection of Broadway seamstresses, actors, and other theater artists working to create surgical gowns and other personal protective equipment for hospital workers in New York. The Project has recruited over 600 volunteers statewide.
“This is what we do as a Broadway community,” says Muñoz. “We organize, we answer the call, and we’re always ready.”
As a Latinx gay man living with HIV (who is also a cancer survivor), Muñoz has a perspective that crosses many intersections, placing him in a unique position as an activist, organizer, and artist. Still, while Muñoz insists “I am an activist, I’m not an organizer,” his deep-dive into the Broadway Relief Project has given him a new discipline that he’ll carry post-COVID.
“I can’t write a grant proposal, but what I can do is talk to all of those people and relate to all those kinds of people, to all those walks of life,” he says of the communities he’s proud to represent. “I may not be a politician, but I know a hell of a lot of them from my activism. So, I can put them in touch with grant writers, organizers, people on the ground, and we can all be working together.”
A wedding may be in his future but Britt Whalen has his hands too full to spend time daydreaming. A traveling dialysis tech, Whalen is in Connecticut providing dialysis — a procedure that removes waste products from a person’s blood when their kidneys stop functioning — to COVID and non-COVID patients in the hospitals and clinics.
“Dialysis patients have been hit the hardest during this time,” Whalen says. “Seeing what is happening to COVID patients…is heartbreaking…. To see what these patients are going through is just astounding.”
He admits seeing those with COVID-19 has been shocking. “Patients are intubated and under sedation and unresponsive. The hospitals I’m working in Connecticut have asked the community to donate old iPads so that they can Zoom with their loved ones in the hospital.”
Whalen says he stays resilient by focusing on the positive, but he thinks the public still doesn’t understand the risks and “that we still have to protect ourselves. We have to still wear masks and wash our hands even though they are opening things up. The virus is creating more ESRD (end-stage renal disease) patients and may cause COVID-positive patients to have to live with kidney failure for the rest of their lives. And it’s hitting patients that are younger than what everyone thinks. I have worked on patients between the ages of 25 and 90 years old. People have to understand that it’s hitting all demographics, not just the elderly anymore.”
The staff at Fenway Health’s Access: Drug User Health Program has transformed their drop-in center into an entirely mobile operation. The state-sanctioned and funded syringe exchange program helps those who use opiates or injection drugs. It’s also one of the state’s pilot sites for Narcan distribution, supplying and training clients on how to use the nasal spray medication that can reverse opioid overdoses. Brian Sink, an overdose aftercare and outreach specialist, says the team can now “literally meet people where they are” with the transformation of their mobile outreach van into a de facto base of operations. Sink says he draws on the resilience of the community he serves. “I work with a highly stigmatized, deeply marginalized population of folks, many of them unsheltered, with limited access to the things most of us take for granted.” The pandemic has closed places where clients could get something to eat, use the restroom, or simply stop to sit down and rest. “They are being shut out from even the most basic of accommodations. Area shelters have become vectors of infection, park benches are roped off with caution tape, food pantries have long lines most days, and unfortunately, the albeit small income that the sex workers and panhandlers…[earned] has dried up.”
Sink’s team has also been able to coordinate and distribute donations of tents, tarps, clothing, and food, but the need is great.
Working at a grocery chain in Pittsburgh, Pa., 40-something Caldwell Linker knows they’ve got it better than most by retail standards. But this gender-nonconforming queer artist admits that “it’s still just so fucking exhausting and stressful.”
With a roommate who is immune compromised, Linker has an hour-long cleaning ritual each night. “I’m constantly monitoring my health, not so much because I’m afraid I’ll get sick, but more because I’m scared I’ll only get a little sick and then accidentally spread it to tons of other people because of my job. I’m in a constant state of anxiety about that. I want to be a team player at my job and carry my own weight and be thought of highly, but also, I want to be a good citizen and not risk the public.”
To ease anxiety, Linker does beadwork, including a series (like the one pictured) “of self-portraits of me in different masks I then post online with some sort of attached message, usually related to begging people to just wear masks. Before masks were mandated, I felt like every person not wearing a mask in the store was basically saying that our lives weren’t as important as their need to grab a wrap and a sparkling water.”
When Governor Andrew Cuomo, announced in March that surgical masks were desperately needed for essential healthcare workers in New York, designer Christian Siriano was quick to respond, tweeting that he and his sewing team were ready, willing, and able to help. “We’re in contact with @CSiriano,” Cuomo tweeted in response. “Appreciate his help so much. Who’s next? Let’s do this together, NY!”
Hearing a billion masks might be needed over the next six months, the former Project Runway winner got his team sewing, making 1,000 masks in the first three days.
“We actually got approved from the governor to work so our studio is somewhat up-and-running. It’s quite a process, but it’s really about testing the actual piece itself,” Siriano told Good Morning America in March, describing the masks as washable and bleachable.
“Even if we help 100 people, that’s more people than nothing,” Siriano concluded. “It was really a simple thing and I just felt like it was a really important time because I felt like it was so needed, not just in New York, but everywhere.”
An infectious disease and HIV clinician with a background in HIV prevention, Raphael Landovitz is currently a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of California Los Angeles. Since the outbreak, it’s “all hands on deck,” says Landovitz, whose work includes training at Harvard Medical School and serving as medical co-director for the Vietnam CDC Harvard Medical School AIDS Partnership in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Most of my career had been devoted to trying to improve HIV prevention strategies particularly by optimizing the use of cocktails of HIV treatments and repurposing them, and other novel drugs, as HIV prevention tools [like] PrEP.” Landovitz explains. Since the pandemic began, Landovitz has been working with others to lead COVID-specific research particularly around “repurposing treatment regimens as preventive therapies for healthcare workers, first responders, and close contacts of COVID patients.”
“It’s also dizzying to sort through the ‘infodemic’ of early-phase, pre-release, and non-peer reviewed medical information that is being pushed out in a seemingly endless stream and making sure to critically ascertain what is likely to actually be true versus something misleading from drawing conclusions too early.”
Managing the security department at a medical center in Long Branch, N.J., has kept Traci Lopez-Focarino on the frontlines. Work has been very different in the last couple of months, the queer security guard admits: “We have strict visitor restrictions and every unit has COVID patients. We are all taking special precautions when dealing with not only the patients but also the public.”
Lopez-Focarino says she and her fellow workers (“We are one big family”) are staying positive in part because of the support of local businesses and people are who bring in meals, make hair bands to assist with wearing the mask, and make signs showing their support. Still, she admits, “I think that people don’t realize the significance of this pandemic. Frontline healthcare workers aren’t just nurses and doctors. It’s everyone that goes to work. Housekeeping, dietary, security, etc., we are all taking care of these patients, all putting ourselves in danger to make sure that others are OK. We are all nervous and anxious each day we come in, but we have a job to do, others depend on us.”
As the country transitions to working from home, with Zoom meetings and online classes, we’ve heard alot about the teachers and stay at home workers. But, says 34-year-old Ben Stoviak, the tech professionals “keeping all of those workplaces floating and who have migrated these entire workforces and social systems are never mentioned in the media.” For every remote workforce, he says, there is an entire team of overwhelmed IT workers. “I can’t help but noticing that ‘working from home seems to be mentioned by the media as if it has occurred through spontaneous magic,’” adds Stoviak, a gay instructional technologist at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.
During the pandemic, Stoviak found himself transitioning a historically residential college’s faculty to online instruction “almost overnight. It was exhilarating, to be honest, but it was a lot of work. I still don’t know what is coming next, but I believe I’ve been able to empower people to be flexible, learn quickly, and adapt to the use of available tools.” Stoviak admits he struggles with survivor’s guilt. “I’m extremely privileged to be working right now, knowing and seeing on social media how many of the people in my life aren’t and are presently financially impacted by the consequences of COVID-19.”
So he donated half of his stimulus check to a local queer and trans affirming mask effort, the Pittsburgh Masque Project, a joint project between Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents and TransPride Pittsburgh, which “connects LGBTQIA+ neighbors with face mask resources that are free.”
Husbands Jeffrey Newman and Jayson Conner, founders of the nonprofit Together Helping Others, have been providing New Yorkers experiencing homelessness with backpacks full of COVID-19 necessities—hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, gloves, masks, and sleeping bags. “When COVID hit, it became clear immediately that the most vulnerable communities were the elderly, people with underlying illnesses, and the homeless,” says Newman. “But of the three, only two—the elderly and people with underlying illnesses—were the ones people were trying to help and keep safe. Almost no one was talking about how to get supplies and care to the homeless. The people we help are scared they will get sick and that the hate against them will become greater out of ignorance.” He says that people who are not homeless but are suddenly facing the first real possibility that it could happen has made them more compassionate towards people in need… People are realizing homelessness is not necessarily a choice or something anyone can foresee and that a person’s circumstances should not define their worth.”