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COVID-19 Severely Tests LGBTQ Organizations, But Work Continues

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(Above, from left: HRC's Alphonso David, TLDEF's Andy Marra, and GLAAD's Sarah Kate Ellis)

The many nonprofit organizations that serve the LGBTQ community, including the most marginalized members, are feeling the domino effect of the COVID-19 outbreak.

First the cautions against large gatherings meant the cancellation of major fundraising events. Then the business shutdowns in many states have thrown current and potential donors out of work, further threatening these organizations’ revenue. Meanwhile, the need for these groups hasn’t gone away, whether their mission is fighting for our rights, assuring fair and inclusive media representation, or housing young people who’ve been kicked out of their homes.

But the leaders of these organizations say they’re working hard to maintain their operations, and they’re urging those who can afford to donate to continue to do so. Many are having employees work remotely, taking advantage of technology to carry out their groups’ missions.

Some don’t have the luxury of remote work, however. A case in point is New York City’s Ali Forney Center, one of a very few organizations in the nation with an exclusive mission to serve homeless LGBTQ youth.

“We are committed to remaining open,” says Alex Roque, the center’s executive director. Its clients, he points out, cannot shelter at home, as many people are being advised to do during the health crisis. “We are their homes, we are their family, we are their safety,” Roque says.

The center operates 18 sites around the city, in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. It has a drop-in center that provides meals, medical and mental health services, legal assistance, and more. It also offers emergency shelter and transitional living programs where young people learn life skills to prepare for living independently. It serves more than 1,400 clients a year.

The center saw a surge in demand for its services a few weeks ago with the first news of the virus, but that has dropped off a bit as the city government has stepped in to help place young people in housing. At the various sites, disinfecting and distancing are the order of the day in order to protect staff and clients from infection. The center’s residential sites are small and home-like, Roque says, so clients can have private rooms rather than being in a large communal space.

Funding remains a challenge, though. One of the center’s major fundraising events, Jeffrey Fashion Cares, was to take place this week but has been postponed; it also benefits Lambda Legal and Housing Works. The center also may have to postpone its summer benefit party, scheduled for July.

In the best of times, the Ali Forney Center, with a $15 million annual budget, is a lean organization, Roque says. To make up for lost event revenue, it has sent letters to individual donors. Without putting a dollar figure on it, he says, “We have done outreach and we’ve had a very generous response.”

GLAAD, which fights for fair and inclusive LGBTQ representation in the media and speaks out on political issues, had to cancel its GLAAD Media Awards ceremony in New York, set for March 19, and postpone the awards ceremony scheduled for April 16 in Los Angeles, with plans to hold it in the fall. “These are our two largest platforms to get our message out and also to fundraise,” says GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.

GLAAD has asked its sponsors and ticket-buyers to turn those expenditures into donations, and “we’re seeing a really positive response,” Ellis says. Lilly Singh, who was to host the New York event, made a donation and asked her fans and followers to donate, and sponsoring companies such as Ketel One and Gilead have announced their continued support. Barbra Streisand also recently tweeted a pitch for GLAAD.

GLAAD’s employees are working remotely, and its GLAAD Media Institute, which trains individuals, companies, and organizations to speak up for justice and inclusivity, has moved to digital trainings. In this election year, GLAAD is also running an extensive get-out-the-vote campaign, making sure LGBTQ Americans are registered and informed. It’s likewise doing much online outreach, something GLAAD has experience with from a similar campaign in the 2018 midterms.

Elections are the main focus of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect out candidates to office at all levels. It’s endorsed 186 of them so far in this cycle. But Victory Fund has postponed or canceled all of its public events through April 15, including its National Champagne Brunch, its biggest fundraiser of the year. It will continue monitoring the progress of the epidemic and health officials’ guidelines in determining what events will take place after that, but for now the brunch is rescheduled for June 21 at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C.

“There is a historic number of LGBTQ candidates running for office this year and there is the potential to see an unprecedented number of victories in November,” says Elliot Imse, Victory Fund’s senior director of communications. “The pandemic, however, is taking a toll on fundraising for candidates and for all political organizations, including Victory Fund, as we already have had to postpone our largest fundraising event of the year. We are still working at full capacity and are determined to help as many candidates cross the finish line as possible. But to fully take advantage of this historic opportunity, both Victory Fund and our candidates need our community members to give what they can in what we know is hard times for many. It’s a tough ask, but it’s the reality right now.”

Victory Fund officials say a lot of political organizing will go digital, as do staffers at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBTQ organization, which has a big focus on elections too. "Text messages, Facebook messenger, and Instagram and Twitter direct messages are the new door knocks," notes an HRC press release. Volunteers and staff will be calling and texting on behalf of candidates from now until the election; you can find opportunities to join in here. It has also launched an app called TEAM, downloadable here, to help pro-equality voters reach out to their friends. This month HRC shifted its annual Equality Convention, a volunteer training session usually held in Washington, D.C., to an online event, with 400 volunteers connecting, learning about tools for digital organizing, and hearing speakers that included Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Jaime Harrison, a Democratic candidate challenging Lindsey Graham for a U.S. Senate seat from South Carolina.

HRC has canceled or postponed all of its public events at least through early April, including fundraising dinners in Los Angeles, Nashville, and Houston. But the group's president, Alphonso David, took a determined tone in a statement issued to The Advocate: "Our focus remains on the goal of advancing the rights of LGBTQ people around the world and on the  defeat of Donald Trump and Mike Pence in November. We will continue to work toward this goal, and weather this crisis as we have weathered crises before — by uniting as a community.”

The National LGBTQ Task Force got a couple of its big events in early this year — the Creating Change conference, held in mid-January in Dallas, and its Winter Party, held early in March in Miami Beach. A Winter Party attendee later tested positive for COVID-19; Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey alerted other attendees to that fact in a mid-March Instagram post. She said the decision to go ahead with the event was based on the information available at the time and that precautions were taken, such as having a copious supply of hand sanitizer available and placing a moratorium on hand-shaking.

The Task Force has now canceled events for the foreseeable future and its staff is working remotely. But work is going on, such as its Queer the Census project, aimed at ensuring LGBTQ people and their interests are represented. Find info here.

Organizations that represent LGBTQ people in court emphasize that they’re still carrying out that mission. Lambda Legal, with more than 100 employees in six offices around the country, shifted everyone to remote work in mid-March. Its help desk remains available online or by phone, and it has 70 active lawsuits going on.

Some courts are closed and some continue operating, but whatever the situation, “we remain committed to working around the clock to ensure our cases are proceeding in the most timely and successful way possible,” Jonathan Adams, Lambda’s communications director, tells The Advocate via email.

The group is also continuing to speak out on public policy matters; among other things, it joined more than 100 other national, regional, and local LGBTQ organizations in signing an open letter to health officials outlining the community’s heightened risk for COVID-19.

It too has canceled or postponed fundraising events. “We will maintain frequent contact with our donors about Lambda Legal’s continuing work and rely on our already robust digital fundraising program to sustain our critical work,” Adams says.

“Lambda Legal is the oldest [LGBTQ] organization in the country and has survived many challenging times; the organization was able to weather the global financial challenges of 2008 thanks to the generosity and resiliency of our supporters,” he adds. “To those who can, we stress the critical importance of defending our LGBT rights in times of a public health crisis, where our hard-fought rights can be undermined or dismissed.”

Other legal groups are keeping up the fight too, such as the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. Its staffers are all working from home but are continuing to accept cases, according to an email from Executive Director Andy Marra.

Also, in response to the crisis, TLDEF has produced two “Know Your Rights” guides for trans people navigating COVID-19, one national and one focusing on New York State, the latter done in partnership with the New York Transgender Advocacy Group and the Translatina Network. Both are available in English and Spanish and are downloadable at the TLDEF website.

The many other LGBTQ groups around the nation and world are responding to the outbreak in a variety of ways, and numerous Pride events have already been canceled or postponed. But they all emphasize that their work has to continue, despite the need to adjust to a digital workplace and the financial challenges that may arise due to canceled events and unemployed supporters. And the fact that this is an election year makes the work all the more important.

They also have strong opinions on public officials' response to the crisis. GLAAD can't endorse candidates because of its tax status, but Ellis has this to say about what politicians are doing: "Our state response [by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo] is a beaming example of leadership. Our federal response shows how important elections are."

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