In late 2019, Kato Camacho moved to Tacoma, determined to make the most of a new beginning. He had recently undergone gender-affirming top surgery and was just starting a new job in philanthropy, his first secure income. 2020 held great promise for the 28-year-old Pacific Islander trans man from Guam.
Then, the pandemic hit.
He was furloughed. Bills from his surgery started to pile up, along with moving expenses.
“Suddenly I was making less money than I had in years,” Camacho said.
For years, Camacho faced discrimination and compounding challenges as a trans person of color. He says it prevented him finishing college and left him with fewer job opportunities. He was also homeless for some time. In 2019, he was priced out of Seattle.
The pandemic amplified this marginalization, threatening to undo the foundations of a stable life he recently set for himself. And he is not alone.
In July, the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting data on how the pandemic is affecting the LGBTQ+ community.
A Seattle Times analysis found that among all groups, a disproportionate percentage of trans people were on the brink of poverty, homelessness and starvation. This, in a city where over 10% of the population identifies as queer.
As their social determinants for good health plummeted, so has their access to health care, a worrying development as many in the community live with HIV or are otherwise immunocompromised. But years of systemic oppression have taught the community to come together and save each other, advocates and researchers say, creating a model for what government intervention should look like.
The Census Bureau reported its early findings in August after the first survey was carried out and acknowledged the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on queer people. The findings remain consistent since then, though the data comes with the caveat that a smaller sample size is prone to errors. Community organizers emphasize these data sets do not capture the true extent of the pandemic’s unequal impact on trans people. They say it is much worse.
“Unless we come up with a way of trans people existing safely, those numbers will never be accurate,” said Ebo Barton, an independent trans artist and housing coordinator for the Lavender Rights Project’s Washington Trans Black Force.
While the COVID data is new, the struggles of trans people are not, Camacho said. The pandemic, he said, has forced many to go back into the closet and to stop their transitions altogether. “Many just don’t feel safe disclosing we are trans given the fact that we’re being murdered every day,” he said.
In 2021, at least 50 trans people were murdered in the U.S, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the most violent year on record since HRC began tracking fatal anti-transgender violence in 2013. The majority of people killed were Black and Latinx trans women.
Tepatasi Vaina, programs director for UTOPIA, a community organization focused on helping trans people of color, particularly Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in Washington state, said the lack of intersectional data is one of the main reasons why the government has failed to help the most vulnerable communities through the pandemic.
“There isn’t a lot of data that supports our needs already, and we saw that carry on during the pandemic,” she said. “Without this data, we continue to invisibilize the most impacted communities.”
The data also does not show the impact on people who identify as nonbinary, who organizers say are facing as much hardship. The surveys lump them, and others, who choose not to share their gender in an ambiguous category labeled “something else.”
A lack of data on the LGBTQ+ community makes prioritization of COVID resources challenging, said Public Health – Seattle & King County spokesperson Christina Bradic.
The agency is currently working to improve data collection with other organizations, including the state health department. Nonetheless, Bradic said it is known that many LGBTQ+ individuals work in high-risk, essential settings, and are disproportionately affected by housing instability and poverty — factors that increase risk for COVID-19.
“The ongoing pandemic has taken a lot of resources both physical and financial away from other projects,” the DOH said in a statement. “As we transition from an emergency status to routine business, DOH is recommitting its resources to addressing the inequity faced by gender minority communities.”
In Washington state, between July 21 and December 13, a median 42% of trans people reported a loss of employment compared to 15% of cisgender men and 14% of cisgender women. In terms of race alone, Hispanic, Black and Asian people were more likely to report loss of employment income than their white counterparts.
These stats and facts are often overlooked as trans people make up a small percentage of people affected by the pandemic. But a closer examination of the numbers reveals a greater proportion of this demographic is affected.
A majority of the trans population works in the hospitality or nonprofit sector, in hair and nail salons, coffee shops, clothing and makeup stores. While some work white-collar jobs, community organizers say nightlife businesses are still the safest, most accepting space to find work.
Trans people are slowly climbing out of this stereotype, but it remains a restrictive environment to be one’s true self, Barton said. “There’s this sort of this permission that we’re allowed to be ourselves at night. I can’t go work at a bank and just always be out and trans and talking about it all the time.”
Lük Lupe, 28, part of the drag queen duo LuChi and the founding mother of the House of Noir — Seattle’s first all Black Kiki Ballroom House — quit her day job at Nordstrom right before the pandemic to join her partner, Chip, full-time in their nightlife entertainment business.
LuChi were residents at the nightclub Rplace, performing three to four nights a week, when it all came to a crashing halt due to the coronavirus. With in-person events shuttered for months, Rplace closed for good, and Lupe took up a job as a Starbucks barista. Though it didn’t last long, it allowed Chip to build their business and host online shows, which provided a platform for other trans artists to perform.
When COVID restrictions slowly eased in the fall as vaccination rates grew, the duo returned to performing in person. Lupe also works at a makeup store. But with omicron now surging through the state, the financial struggles continue.
This month, LuChi started a new residency at The Comeback, a new club in Sodo. “There is a gray area in the night community, where everyone is being as safe as possible and willing to do anything and everything as long as the laws allow you to,” she said.
For many trans people, especially trans people of color, sex work — though illegal in many U.S. states including Washington — is still a major source of income.
Sex work was severely affected by the shutdown, and like other undocumented workers, many in the trans community could not file for unemployment or food stamps when the economy took a hit.
Among those with legal employment documentation, several had to navigate a bureaucracy, slow to catch up on their trans identity, often leading to delays and denials of benefits.
For Camacho, who was struggling to take care of his partner, his mother and grandmother, it also meant discontinuing his medical transition to align his body with his identity.
It reached a point, he said, where he had to decide whether to take up sex work again. “The conflict for me had nothing to do with the work itself, but the fear that if I went back to this valid career path, I could get fired from my office job, and other jobs would ostracize me because of the stigma associated with sex work. Or I could go to jail.”
While many queer people move to Seattle for its LGBTQ+-friendly laws, once they are here, this does not always play out in ways that are truly supportive and affirming for the community, Barton said.
Despite the pandemic, U.S. real estate data shows Seattle has one of the hottest housing markets in the country. This incentivizes landlords to evict less financially secure tenants, said Chris Porter, a coordinator at People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN), an organization serving Seattle’s marginalized communities. “Once the moratorium lifts, we expect homelessness in the trans community to rise.”
Lupe is grateful for her community members who could educate and help her navigate her rights as a Seattle tenant during the pandemic. Others have not been as fortunate, community organizers say. They point out that while Seattle’s eviction moratorium has been extended to Feb. 14, it does not cover many in the community who have already been priced out of the city limits where the state moratorium is no longer in effect.
For Camacho in Tacoma, the stimulus checks the government issued during the pandemic, went entirely to rent.
Getting priced out of Seattle also meant a loss of community and security. “As far as having outlets and places to connect with people in a safe way — there hasn’t been any of that through the pandemic” he said. “My community ties me to my identity, it is the entirety of my being.”
Several trans and nonbinary people, rejected by their families, haven’t had a safety net through COVID-19, said Kai Aprill-Tomlin of the Gender Justice League, a trans civil and human rights organization in Washington. “So we’ve seen an increase in people experiencing homelessness.”
“Feeling unsafe” is the most-cited reason for trans people to not use homeless support services, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s pre-pandemic 2020 survey showed. “I have known many homeless trans people to choose to sleep on the street to avoid experiencing violence at shelters,” Aprill-Tomlin said.
Camacho recalled his own experience with homelessness. Shelters require some identification, which can be difficult to hold on to when encampments are removed.
After that, they are likely to be misgendered and abused, as most shelters are gender binary, he said.
“There’s an all men’s shelter I know where trans women have been sexually harassed and violently treated,” he said, “Meanwhile I would be forced into a women’s section — consider the implications of that — where do we go? Are we protected in any way?”
Marc Dones, CEO of the homelessness authority, acknowledged the problems with gender-segregated shelters, pointing out they also affect families and couples experiencing homelessness.
“We think it is absolutely appropriate to raise these concerns, and the best way to address it is to continue to push the system towards a non-congregate shelter model where folks have their own rooms and are afforded the dignity of private space,” Dones said, adding the city’s upcoming budget will prioritize conversations with the LGBTQ+ community and resourcing grassroots organizations to better support these needs.
In Washington, between July and November, a median 18% of trans people reported that sometimes they did not have enough to eat. This was three times higher than the state average.
A University of Washington survey of food security in the state during 2020 found “very low” food security among those identifying as transgender, nonbinary or other.
With many already HIV positive or otherwise immunocompromised and working service jobs, this compounds their COVID risk.
During the shutdown, several public transportation routes were cut or reduced, disrupting access to community clinics and preventive HIV care, said Porter of POCAAN.
Several in the queer community also had to postpone their gender-affirming surgeries, deemed nonessential at the peak of the pandemic, as health resources were strained. The American Medical Association says gender-affirming care is necessary to treat gender dysphoria, as it dramatically reduces suicide attempts, depression, anxiety and substance use, while improving HIV health outcomes.
The county public health department recognizes trans people disproportionately experience mental health challenges, including suicidality. It said it is working closely with community partners to improve access to mental health services.
But these experiences also affect how the community navigates accessing vaccines, said Me’Jour Mook, economic justice coordinator at POCAAN, as they are frequently forced to endure misgendering and deadnaming, or using a previous name, which renders the experience intrinsically hostile.
A 2021 study on the COVID vulnerability among transgender women in six U.S. cities found trans women trying to access health care faced mistreatment, uncomfortable providers and past negative experiences. Like in Seattle, the study also observed high rates of poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, homelessness and sex work, especially among Black trans women.
Camacho’s vaccine card does not show his chosen name but the one that appears on his legal documentation. “I have to out myself out every single time I’m anywhere that involves COVID protocol,“ he said.
It led him, he said, to feel reluctant to leave his home, and resistant to go and get vaccinated.
“Growing up, I never really had that positive relationship with health care,” Lupe said. “Fortunately, my kids [in the House of Noir] grew up involved in education and health care, so my chosen family got to really educate me on what the vaccine is, how it’s going to help me and the world.”
The county public health department said it has worked hard to institutionalize trans-proficient health care in all its programs, and work is currently underway to review the new protocols and implement future accountability measures to guide staff. The agency said that over the course of the pandemic, relationships with organizations serving the LGBTQ+ community have strengthened.
The state health department admitted it is “acutely aware” of the challenges trans and nonbinary people face when accessing Washington health care systems, adding that the agency is working to train employees to facilitate respectful and gender-affirming conversations.
The life of a trans person is challenging, Lupe said. “It’s kind of what you sign up for, when you start becoming the person you want to be. Or that you actually inevitably are,” she said. “Thankfully, the great thing about Seattle is that there is a community here that really is ready to catch you.”
For Camacho, too, the silver lining in his struggle has been finding support and resources at UTOPIA. They shared food and financial assistance to cover his living and medical costs, he said, until he was able to resume a regular working schedule.
Organizations like Gender Justice League, POCAAN and UTOPIA have spotlighted supporting the queer and trans community with rental assistance, food banks, clothing drives and health clinics.
“We’ve already seen the huge impact that it had on our community,” said Diana Krishna, wellness navigator at UTOPIA. “Within 48 hours of announcements about the clinic schedule each month, all appointments get filled and then we have several walk-ins, too.”
Grassroots work is essential to target and meet the needs of especially marginalized communities, said Porter, who is also on the board of the West Seattle Food Bank.
“The state is looking at it as ‘Let’s make it an equal access,’ when the system was never equal to begin with,” Porter said. “When you start from there, it’s always going to filter out the most vulnerable who have to struggle to get those services.”
The Census Bureau’s new data, with errors and all, offers some opportunity to redress this oversight. But trans people are not holding their breath, Camacho said.
“We’ve been sharing data about our struggles for a long time,” he said. “We need loud voices, direct action, protest and people demanding change. No one is taking pity.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Kai Aprill-Tomlin’s last name.
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