LGBTQ community responds to COVID-19 with mutual aid

Icon Photo by Sa'Mantha SayTen / SayTen Studios
Philadelphia Gay News is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a solutions-oriented collaborative reporting project on poverty and Philadelphia’s push for economic justice.

Since the beginning of COVID-19-induced quarantine and social distancing, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community has organized via underground and online channels to meet the most basic and pressing needs of those suffering from loss of work and homelessness. Now, these channels are narrowing their focus to new challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Bri Golphin, a busy community organizer in West Philly, raised the important point that underground organizations have, by necessity, been adept at mutual aid for a long time now. Underground is a term for groups that are not government sanctioned and usually operate on a small-scale, grassroots level. 

Every week, members of various LGBTQ community groups from Philadelphia to Seattle hold a conference call to discuss the developing needs and anxieties surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent quarantine. Golphin noted that priority seems to be given to Maslow’s hierarchy — food, shelter and, in a capitalist system, the ability to generate income to sustain each. 

The Williams Institute reports that 21.6 percent of LGBTQ people in the United States live at or below the poverty line. Many LGBTQ folks live paycheck-to-paycheck and do not have a financial buffer to carry them through a period of nationwide nonessential industry shutdowns. A large portion of the Philly queer community also work in the service or performance industry, said Golphin. “Philly is a service industry city,” they continued, “it’s no longer a factory city.” Industries that, by nature, promote the gathering of five or more people are among the hardest hit by quarantine practices. Golphin is part of a drag group in West Philly and noted that their troupe was lucky enough to perform their last show on March 14 before the citywide closure was enforced. 

For many performers, explained Golphin, spring is a “money-making season.” So, those who rely on income from drag, burlesque or cabaret performances are losing funds. That’s why a group of artists and performers started The Philadelphia Performance Artist’s Emergency Fund on GoFundMe. As soon as nonessential shutdowns began, drag performer Beary Tyler Moore messaged fellow performer and activist Patti LuStoned to start setting up a fund for Philly artists who weren’t able to perform. “I have a full-time job, and I’m working from home,” said LuStoned, “but I was upset about my friends in performance.” Lustoned explained that she and Moore also needed community leadership in the trans, POC community, so they looped in Icon (aka Icon Ebony Fierce). “I was happy that [Lustoned and Moore] reached out,” said Icon, “We wanted to spread the word for QTPOC people who aren’t in the immediate scene.”

The GoFundMe spread like wildfire. Just two days after launch, the campaign hit its goal of $10,000 — money that has been used to assist more than 30 Philly performing artists. But, it wasn’t all smooth sailing: Anytime someone tried to share the campaign, Facebook would flag any mentions of “COVID-19” or “coronavirus” and prevent people from sharing the page. Luckily, a clever idea to use a codeword bypassed this flag. But the problems point to some of the difficulties many groups have experienced when implementing emergency funds. 

Springboarding off the success of the Philadelphia performance artists’ GoFundMe, Philly photographer Michael Rios started Queerantine: Queerantine is an online multi-city directory for LGBTQ performers and service industry professionals can post their names or pseudonyms, as well as their CashApp, Venmo or Paypal handles. Using digital payment apps is a much more streamlined disbursement process than GoFundMe, LuStoned advised with a note of exasperation. 

Those performers in Philadelphia who originally started with the GoFundMe are now listed on Queerantine as well. “It’s funny how people think of emergencies,” said Beary Tyler Moore, “one person is asking for $30 to cover their insulin, where another is asking for $1,000 to cover a month’s income.” Prioritization in dispersing emergency funds is a necessity, Moore explained. “We’re listening to people’s financial needs,” said LuStoned, “and trying to consider everything very thoughtfully.” Among these considerations is the desire to distribute funds to those most in need and those most marginalized. 

About priority, Golphin is quick to preface that the QTPOC drag community is thriving in Philadelphia and that “there is a strong camaraderie. But, the typical cis white drag performer will make like $200-300 in a night. Whereas, trans and POC performers make way less than that.” It is that much more important, Golphin implores, to support trans and POC performers and service industry professionals listed on the site such as Icon, Mercury, Mae Rose and Delilah. “Our community is varied,” finished LuStoned, “from Icon to me. I don’t take that privilege lightly. There’s a subset [of the LGBTQ community] who understand that privilege.” 

Facebook groups such as Philly Queer Job Board and Queer Exchange PHILLY are also proving the strength and compassion of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ communities. The Philadelphia Tip Jar is a spreadsheet circulated on both of these Facebook groups that provides a list of servers in need. 

Scroll through the comment feeds and find links to remote work opportunities, hospitality offers, stories of income loss and personal struggle, as well as many uplifting words of support and comfort. One member even offered an extra supply of transdermal hormone cream to fellow trans people who may be running low. 

Still, Golphin said that in groups where distrust of government is a part of daily life, many in the QTPOC community are expressing a lot of anxiety surrounding testing and hospital overflow setups like those being discussed at the old Hahnemann building in Center City. Additional concerns are over diagnosis of COVID-19 and the potential consequences of eviction and ostracization. 

But Golphin said LGBTQ folks and specifically queer and trans folks of color are accustomed to taking care of one another in crisis. “Historically, we never had any support. We’re all we have. Even back towards the AIDS epidemic, it was up to queer folks then to fundraise and take care of those folks that were dying.” 

Efforts to fundraise are ongoing for those most vulnerable during COVID-19 via Queerantine, Philadelphia Tip Jar, and the Philadelphia Performing Artist’s Emergency Fund on GoFundMe.  But giving monetarily isn’t the only way to provide aid. Folks can listen to streamed performances and share artists’ links, inevitably spreading the word to a larger audience. Along with many others, Icon hosts “Ebony’s Confessions” every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Facebook Live where they read and react to people’s personal stories.

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