Disaster Response Must Help Protect LGBTQ+ Communities

Disasters and recovery response efforts can exacerbate the marginalization of LGBTQ+ people. New policy mandates might help.

In late September 2022, as Tropical Storm Ian intensified into a hurricane, someone threw a brick through the front door of the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida in Gainesville. The vandalism was declared a hate crime by the city’s police. This unfortunate event underscores recent analyses that demonstrate that LGBTQ+ individuals’ rate of hate crime victimization is six times greater than non-LGBT people. LGBTQ+ communities around the nation are reeling from violence and political attacks, which affect their access to services and impact their mental and physical health. Hurricane Ian placed many LGBTQ+ Florida residents at risk—and showed the ways marginalization, insecurity, and hate experienced by LGBTQ+ communities can be further exacerbated during a disaster.

Our research has demonstrated that LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately affected by disasters, both because of preexisting systemic discrimination and because of discriminatory response policies. More specifically, bias in federal disaster programs, failure to recognize unique LGBTQ+ family structures, and anti-LGBTQ+ practices at some disaster-relief services provided by faith-based organizations all compound to heighten risks that LGBTQ+ communities face. 

The only national source of quantitative data that captures sexual orientation and gender identity during disasters is the Census Household Pulse Survey. A review of census data by E&E News reported that disasters displaced about 3.4 million people in 2022, and about 4% of LGTBQ+ people evacuated compared with 1.2% of straight people. Although other comprehensive quantitative data are lacking, there are many documented accounts of how the LGBTQ+ community is uniquely affected. This includes instances of people being turned away from shelters and aid (or having to lie about their relationship status to access it). Perhaps the most famous example of this is from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when two Black transgender women were arrested and placed in custody for using the women’s showers in an emergency shelter in Houston.   

Marginalization, insecurity, and hate experienced by LGBTQ+ communities can be further exacerbated during a disaster.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), responsible for coordinating the government’s disaster infrastructure, did not include LGBTQ+ people among the vulnerable populations considered in their National Preparedness Report until 2020—and their 2021 report excluded them. The agency did consider LGBTQ+ communities in a companion document, the 2022 Equity Action Plan and National Preparedness Report. But even that document lacks a clear strategy on how to integrate LGBTQ+ people into preparedness and disaster planning and response, as well as mutual aid policies and projects. 

Under the Biden administration, all agencies have been mandated to make equity action plans. In particular, the administration has specifically acknowledged that LGBTQ+ communities have been locked out of federal opportunities. The administration has included them as part of the definition of “equity” under executive orders on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce and on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. Reflecting this, the first goal of FEMA’s strategic plan for 2022–2026 is to “instill equity as a foundation of emergency management,” which includes LGBTQ+ communities. However, to do so effectively, it’s important to review historical and existing biases in disaster infrastructure and policies.

LGBTQ+ communities are diverse and face heightened risks

LGBTQ+ communities are overrepresented in at-risk populations for whom a disaster is more likely to bring death, displacement, and other negative health, economic, and social impacts. They also represent a large proportion of low-income populations, which are less likely to receive aid from FEMA. Those at risk include people who are homeless, impoverished, undocumented, incarcerated, and less likely to have access to health care. People of color make up 42% of LGBTQ+ individuals and 25% have an income below $24,000. Still, these communities are frequently imagined as including primarily white, wealthy, cisgender men—a misconception termed the “myth of gay affluence.” This myth leaves out, just to name a few examples, transgender farmworkers facing health effects and economic insecurity from California’s wildfires, and Black transgender women, who are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates relative to the general population. Incarcerated people are among those who are often not evacuated or provided proper equipment during disasters including hurricanes, heat waves, wildfires, and COVID-19.  

FEMA has a long history of prioritizing wealthy white individuals in disaster relief. This is exemplified in decisions about where to place mitigation projects such as flood prevention and cost-benefit analyses that depend on property values. A low-income family whose home has been completely destroyed might not meet FEMA’s cutoff for substantial damage, while a wealthier family with a less damaged home would. FEMA denies twice as many applicants in majority Black communities compared to white ones, according to a 2022 Washington Post analysis. This historic trend underlies and compounds the intersecting barriers faced by LGBTQ+ people of color, creating further harm and discrimination within disaster response.

LGBTQ+ communities are overrepresented in at-risk populations for whom a disaster is more likely to bring death, displacement, and other negative health, economic, and social impacts.

In addition, LGBTQ+ individuals are also at higher risk for many mental health and chronic illnesses, which disasters have been documented to worsen. These risks are not inherent to LGBTQ+ communities, but are attributed to heightened stress from both internal stressors (concealing who they are, internalized transphobia and homophobia, or anticipation of discrimination) and external ones (discrimination, violence, or environmental inequities). Poor air and water quality during disasters can make those living with HIV more susceptible to opportunistic infections. For example, Alejandro Acosta, a sexual health advocate living in Puerto Rico, stated that Hurricane Fiona (2022) exacerbated stigma, misinformation, and isolation for persons living with HIV. He indicated that LGBTQ+ youth often lack transportation needed to access care and “might not want to go to an LGBTQ organization because HIV is still treated as taboo in Puerto Rico.”  

Moreover, these inequities traverse government policies that fail to provide comprehensive protection from discrimination. It was not until June 2020 that the US Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ+ individuals could no longer be discriminated against in employment, and there is still no parallel federal protection for housing and health care. LGBTQ+ people report feeling increasingly vulnerable as federal rules fall short and many states ramp up discriminatory legislation and rhetoric. In 2021 and 2022, record-setting numbers of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation were proposed—and even though most failed to advance or pass, the debates harm LGBTQ+ communities, especially youth. The Human Rights Campaign predicts that 2023 will be “historically bad” and see more anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed than ever before. A 2022 survey by the nonprofit Trevor Project found that “86% of transgender and nonbinary youth have said that the debates on anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health.” Anti-LGBTQ+ policies in conjunction with racist policies, moreover, have been found to increase negative mental health outcomes and behavioral risks in Black sexual minority men, which disasters can exacerbate. 

Disaster response is inequitable and fueled by bias

In 2019, the Trump administration proposed a rule—which never advanced—that would have allowed homeless shelters to house transgender people according to their assigned sex at birth or legal sex instead of their gender identity. It reportedly stated that staff at a women’s shelter could take into account height and presence of an Adam’s apple or facial hair to, as the news outlet Vox put it, “judge whether that person is woman enough to use the facility.” 

Another way that LGBTQ+ communities can encounter de facto discrimination is because of their unique family structures. LGBTQ+ individuals may not always find family through biological or legal relationships. According to a 2021 analysis from the Trevor Project, 28% of LGBTQ youth reported being homeless or having unstable housing at some point in their lives. Of those kicked out of their homes, 40% attributed it to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many youth from unaccepting households find support and love by surrounding themselves with “chosen families” of other LGBTQ+ individuals. LGBTQ+ advocates argue that governments should not be in a position to judge which relationships are valid and which are not.

LGBTQ+ advocates argue that governments should not be in a position to judge which relationships are valid and which are not.

More explicit discrimination can occur in services operated by some faith-based organizations. During a disaster, these organizations are often the first to provide shelter, food, transportation, medication, social support networks, childcare, and more. Some states, such as Georgia, have partnered with them for disaster response. But LGBTQ+ communities are often wary of faith-based organizations and leaders. In 2018, Christian minister Kevin Swanson declared that the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights caused the unprecedented wildfires across California. A researcher at the University of Tennessee found that staff at the Montrose Center, a hub of Houston’s LGBTQ+ community, worried that after Hurricane Harvey, queer people would not want to access church groups offering help because of “past negative experiences.” Further, there are 22 states that have a statutory religious exemption law that churches or nonprofits can appeal to if services burden moral beliefs. Many of these states are in areas that are at high risk for disasters, and six have exemptions concerning providing health care to LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Better policy to help communities help themselves

LGBTQ+ communities have often been forced to develop their own resilience approaches. During Hurricane Harvey, the Organización Latina de Trans en Texas provided shelter, financial assistance, and other resources for documented and undocumented transgender women in Houston, Texas. Still, without governmental resources or institutional support, some communities suffer disproportionately before, during, and after a crisis

The following actions would help the federal government and mutual aid providers become trusted resources and better serve LGBTQ+ populations during disasters:

Federal disaster programs are required to protect residents regardless of sex, as outlined in section 308 of the 1988 Robert T. Stafford Act. However, the act does not explicitly cover sexual orientation and gender identity. The act should be changed so that any entity receiving federal disaster funding is required to have explicit nondiscrimination policies protecting sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. These entities should also provide comprehensive competency training for employees. 

Nondiscrimination policies for shelters are essential, particularly for transgender individuals. The policies should specify that LGBTQ+ individuals must not be separated from others unless those individuals request it. Separation further marginalizes individuals and can cause mental distress during an already stressful situation. Shelters should also be required to accommodate those with varying prescriptions, such as those that may require refrigeration and sharps injections, for those who need to inject hormones or other drugs. Several organizations, including the National LGBTQ+ Task Force and the Transgender Law Center, have created guides for equitable policies for homeless shelters, which offer important insights for designing inclusive disaster response shelters.

Nondiscrimination policies for shelters are essential, particularly for transgender individuals.

Finally, our research recommends the establishment of a federal interagency LGBTQ+ Equity Taskforce, cochaired by FEMA to consult with LGBTQ+ experts, organizations, and leaders to equitably serve LGBTQ+ communities during disasters. The agency should help draft and implement inclusive policies for federal, state, and local emergency response agencies. It can draw on resources such as the federal Equitable Data Working Group chaired by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and United States Office of Management and Budget to develop metrics and identify better practices to collect sexual orientation and gender identity data. This information can feed into critical national surveys such as the American Community Survey.

Given the numerous anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed throughout the nation, acquiring additional protections for these communities may be an uphill battle. But further measures are essential. The United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction program describes LGBTQ+ communities as “hyper-marginalized”—both traditionally socially vulnerable and with intersecting attributes that can increase marginalization. Thus, the harm disasters cause to LGBTQ+ individuals and communities is often greater than understood. Additional research and policies are warranted to safeguard these vulnerable and stigmatized populations.

These recommendations are only a starting point to ensure that LGBTQ+ communities are not disproportionately at-risk during disasters. Achieving real equity necessitates understanding the collective practices of LGBTQ+ populations and partnering with these communities to augment their capacity through equitable policy design and distribution of socioeconomic resources. As disasters increase in frequency and severity due to climate change, investing in community resilience is essential for the most marginalized populations not only to “bounce back” from injustices, but also to “bounce forward” to a more equitable and just future.

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Cite this Article

Goldsmith, Leo, Michael Méndez, and Vanessa Raditz. “Disaster Response Must Help Protect LGBTQ+ Communities.” Issues in Science and Technology (March 10, 2023).