Like many during the pandemic, clients of the San Mateo County Pride Center faced housing and food insecurity, unemployment and mental health strains, compounding existing hurdles related to their identities and forcing the Pride Center to respond quickly.

“Living through a pandemic was an unexpected tragedy that was thrust upon us all. Many of the LGBTQ community were already living precarious lives having been pushed to the margins of society. The pandemic only worsened our outcomes,” Frankie Sapp, director of the Pride Center, said.

Sapp noted that members of the queer community are more likely to suffer from poor mental health than straight, cisgender people. And like many, the pandemic exacerbated those mental health struggles, disproportionately affecting minority communities, he said.

A study of LGBTQIA+ county residents conducted by the center in partnership with Ada Zhang, a Schweizer fellow with the Stanford School of Medicine, confirmed Sapp’s assertions.

Of the more than 500 respondents, 85% reported experiencing negative impacts on their mental health caused by the pandemic with 75% unable to access the social support they needed and 55% unable to access the activities that sustained them before the health crisis.

Compared to heterosexual respondents, nonheterosexual respondents were nearly seven times more likely to become unemployed and nearly seven times as likely to have trouble receiving stipend checks or unemployment benefits. Nonwhite respondents were 2.5 times as likely to struggle with unemployment.

Transgender and nonbinary respondents were nearly two times as likely to have experienced financial strain, 4.3 times as likely to struggle with accessing stipend checks or unemployment benefits and 4.2 times as likely to have moved into unsafe housing.

And respondents with disabilities were more than seven times as likely to move into unsafe housing while twice as likely to become unemployed. They were also four times as likely to have trouble affording medical care and 2.4 times as likely to have trouble accessing adequate mental health support.

Alex Golding, the center’s lead case manager and clinical data coordinator, said immigrant clients of the Pride Center were hit particularly hard. Members of San Mateo County’s Latino community as a whole were some of the hardest hit, accounting for about half of all COVID-19 cases.

Golding said many immigrant clients were fearful of accessing unemployment benefits due to their immigration status. Fears around getting COVID-19 vaccines were also prevalent.

“San Mateo County has done a great job in educating folks and doing workshops to counteract that but it’s still there and it’s tricky when you know vaccines will help but if they’re apprehensive to get it that’s going to slow the recovery down too,” Golding said.

Knowing some queer county residents look at the Pride Center as a community space, Golding said it was vital for staff to quickly transition online. While at home, clients were able to access youth programming, workout classes, trans discussion groups and other events.

The organization has also helped to direct struggling clients to various core agencies located in the county that could assist with various struggles including housing and food insecurity and mental health and medical access.

Golding also leads a monthly workshop guiding clients on how to pursue name and gender assignment changes on legal documents. Before the health crisis, events were held in person with clients working one on one with staff but, as a virtual program, Golding said the center’s reach has expanded to assist people from all over the state.

“For many folks, it’s the first time their new identity is officially recognized. It’s really liberating and freeing and really helps relieve a lot of those feelings of gender dysphoria,” Golding said. “It’s an extra layer of confidence so you could prove to the world, your parents, teachers, employers that you are who you say you are.”

The process has long been difficult to access but the legal system is increasingly challenging to navigate as offices closed during the pandemic. San Mateo County faced similar delays but Golding said the county worked to successfully improve the system with the process returning to near normal in December.

Still, Sapp said he recognizes some residents may be living in homes where revealing their gender or sexual identity may make them unsafe, limiting their access to online community spaces. Some may still be struggling with the technology to access events as well.

While state officials have lifted most COVID-19 restrictions, Sapp said the physical location at 1021 S. El Camino Real in San Mateo will remain closed until the end of summer or early fall. Meanwhile, the staff is making improvements to the space to better host events and meet client needs.

“Physical distance, social connection,” Sapp said. “Sometimes our greatest asset can be knowing we are not in this alone.”

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