Sebastian Fortino is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.
Christmas during COVID: LGBTQ community adjusts to shifting holiday plans
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By Sebastian Fortino
On Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who currently serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force and was recently named as Chief Medical Adviser to the President by the incoming Biden Administration, reminded Americans that upticks in Covid-19 infections could become worse during the Christmas travel season.
“I think it can be even more of a challenge than what we saw with Thanksgiving,” Fauci told CNN. “So I hope that people realize that and understand that as difficult as this is, nobody wants to modify, if not, essentially shut down, their holiday season.”
How are those in the community celebrating the holidays amid the pandemic? PGN spoke with four LGBTQ people about how Covid-19 has impacted their plans and their lives as a whole.
Amanda Matteo lives in Portland and works as a behavioral health specialist in a medication assisted treatment clinic as part of the process to become a certified addictions counselor. Coming home to her native Philadelphia and South Jersey this season is not an option. Matteo is an essential worker for those battling addiction.
“When your work is entirely based around supporting people and being in the same space as those people to help them in their recovery, connect them to resources, and support them in challenging times, how do you do that from a distance?” she asked.
Many of her clients are also homeless or without a permanent address. With homeless services in Portland and other cities being less-normalized due to Covid-19, providing access to care is decidedly “a balancing act.”
“They can’t ban us from going out of state,” when asked if her work had forbidden employees from travel, “but we are now required to quarantine for two weeks upon return from out of state travel, no matter what. In the context of our agency, that just doesn’t work. It keeps us understaffed, it compromises what [time off] we have available in case we do actually get sick.”
“They’re proud of me for not coming home and making a safe choice, and I’m sure they’re bragging about it to everyone,” Matteo said. “But we all definitely cried on the phone.”
John Otto is also based on the West Coast and originally from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Now he makes his home in San Francisco. He works for University of California at Berkeley Extension as a public education specialist, but he has not been required to work on-site since pandemic shutdowns. He has seen his nuclear family since the pandemic, although one of those circumstances was not ideal.
“When I had a medical emergency and required a caretaker, my dad flew out to spend a week with me,” Otto said. “He stayed in my apartment, and we kept the apartment ventilated by opening the windows and maintaining physical distance.”
While he has taken advantage of his work situation by traveling to Maine to see family over the summer and to Chicago just before shutdowns in March, he has felt the effects of Covid-19 interrupting travel. When some airport workers in Chicago tested positive he was stranded in the Windy City for a few days. Currently, he is visiting with family in Florida. Coming from California, which has been very serious about mask-wearing ordinances, PGN asked what adhering to precautions has looked like in Florida, a state which has been reluctant to close businesses and enforce masks.
“Under such executive orders,” he says, referring to states who have at least unofficially mandated masks, “there is much less room for individuals to make their own decisions about day-to-day living. Having experienced environments in which both these opposing viewpoints exist, I believe that a less authoritarian approach to controlling the pandemic is warranted. In every public space I have been in Florida, folks have been wearing masks properly, social distancing, and washing hands/sanitizing regularly. In terms of my physical safety, I have very little concern.”
But, Otto does have some concerns regarding a possible shutdown or ban on inter-state travel. When he gets to New Jersey, he will make sure to be responsible regarding previous time spent in Florida.
“Once I arrive [in New Jersey], I will quarantine for the mandated period of time, and I will get a Covid test. Although my parents and brother are in good health, I want to be extra sure that I am healthy so that I can protect those around me.”
Alexis Hagin-Howel and his husband are Georgia natives who work for the airline industry; both now live in the Boston area. He has elected to take a year off from the airlines and is working in the retail sector. However, his husband has not been taken off schedule.
“I basically have no holiday plans thanks to COVID. It’s really difficult taking time off of work due to an uncertain financial situation, plus a lot of my family are older or out of the country so that prevents me from seeing them.”
Complicating matters for Hagin-Howell, his parents live in Germany as his father is a contractor for the Army. An originally planned trip abroad was cancelled in April.
“Thanksgiving plans were basically ruined because my parents were supposed to return from Germany, but their trip was cancelled due to Germany being shut down a second time.”
When it comes to mask wearing, Hagin-Howell didn’t have a rosy report from his recent time spent in Georgia. As his parents weren’t in their home due to being stationed in Europe, the couple took advantage of a change of scenery, an empty house and a chance to visit in-laws for Thanksgiving.
“Massachusetts has had a mask mandate since the pandemic started, so wearing a mask is basically second nature. When I went home to Savannah, I was shocked by what I saw. The blatant disregard for others by not wearing a mask was rampant,” especially when venturing out for groceries. “I was nervous. As a person with a compromised immune system I was extra cautious while I was there.”
Like many Americans, especially those whose livelihood has been put into uncertainty by the pandemic, Hagin-Howell hopes Congress will come together to pass a second wave of stimulus packages and mandate masking or perhaps shutdown the country for a span of time.
“You can’t leave it up to people to do the right thing, as we have seen,” he stated. “This situation could have ended or significantly slowed down if the higher-ups had done what they needed to do at the beginning.”
Miayanna Brooks, a Philadelphia native and transgender woman, is a well-known local performer who has suffered financial hardship especially this year. In addition to losing financial support from entertaining audiences, her primary work as a home healthcare aid has been limited. She lost a patient in June and has been unemployed since then. Brooks feels isolation perhaps more acutely than others in the community over the holidays.
“Although I am very close to my foster mother and father, we rarely spend holidays together due to some of their biological families not being as supportive of my transition. So to relieve some of the holiday tension and stress I tend to stay away mostly,” Brooks shared. “I love my mother and father very much and they support me to the utmost but being with their families is always overwhelming for me and it is hard to get both of them together sometimes.”
Brooks planned to spend Thanksgiving with chosen family and loved ones in Massachusetts. However, the second wave of COVID-related shutdowns ultimately made that impossible. She had to cancel her plans right before the holiday weekend. She and her chosen little brother opted for a small, intimate meal together at home in Philly.
“But had we not it would have just been another holiday alone for me.”
For Christmas, Brooks once again had to change her plans to travel outside of the area. She intended to visit Atlanta to see her chosen aunt but due to financial issues as well as making sure COVID test results are recent-enough to be with loved ones, Brooks will most likely turn to virtual celebrations and visits.
Despite the personal hardship she feels, even being cut off from her family of performers through Burd Events at Tabu, she remembers there is a bright spot in her life to recognize and celebrate. She also reminds us to remember our transgender friends, family members, and loved ones wherever they may be.
“I recently turned 30 and feel very blessed to have made it here. Most transwomen of color don’t make it to 35….so to make it to 30 feels like a very bright spot. Along with spending time either socially distanced or via Facetime with friends and chosen family, if you have a friend or know someone of trans experience … check on them during the holidays. It is a very hard time for most of us.”
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