By Melina Nguyen
LGBTQIA+ communities are more likely to experience homelessness, air pollution and health problems compared to their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts because of extreme heat, say experts.
Extreme heat is a period of high heat, usually alongside high humidity, with temperatures above 90 degrees for at least two to three days in most of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
A webinar hosted by the National Integrated Heat Health Information System featured three heat experts who spoke about the “unique risks and exposure to extreme heat in LGBTQIA+ communities.”
LGBTQIA+ communities are especially susceptible to violence and discrimination based on their identity. With between 20% and 45% of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQIA+they are at risk of harassment and violence, rejection from housing or being charged higher rents and misgendering.
This means poor quality housing, usually a lack of air conditioning and greater air pollution for low-income and LGBTQIA+ people.
Dr. Michael Méndez, a professor of urban planning and public policy at the University of California, Irvine, said these effects of extreme heat create a layering effect that causes things like asthma and cancer.
“Heat waves in California are not isolated events,” said Méndez. “They often now compound with other hazards, comorbidities, or what is called a syndemic in the field of public health.”
In the western U.S., temperatures sat above average by four to six degrees Fahrenheit, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Monthly National Climate Report for September 2022. In the mainland, the average temperature this September was the fifth warmest in the last 128 years.
“LGBTQ+ people exist within all communities, already considered vulnerable or disproportionately impacted by disasters,” said Vanessa Raditz, a queer educator and co-founding member of Queer Ecojustice Project.
They emphasized that the LGBTQIA+ population is not separate from other minority groups. For example, low-income, disabled and/or communities of color include LGBTQIA+ people as well.
Dr. Bhargavi Chekuri, the co-director of the Diploma in Climate Medicine University of Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine, said she has seen a high risk for LGBTQIA+ individuals and depression, anxiety, suicide, substance use and STDs.
Chekuri stressed the need for strong and inclusive public health services, which the medical field still needs to transition to.
“The vast majority of global health research … still define gender as binary,” she said. “And often … there’s not a collection of sex and gender disaggregated data.”
Some states like South Carolina and Texas have proposed or passed religious exemptions “to ban insurance coverage of medical medication that prevents transmission of HIV or prep medication,” said Méndez.
“We should ask ourselves in a disaster: how would these religious exemptions impact the health of LGBTQ communities during disasters?” he said. “Will this extend more broadly to only disaster response efforts and other types of services?”
Even though LGBTQIA+ communities face adverse effects of heat risk, they should also be recognized for their resilience, said Raditz.
“I would like to emphasize that this is not only a story of LGBTQ-plus vulnerability, but also one of resilience, such as this story of an LGBT Center in Sacramento, California, which opened up as a cooling center for the community, including for homeless youth and elders,” they said.
LGBTQIA+ individuals helped with urban tree planting efforts for organizations like the Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco, California.
However, Raditz said the LGBTQIA+ community cannot shoulder the responsibility of their climate resilience alone.
“We really emphasize partnering with LGBTQ-plus communities to enhance their capacity for resilience through policy and socioeconomic resources,” they said.
For more information, see the companion “Tip of the Iceberg” podcast episode here.