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Queer Communities Often Left Out of Disaster Planning, Research Shows

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A smiling Mexican woman wearing blue jeans and a light blue hoodie stands smiling in front of the two story apartment building where she lives. Tall cactus plants hug the fence behind her.
Paloma Reyes, a trans woman and farmworker based in Santa Rosa, helps run a group that advocates for trans farmworkers.  (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

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When the Tubbs Fire ignited in 2017, Paloma Reyes’s gloved hands didn’t brush against the smooth skin of grape clusters on vines for weeks.

“In that time of the fires, we did not work,” said Reyes, speaking in Spanish. She had just come from a vineyard in Napa where she’d been preparing vines for spring.

For months, the smoke-filled air and the threat of fires burning vineyards kept Reyes and other farmworkers out of the fields for long enough that it hurt.

“In those months when the fire happened, we did not save enough money to sustain ourselves through winter,” she said.

The Tubbs Fire was the first blaze to force Reyes out of smoke-crowded vineyards and into the safety of her apartment near a commuter rail line in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.

“2017 was the year that marked all of us girls,” she said.

What held Reyes together during that fire — and a slog of fires in the years to come — is the community she worked for six years to foster: Santa Rosa Trans Latinas, a grassroots network of transgender people, including farmworkers, who advocate for each other in California’s wine country. Reyes has called Santa Rosa home for more than two decades.

“We were supporting each other,” she said of the weeks after the Tubbs Fire cut her community from work. “It was not easy for us trans girls who work in agriculture.”

Reyes’s life is one example of how queer people often have to create space for themselves, especially during climate disasters, because the services offered to most people may not be or feel available to them. And when there’s a climate disaster, LGBTQ+ people are often more vulnerable because of intersecting factors like poverty, incarceration, homelessness, immigration status and discrimination.


“When people are planning for social vulnerability, they totally discount the LGBTQ+ community because it’s characterized as being white and wealthy,” said Michael Méndez, an environmental policy and planning professor at UC Irvine.

Méndez is part of a group of LGBTQ+ professors whose new research shows that efforts to prepare for and recover from disasters regularly exclude queer people. The researchers from Yale University, the University of Georgia and UC Irvine outline policy recommendations on how government and relief groups can make disaster preparation and recovery inclusive and safe for LGBTQ+ people.

‘Rendered invisible’

Méndez says there are too many cases of queer people being neglected, mistreated or outright discriminated against when trying to get aid. In one instance, a lesbian couple pretended they were sisters to share a room in an emergency shelter.

“There were also several cases showing that transgender people were arrested during some of the hurricanes for using a shower that did not match their biological birth,” he said.

In 2012, the Human Rights Campaign detailed how best to work collaboratively with LGBTQ+ people and eliminate discrimination in disaster preparation and response. Méndez says that, nationwide, very few assistance groups use the guidance.

In 2019 California passed a law mandating that local governments include cultural competency in disaster preparedness planning. Méndez says it provides “nominal LGBTQ+ protections.”

He says the law isn’t explicit enough and has little accountability baked into it. For example, it doesn’t require disaster planners to know where queer communities are concentrated. He would like lawmakers to come up with a bill that would require governments to analyze where LGBTQ+ people live and then use that data for disaster planning.

“Those are the blind spots that even California has,” he said. “Essentially, the LGBTQ+ community here in California and throughout the nation are rendered invisible in the context of disasters, public policy and planning.”

Home is a ‘hard-fought’ thing

Méndez and the other researchers also strongly suggest that disaster plans reflect the unique structures of queer families.

“Some LGBTQ+ individuals are still shunned from their family members,” he said. “They have a chosen family they consider part of their immediate family, and it should be acknowledged.”

When queer communities are involved in reducing their own risk, Méndez says there’s significantly less loss from a disaster. He says preventing further damage is vital for queer people because they often already don’t have a sense of home.

Fires in Sonoma County have further rekindled the need for community and home for Freddie Francis, who moved to the queer-friendly Sebastopol area from Butte County in 2017.

“As a trans person, I’ve always kind of felt on the outside of things,” Francis said. “When I find home and place, that’s a hard-fought thing. So, to have that threatened by something so globally out of my control definitely taps on those deep fears and wounds of not having a stable home in place.”

What’s safeguarded Francis during the yearly trauma of evacuating to the Bay Area when the skies darken with smoke is a community of queer friends in rural Western Sonoma County.

“There’s really a value of having each other’s backs,” Francis said. “Feeling that connection is a good antidote to the isolation and desperation at times, and trying to cultivate little moments of joy and connection throughout it all.”

As the climate emergency continues, Francis says the built-in queer culture of mutual aid only makes the LGBTQ+ community more resilient in the face of a warming world.

“I’m working on building a stronger community, friendships, and cultivating those relationships,” Francis said. “I do think if anything is going to get us through, it’s gonna be that connection.”

Beyond religion as a relief tool

The authors also recommend that services be provided by a wide range of community sources that aren’t only faith-based, especially by groups already working with LGBTQ+ populations. This could include funding and training for existing LGBTQ+ community centers to allow them to qualify as federal and state emergency shelters.

The study points out how much aid is religion-based and that many queer people don’t feel comfortable getting assistance from people who don’t believe they exist.

The authors refer to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey where most respondents “by overwhelming margins” rated all six major U.S. religions “as more unfriendly than friendly” toward the LGBTQ+ community. They also found that 73% of respondents say Evangelical churches are unfriendly.

The Reverend Lindsey Bell-Kerr, a pastor at Christ Church United Methodist in Santa Rosa, is actively working to undermine stereotypes about churches and queer people so they can easily access aid when disasters happen.

A person standing in the foreground of the inside of a church sanctuary. White strands of cloth hang from the center of the room creating draping and a brown cross and chairs in the background.
Rev. Lindsey Bell-Kerr says they go out of their way to work with people across Santa Rosa, so that when needs come up they know they can reach out to their congregation for help. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

“Santa Rosa is a place where I will still run into folks who are asking me what those letters in LGBTQAI+ mean,” they said. “It’s an opportunity to teach. It’s an opportunity to move the needle on acceptance.”

Bell-Kerr understands that even though their church is queer-friendly, many LGBTQ+ people remain hesitant to receive aid from any religion-based entity.

“It’s actually really helpful for me to be visibly identifiable as a queer person,” they said. “Because I don’t look like the kind of person that’s gonna make them repent before they get a sandwich.”

Nobody needs to believe in any higher power to receive aid through this church. Its parking lot is always open for unhoused people to stay overnight in vehicles, and the church feeds and shelters people in need during wildfires.

“If people don’t feel safe coming into a church building, and we’re offering meals, we have to-go containers on hand, and I’ll bring it out to them,” Bell-Kerr said. “That kind of accommodation just requires paying attention to how people are feeling and how people are showing up in a space.”

‘I am no longer a prisoner’

After the fires in 2017, Reyes, the Santa Rosa-based farmworker, and some of her friends eventually received food and funds from a few local organizations to pay bills.

A Mexican woman wearing a lavender hoodie sweatshirt, orange worker's vest and a white wide brimmed hat stands amongst naked grapevines.
Paloma Reyes says she isn’t mentally ready for another wildfire, but knows when the next fire ignites she will rally around her group of trans friends. (Courtesy Paloma Reyes)

But after four years of constant wildfire threat, the lingering pandemic, and discrimination as a queer person, Reyes says the thought of another fire is daunting.

“I don’t think I’m mentally prepared for another fire,” she said. “Neither my colleagues nor my trans group is prepared for another fire of the magnitude of the one that happened in 2017.”

No matter how unprepared for the very real likelihood of a fire clouding the skies in Sonoma County, Reyes says her community of trans peers and friends is the network she’ll rely on and provide for during moments of crisis.

She says her work of welcoming other trans farmworkers into her group has, in turn, liberated her even more.

“I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “The group has given me a lot of strength to be able to speak, not to lose myself in fear. I am no longer a prisoner. I will continue doing it as long as I live.”


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