After the Pride Month celebrations concluded at the end of June, and public relations driven glitzy corporate campaigns came to an abrupt end, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex Asexual + (LGBTQIA+) community in India was pushed back into its dark reality. The community’s plight was exacerbated by the Covid-19 induced lockdown. In this piece, we try to highlight certain issues that remain inadequately addressed and in urgent need of a sustainable solution.
LGBTQIA+ persons in India
Multinational research firm Ipsos released report on LGBT+ Pride 2021 Global Survey conducted between April 23 and May 7, 2021. The survey was conducted as a 27-market survey conducted through interview on a sample of 500 individuals in India. The report shows that 3% of the Indian Population identify as homosexual (Including Gay and Lesbian), 9% identify as bisexual, 1% identify as pansexual and 2% identify as asexual. Totally, 17% identify as not heterosexual (excluding ‘do not know’, and ‘prefer not to answer’). It is however noteworthy that the people were interviewed online, and therefore the respondents are likely to be educated, and having at least a certain amount of financial power. Therefore, it is difficult to gauge the responses of people in the hinterland, those who lack internet access or the unlettered.
Connection with community cut off
Over time, members of LGBTQIA+ individuals have built spaces for themselves outside of their natal homes due to prejudice and abuse by family members. For some members of the queer community venturing outside of home and interacting as a collective is important for accessing safe space and even livelihood. However, the very nature of the Covid-19 lockdown restricts this access. The government’s negligible attempts at aiding the queer community have amplified the difficulties and abuse that they have had to face due to the pandemic.
Forced return to abusive biological families
Several individuals who are queer form a chosen family or a community space for themselves outside of home, be it in college, professional spaces or through support networks. A number of queer individuals who have been forced to return to their biological families have faced unprecedented abuse or discomfort due to the need to behave in a hetero-normative fashion in their homes.
At home, many individuals are unable to express their identity, use their preferred pronouns, prohibited from dressing according to their choice. The very existence of their identities is denied and even suppressed due to the prejudices of the natal families, this can cause dysphoria and grave mental distress. While there have been government initiated helplines for mental health during lockdown, no such helplines were formed to address the suffering of queer individuals. There are also queer individuals who have been unable to return to home because their home situations are extremely volatile or have been disowned by their families for being queer.
Impact on livelihood, and ability to access justice
For queer individuals who live on their own and have entered the workforce in India, there have been various difficulties. Several members of the transgender community in India rely on alms or professions such as sex work, which require social interaction. Moreover, as activist, professor and transman Bittu, points out, “Several transmen who work in itinerant forms of labour such as in roadside dhabas, trucking, driving cabs have also lost their sources of livelihood as these professions have been shut down during the lockdown.”
There is also disparity within the queer community. For instance in Lucknow there is a system of badhai which is earned by members of the Hijra community from public spaces. This system itself is unequal as 80% of their earnings have to go to the gurus of their gharana. “When individuals ventured out to earn badhai they were brutally beaten up by the police or asked for sexual favours,” Ritu a transwoman from Lucknow shared. She also pointed out that the distress caused by the pandemic has led to an increase in violence within the community itself. However, reporting any violence between members of the queer community to the police is difficult due to their prejudice. Ritu shared an instance when she went to the police in Balaganj thana in Lucknow with a queer friend to report abuse and the police officer derogatorily said, “The current times are so dismal that now we have to address cases of ‘these’ people.”
There have been various cases where the police have denied fair investigation into the violence against transgender individuals. For queer partners, reporting cases to the police, has always been a difficulty as their relationship and identity is denied at every level by their families, the society and even the officials.
Exclusion of transgender persons
A transwoman activist from Telangana, Rachana, highlighted, “The violence within the community and against the community is a result of the systematic exclusion and discrimination of transgender people, mainly that of welfare.” When the loss of welfare was emphasised by the pandemic, there was little questioning of the lack of access to welfare schemes such as ration cards, housing, pension, healthcare, monetary schemes that prevails within the trans community.
A major obstacle in accessing such schemes comes from the poor documentation of trasngender individuals in the population census. Even schemes rolled out by the government were quite discriminatory, and did not recognise the right to self identification. Rachana further added that the national portal that was introduced by the government to allow transgender individuals to register themsevles in order to avail schemes focused on the binary identification of male-female and required doctor’s certification for identification.
These attempts by the government have been quite poor and at best superficial. In the first year of the lockdown, the government announced that they would provide a one time cash transfer of INR 1,500 and ration supplies. A trans woman activist, Meera Sangamitra said that according to their calculations “only 1% of the community received this transfer.” Although the estimated population of trangender community in India is 4.8 million, only 5,711 received cash transfer and and a mere 1,229 received ration supplies. The idea of a direct cash transfer also makes little sense as a majority of the members of the community do not have bank accounts due to lack of documentation. This policy not only failed in implementation, but the fundamental thought behind the idea never took into account the situation of the transgender community in India in the first place.
Restricted access to healthcare
Access to adequate healthcare has always been difficult for LGBTQIA individuals, the advent of Covid-19 lockdown enhanced the problems. Loss of livelihood on one hand has limited options of nutritious sustenance hampering immunity of individuals during a pandemic. In hospitals transgender individuals often face discrimination which can create a mentally traumatic experience.
Rachana shared, “Several transgender individuals were turned away from hospitals on the claim that there was no space for them. Their symptoms were often dismissed as mild cough and fever.” She added, “While accessing healthcare several trans individuals are questioned about their chosen identity by doctors and medical professionals.” Ritu shared an experience of a transwoman friend who was told by a pharmacist in Lucknow, “There is already a shortage of medicine, let the common person survive, why do you need to live?”
The Central government has not taken any firm steps to lend support to the transgender community, although very few states such as West Bengal have undertaken some policies, though even these are less than adequate. Additionally, the breakdown of the health infrastructure in the country has also made it difficult for some members of the transgender community to access their monthly hormone treatments. These treatments are often important for individuals to deal with dysphoria which can cause grave mental stress, and regular access to doctors during their treatment is important for their health. Owing to the mental stress caused by the society, personal dysphoria and government’s insistence for surgery for identification several transgender individuals have gone to quack doctors to undergo surgery, Rachana added. Although this has been a prevalent practise in the Hijra community, it increased during Covid-19 when scheduled surgeries could not take place. These surgeries are then conducted in unhygienic conditions often leading to problems such as Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). Rushing for these surgeries is a direct result of social prejudice which forces individuals to fit into a binary to prove their existence.
These policies by the government, or lack thereof, are indicative of their own prejudice and how they seek to deny the very existence of a significantly marginalised community. Queer individuals are penalised for being queer. The dismissal of queer identities only increased during the lockdown. This has led to abuse, mental distress and even loss of life. The systemic denial of existence of queer identities can also be seen in the larger field of medical research, where there has been a marked absence of data on how individuals undergoing hormone treatment will be affected by the vaccination.
It is easy to paint a pride flag onto an organisation’s logo, but addressing the difficulties of the community which were magnified during Covid-19 will require a larger structural change, including one of consciousness. A thorough understanding of the pre-existing situation is imperative. Simply painting rainbow flags in advertisements and superficial governmental policies do not save lives.