How India’s trans community is affected by the COVID-19 lockdown
Written by Sasha R
(The author received support from R Ebenezer in translating an interviewee’s responses from Tamil to English)
From deteriorating mental health due to isolation, to struggling to make ends meet, India is facing the impact of the nation-wide lockdown that was imposed on March 24, in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
However, there are some who are facing the greater brunt of this measure, like the transgender community. Several trans people across the country are battling challenges that include losing their livelihoods, their homes, and having to go back to families who make them feel unsafe.
Rakshika Raj, a transgender nurse, social activist, and social worker from Tamil Nadu says that the community has been affected by the lockdown, since they can no longer beg or engage in sex work for their living. She also says that many of them need to repay loans, and pay for chit funds, but since their source of livelihood has been stripped, they are in a fix.
“Many do not have knowledge about personal hygiene like how to properly wash their hands, and how to maintain distance between each other. They also lack an understanding of symptoms of COVID-19; they will consider getting a cold and cough normal. They need health education,” she adds.
As part of its Rs 3,280 crore assistance package, the Tamil Nadu government recently announced that it will provide Rs 1,000 to those who hold ‘rice’ ration cards. Although this seems like a helpful provision for many, Rakshika says that this is a benefit that many trans people will not be able to avail – “Not many have these ration cards. It is tough for them to even have Aadhar cards, since those who have undergone transition still have their assigned birth sex on their documents.”
Alongside being unable to make ends meet, there is a heightened risk of the virus spreading among the community, since many of them live together in small rooms. According to Rakshika, at least 9-10 people live under the same roof, and right now they do not have resources for essentials like food and gas cylinders. She also says that it is very difficult for them to rent separate rooms or flats, because they are charged double the amount that a cisgender person would have to pay, due to transphobia.
“Although the lockdown is favourable, the government should have informed us earlier so that we could have the time to manage things. Currently, the water and electricity facilities are very bad, and since many trans people live in slums, they will also be susceptible to diseases apart from COVID-19. The government should provide us with sanitisers, masks and gloves because they are very expensive at medical shops.”
While a large part of India’s trans community struggles to make ends meet, there is another hurdle that many trans people in the country are facing – going back home to transphobic families.
“Having to stay at home for 21 days means 21 days of me presenting as a man. I have to cut my nails, listen to jokes about my long hair, people talking about my future marriage and more. Home is a difficult place to be in when you cannot have a conversation with your own mother. It constantly reminds me that I do not belong in various social settings, like family,” says Biraja (she/her).
For one trans man in Bengaluru, living with his parents is taking a huge toll on his mental health. He says that he has acquired a part time job that pays enough for him to be able leave, in case the situation at home gets worse.
Tanishka (they/them), who is currently in Mumbai, says that they lead a closeted life at home with their parents, which can get challenging – “I have not come out as non-binary to either of my parents, and with them, I constantly need to misgender myself, which is difficult. But I depend on my family monetarily, and I can’t afford the risk of being thrown out. I am getting by because of my friends with whom I keep in touch every day.”
For Swarnim (she/her), going back to live with her parents means being unable to express herself through clothing and makeup. Now that she’s at home, she feels stifled because she is not out to her father as a trans woman, and although her mother knows, she does not fully understand. “There is no way I can wear my dresses or use makeup to feel at peace with my identity. All of these things are just lying inside my bag and I cannot use them to relieve my dysphoria,” she says.
Meera (she/her), says that she struggles with constantly being misgendered at home, because there is a sense of familiarity with her identity before she began transitioning. “I am living here for the first time as Meera, post transition, and I am stuck here. My dad is abusive, and defends his behaviour. My uncle makes inappropriate and sexist comments, and he and my grandmother misgender me a lot. I feel very uncomfortable,” she says.
For Aryan (he/him), trouble does not come from living with family, but from his doctor. He says that he usually takes one testosterone injection every eight days, but when he visited his doctor recently, he was turned away since it was not an “emergency.” Although he finally managed to convince the doctor to give him his shot, he was told this would not be done henceforth. Aryan is now learning to self-inject, with the help of a different healthcare provider.
Ray (he/they), an Indian student in Canada, who also worked at a fast-food chain as a crew trainer says that he was piled with a huge amount of work since the chain let go of many employees. Wearing a chest binder, working an 8-hour shift, and managing hundreds of orders drove him to his limit. “They are still open, but I have decided to stay home because I travel via public transit and then dealing with customers can make me more susceptible to catching the virus. But now I have no source of income, and thousands of dollars’ worth of college fee to pay,” he says.
The COVID-19 lockdown may just be an inconvenience to some, but for many others, like the transgender community, it is essentially life brought to a screeching halt and a hundred extra hurdles placed in front of them. Depending on public donations and banding together as chosen families is what helps many trans people get through each day, and it is important to stop leaving them out of the conversation.