The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t been a “great equaliser” for India’s queer population

Living with pride amid a pandemic.
Living with pride amid a pandemic.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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In a nation roiled with socio-political anxieties, Covid-19 amplified our sense of impending doom: a quiet cough ringing alarm bells in our heads, while the morning news kept getting darker by the day. What is worse is that against a popular perception of the pandemic as a “great equaliser,” Covid-19 laid bare the differential vulnerabilities of the population.

Various gender and sexual minorities were among those that were exposed to precarity in ways that we often do not talk about. Many people have started asking how being locked in the spaces of domesticity might have impacted women, who often face abuse within those spaces. But there is little discourse on the impact these spaces have had on LGBTQIA individuals, many of whose lives are subject to increased supervision and regulation.

As a trans person with economic means, I was able to move to my chosen home in New Delhi, days before we were ambushed by a nationwide lockdown. As gender non-conforming persons, our natal homes can often render our wellbeing precarious. In navigating our relationship with the world, we seek rare moments of privacy afforded either by the internet or if we are so lucky to have “a room of one’s own.” As we saw with the migrant workers, the year 2020 impacted India’s most vulnerable severely. In the case of the queer communities, a heightened sense of dysphoria was pervasive.

The response to the pandemic took unprecedented forms that were quite disconcerting to many. For example, the quarantine centers set up were seen as exclusionary spaces, given the discrimination that people with non-normative gender and sexual expression face within these institutional spaces.

The trans and intersex individuals experience such exclusion the most since these state infrastructures shrink the mobility to perform your gender and express your sexuality. Some queer activists and non-profit organizations mounted a challenge to demand inclusive health-care spaces.  In Manipur, owing to the interventions by the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA), led by Manipuri trans activist Santa Khurai, the state government opened two dedicated quarantine centers for trans persons returning to the state.

Similarly, the insistence on identity proofs at ration distribution centres set up by the government has impacted accessibility to essential commodities.

In September, India’s highest court directed states to supply dry rations to sex workers without the need for ration cards during the pandemic, following a petition from the Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee, the country’s oldest sex workers collective. This was at the time when the pandemic severely impacted the livelihoods of sex-workers. The state’s aversion to counting sex work as work, the socio-cultural shame embedded deep in the moral folds of Indian societies, and greater regulation afforded by surveillance, has not only clipped opportunities for sex work, but also their rights and freedoms.

In a general atmosphere of neglect by the state, it is important to stress that many life-affirming initiatives for the marginalised came through grassroots mobilisation during the pandemic. Last year saw India’s first milk cooperative society run by transwomen in the newly minted village of Sandeep Nagar, in Tamil Nadu. Apart from ensuring financial security, the district administration has provided individual houses for each of those transwomen who work in the society.

Grace Banu, the founder of Trans Rights Now Collective, has been instrumental in seeing this to fruition. These initiatives remind us that leading a dignified life is not only dependent on a sustained source of income. But for many queer individuals, it is also about having a home to go to and being able to access a support system, be it simply the intimacy with friends. To feel safe is to feel happy.

Especially for the queer folk, having the means and spaces to discover, experience, and perform our sexuality can be an important part of our well-being. 2020 has been tough to exert agency in the ways we may normally do, ie, the sexual liberties that may materialise more organically in our private spaces such as our bedrooms.

In a contact restricted world, these parts of ourselves have found sanctuary in online platforms, precisely on the screen of our electronic devices. For gender and sexual minorities, whose understanding and practice of pleasure can be subject to policing from both within and outside the communities we interact with, more vivid is the anxiety in navigating online spaces for seeking sexual fulfillment.

A new digital world order

The digital world pushed us into reimagining touch in order to fulfill human needs of intimacy while living in a socially distanced world. I remember dreading this during the peak days of the lockdown. For some of us, pleasure is much more than a sensorial practice. Engaging in a receptive environment of pleasure that affirms the nonconformity of my body, a trans body, a figure of a woman that subverts the norm, can be liberating to our sense of self. In other words, gender and sexuality are wired into our bodies, and how much of it is visible beyond the framework of violence and victimhood is linked to our positive health beyond the absence of disease.

While the woes are many, the resilience of queer communities is such that they refuse to be invisibilised even when defenseless. The cancellation of pride events, which are remarkable for bringing together queer communities, this year, following social distancing protocol, nudged many to shift online for curating live shows, podcasts, digital exhibitions, open mic segments, and listening circles.

The scarcity of screen time has only proliferated creative and cultural expressions, in rich and provocative ways. Apart from reimagining cultural spaces for queer expression, we continued to forge political solidarities through virtual protests against the unlawful arrests of anti-CAA protesters, Dalit and Adivasi rights activists, students, and dissenters, that continued routinely unabated during the lockdown. Solidarity has been a critical resource in these remote and unsettling times.

Online mutual aid initiatives have opened up avenues for amplifying solidarity efforts to sustain the livelihoods of marginalised queer persons. These initiatives are run by queer persons and grassroots organisations to create multiple forms of support, including but not limited to food grains, clothing, financial support for gender-affirming surgeries, accommodation, wage assistance, and mental health support. Among these, I fondly remember a fundraiser to gift sarees to local trans communities during a popular festival in South India. The gift of gender euphoria, in my eyes, is the warmest kind of solidarity.

Still reeling from the aftershocks of the pandemic, with a promise of its end in sight, these past few months have had both material and emotional significance, some of which have been socio-political threats to the ways we live as queer individuals. Despite, and because of these odds, we have prevailed and transformed in our strength, we are learning to love our own selves and one another, in our communities we found refuge and resilience. Bidding adieu to a tumultuous year, we have carried with us hope for a reimagined future and greater possibilities for community-building, despite the discouraging circumstance.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.