Not ‘Sailing in the Same Boat’: Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Been Worse for LGBTQI+ Persons in India

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives across the world, there can be no argument that the worst-affected are individuals and communities that were already vulnerable before the pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated and made visible existing structural inequities. Like other crises, the pandemic is not neutral to gender, caste, ethnicity, class, sexuality or any other determinant of one’s social location.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives across the world, there can be no argument that the worst-affected are individuals and communities that were already vulnerable before the pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated and made visible existing structural inequities. Like other crises, the pandemic is not neutral to gender, caste, ethnicity, class, sexuality or any other determinant of one’s social location.

It is more than clear now that people already marginalised and stigmatised, are the worst hit by the pandemic lockdowns. The hit is marked on several axes —psychological, economic, political, and cultural. Faced by the fact that each section gets affected differently, we realise that all of us are not “sailing in the same boat,” as the early narrative around the pandemic suggested. The boats, if you have one, are different in size, shape and comfort. 

noted Gita Chadha (2021).

Not only are the already marginalised sections of society less likely to have the capacity to weather the disruptions caused by the pandemic due to their pre-existing conditions of deprivation, but they are also less likely to be beneficiaries of state policy interventions. Policy decisions of the state tend to reflect pre-existing socio-economic hierarchies.

One axis along which the unequal impact of the pandemic and policy is evident is sexuality. The experiences of sexual minorities during the pandemic are rife with stigmatisation, vulnerability to violence, economic precarity and systemic neglect. While the lives of LGBTQI+ persons in India have been marked by such risks even prior to COVID-19, the pandemic has worsened the risks and also presented new challenges.

In this reading list, we highlight the impact of the pandemic on LGBTQI+ persons in India. 

At the outset, it is worth making it clear that while LGBTQI+ persons across the spectrum may have certain shared experiences and vulnerabilities, they do not in any way present a homogeneous identity. One’s sex and gender, caste, class, ethnicity, language, religion, disability, geographical location, and more, and intersections thereof may have an impact on a person’s specific experiences of the pandemic.

Samira Nadkarni and Swarnim summarise some examples of the varied experiences of what they refer to as “the disposability of queer selves” in the specific context of the pandemic.

Under COVID-19, the disposability of queer selves is exacerbated and extended outwards to encompass a range of possibilities: homeless queer people (as queer people are often thrown out of families, they may be poor and unhomed as a consequence), queer sex workers (who use sex work as primary or supplementary means to an income), queer migrants (as many queer people leave rural areas in search of acceptance and/or anonymity in larger cities), queer people with pre-existing or ongoing healthcare needs (which can include disability needs, HIV/AIDS treatments, hormone replacement therapy [HRT] and more), incarcerated queer populations (as queer people may be incarcerated for a variety of reasons that may or may not be directly related to their queerness), etc.

In this reading list, we hope to build further on these examples of the challenges faced by LGBTQI+ persons during the pandemic, with selected excerpts from relevant articles published in EPW. We also discuss the lack of adequate policy responses to address these challenges.

 

Challenges in Negotiating Queer Spaces

 

While slogans like “Stay Home, Stay Safe” gained popularity amid the pandemic and lockdowns, “home” may not represent a “safe” space for all, including for LGBTQI+ persons. Some of the worst-hit have been trans persons, for whom negotiating concepts of “home” and “safety” could be challenging even prior to the pandemic.

Nadkarni and Swarnim noted:

While some may find trans-friendly spaces to rent, this is a rare exception and the fear of being discovered remains even within the seeming protection of private spaces (subject to residential welfare associations, etc) outside of filial domestic spaces. Additionally, while some may choose to disclose to supportive family members, this may be limited by larger dynamics of power within the family. So while the private domestic space is violent, it is merely a continuum of violence that also exists in public spaces.

This is not likely to substantially change during the lockdown since it pre-exists COVID-19. However, under COVID-19, such issues are magnified.

Given that trans people often struggle to find long-term employment, finances are always a concern since it affects access to all kinds of amenities. This additionally increases as places of employment seek to slash budgets and/or withdraw offers of employment. Members of the queer community who might otherwise have provided financial assistance are consequently unable to do so as well. Queer people, and particularly trans people, are unable to search for friendly housing as opportunities for interaction are limited in the pandemic, often requiring that one gamble in the hopes of acceptance. Notably, this can be as terrifying as landlords or locals may turn violent and abusive at any time, and, many of the queer community’s resources for emergency mobilisation have been impacted during the pandemic. 

While cis people may understand the challenges of trans persons being asked to return to domestic spaces that may be unwelcoming or violent towards them, and of being unable to seek affirmation through gendered expression (such as clothing or hairstyles), they often fail to understand that this only forms a surface-level engagement with trans lives, added Nadkarni and Swarnim.

The reductive idea that clothes define experiences of transness elides the reality that people have an understanding of their own identities regardless (Nadja 2016). As Swarnim notes, “I am always trans and the world is always cis.”

In effect, most spaces are geared to be cis-normative and to reject, exclude, punish, or harm those who do not wish to follow these gendered constraints. This is true for queer spaces as well. 

Queer spaces come with their own negotiations both online and in person, and can be trans-exclusionary (Nadja 2015; Banu 2019), casteist (Chandran 2018; Borisa 2019; Banu 2019), misogynist, transphobic, ableist (Modi 2020), classist, fatphobic, homonationalist (Das and Bund 2020), and more. Queer communities may themselves police expressions of desire and may echo cishet society’s demand for conformity even within queer spaces.

Nadkarni and Swarnim also discuss the continuity between challenges of in-person and online queer spaces.

Within larger cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, there are queer communities that are visible and offer some access to queer spaces. But in the vast majority of smaller cities or towns, in-person queer spaces are still unlikely. As a result, touch, intimacy, and access have always been contested questions, dependent not only upon access to technology and the internet, but also on how social capital is constructed in these queer spaces around language, bodies and desire, and personal safety. 

… At the same time, the normalisation of online access for those that can afford it (which is dependent on a range of factors such as geographic access to electricity, caste capital, class capital, language, familiarity with technology, surveillance and policing, and more) might allow for more people to find social media spaces where queerness is accepted and validated. As more people engage with this online and use markers that signify their own queerness and positionality, queer peers are finding each other in ways that did not always seem possible pre-COVID-19 because being online for such long periods was not considered normal. However, the very real fear remains of being outed or doxxed, because while these spaces may allow for queer friends to discover each other, they continue to exist in cis and heteronormative frameworks that could turn violent at any moment. It is impossible not to be aware of the dangers and irreparable harm that could come from being recognised in online spaces while still not out in one’s personal or private spheres (Nadja 2015). These fears are heightened for trans people.

 

Access to Healthcare, including Mental Health Care

 

With healthcare often being heteronormative and cis-centric, access to proper medical care would likely have been a challenge for LGBTQI+ persons, especially those contending with multiple marginalities, even before COVID-19. Nadkarni and Swarnim explained:

Depending on access to funds, they [various queer communities] may or may not be able to seek medical treatment—itself already hugely overburdened during the pandemic—and many may not want to, given histories of being treated badly by these institutions. 

With early diagnosis and treatment being a crucial factor for survival in the context of COVID-19, the ability and willingness to access healthcare assumes greater importance.  

As Swarupa Deb notes, this longstanding discrimination also plays out in the fact that “the fear of being stigmatised and ridiculed by healthcare professionals discourages them from using healthcare services which is now leaving them at increased risk of not being tested or treated for COVID-19.”

Drawing from the experiences of members of the hijra community, Roshni Chakraborty (2021) wrote

Particularly concerning during a pandemic is the low health-seeking behaviours of hijras. Lack of know­ledge and stigma against transgenders often lead to verbal abuse, physical violence, forcible admission into male wards, and a refusal to treat patients (Chakrapani 2010).

Another queer population that is often discriminated against in terms of medical care are intersex persons. Many intersex diagnoses correspond with unique medical needs but access to healthcare can be particularly challenging for intersex persons given that the complexities of their health concerns are not part of the mainstream medical education and are clear to only a few medical practitioners in India.

Quoting from a document by a United States-based collective “Advocates for Intersex Youth,” Pushpesh Kumar and Debomita Mukherjee highlighted an example of the unique medical needs of intersex persons, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, some forms of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia – one of the most common intersex traits—cause a hormonal variation that must be carefully managed with medication to prevent life-threatening adrenal crises. Falling ill causes the body to require more adrenal hormones, which increases the risk of a crisis. Individuals with these more dangerous forms of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia who contract COVID-19 —or even a cold or flu—have an increased chance of death. (Zieselman 2020)

Citing another example from their interviews, Kumar and Mukherjee also draw attention to the mental health concerns of intersex persons during the pandemic. 

M identifies himself as an intersex person with gender fluidity and passes off as a male. To M, mental health has been a major issue during COVID-19 for intersex persons. Hormonal therapies are indispensable for many intersex persons (Warne et al 2012) but they are very expensive. There is a class demarcation among intersex persons; lower socio-economic conditions create helplessness and rural spaces are uncongenial to intersex persons. M narrates that in the COVID-19 pandemic situation many intersex men who work as car mechanics or plumbers, journalists, and in other petty positions lost their jobs. M surmised that during the pandemic, there have been discussions around special wards for transgender persons, but no one speaks of intersex persons.

Based on the examples cited by Kumar and Mukherjee, misgendering, dysphoria and violence or threats of violence are among the common risk factors for mental health concerns among both trans and intersex persons. Similar mental health concerns linked with identity-based dissonance, lack of societal acceptance, discrimination and violence are not unheard of within the wider LGBTQI+ community. Mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, etc, have seen a rise in visibility during the COVID-19 pandemic and this is likely to be equally true among LGBTQI+ persons. But like with access to healthcare, access to mental health care can also be a challenge for them. Nadkarni and Swarnim explained:

While there have been calls to address queer needs during the pandemic through the provision of mental health services, it is unlikely to be viable or sustainable. Outside of issues around access, language, culture, caste (Chandran 2018), and cost, not all therapists may be queer-friendly (and even those that are queer-friendly may not be trans friendly). As the case of Anjana Hareesh makes clear, “conversion therapy” is still seen as reasonable in a society that sees queerness as something to be “cured” or “overcome” (Kappal 2020). Horrifyingly, some therapists practicing conversion therapy are likely to see themselves as “queer-friendly” as they claim to be engaging with the queer community through the offer of this discriminatory practice. As a result, therapy itself may be a source of violence rather than a safety net as presumed, though there has been increasing pushback against “conversion therapy” from mental health practitioners.

… And the option of therapy itself is only viable for those for whom basic necessities such as food, shelter, and housing have been met. Moreover, genuinely queer-friendly therapists may be overbooked or burned out given the length of the pandemic and the calls to action. 

 

Job Losses and Specific Challenges of Sex Work

 

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in large-scale job losses for workers, especially in the informal sector. While employees were laid off en masse across industries, the pandemic and lockdowns also provided companies with a pretext to remove LGBTQI+ persons.

Kumar and Mukherjee catalogued that, during the lockdown, many gay men working in the corporate sector as software professionals experienced sudden loss of jobs. They further highlighted the trauma that could ensue from such job losses. One example cited by them involved:

A, a corporate working gay man who also lost his job, provided shelter to many queer persons who were either thrown out of their natal homes or found the natal home environment very toxic. He shared that the gay men who have gone back home after the loss of jobs, found the home environment rather toxic. A closeted gay man’s family found gay apps on his phone and unleashed trauma on him, forcing him to flee. Many gay men who were forced to join their natal home due to job loss experienced mental stress. A says that he had to multiply the weekly mental health sessions which he regularly organises.

Among the worst-hit by the employment shocks arising from the pandemic and lockdowns were sex workers. Continuing the societally prevalent trend of associating sexual deviance with diseases, COVID-19 saw renewed ostracisation of sex workers who are perceived as “unclean” carriers of the virus. Doubly marginalised are trans sex workers. Chakraborty noted:

Trans sex workers, in particular, face violence as a consequence of their bodies. Numerous studies have found that they have less bargaining power in negotiations with customers. This places them at a higher risk of abuse and of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because they have a lesser ability to negotiate condom use during sex with customers (Ganju and Saggurti 2017). Abuse at the hands of people and communities have generated higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies (Kalra and Shah 2013; Virupaksha et al 2016).

Similarly, Kothis, who often articulate a feminine self in Kothi subculture but stay within family and community contexts and lead a dual life of man and Kothi, faced dual job losses. Highlighting the experiences of Kothis who worked petty jobs in the restaurant service industry and were also employed in sex work, Kumar and Mukherjee wrote:

Due to the lockdown and closure of restaurants, the Kothis became unemployed and their sex work was drastically affected with police surveillance of public places. This took away the modicum of self respect as an earner for the household and intensified the precariousness, with increased domestic violence for many.

In the context of policy action to alleviate the distress of sex workers amid the pandemic, Chakraborty warned that there needs to be a recognition that simply replacing sex work with other forms of informal unprotected labour is not the solution, since “women and trans people are subject to specific forms of exploitation.” 

 

Lack of Policy and Community Support

 

In India, there can be no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic management policy of the government did not have LGBTQI+ persons at its fore. In the context of trans persons, Chakraborty highlighted:

With the notable exception of Maharashtra, almost no state or national schemes have mentioned the trans­gender community as separate from economic categories like “below poverty line,” erasing the specific needs of this vulnerable community. This social exclusion often translates into legal exclusion, with many transgender persons saying that they do not have the necessary documents or identity proof to benefit from state schemes. Those who have had to flee their homes may not have birth certificates and may not be able to claim services so far from their registered home address. Residential proof is equally hard, given that most live in bastis without rent agreements. Without these basic documents, they cannot apply for new cards or schemes, thus perpetuating this cycle of rightlessness (Choudhary 2020).

Moreover, sex workers were explicitly rebuffed in their demand for financial assistance from the government, wrote Chakraborty.

In October 2020, the National ­Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reco­mmended that state governments recognise sex workers as informal labour, which would have entitled them to fin­ancial and other benefits from the state (Srivastava 2020). Although this was hailed by sex workers’ organisations as a major step towards recognising the legi­timacy of their work, the NHRC was forced to retract its stand after opposition from states, the public, and even some anti-trafficking activists who arg­ued it would legitimise sex trafficking.

Not only were LGBTQI+ persons not extended specific support measures during the pandemic, the government’s lockdown policy enforced through violent policing also placed certain members of queer populations at particular risk of being incarcerated and of facing further violence within the carceral system. 

According to Nadkarni and Swarnim, what made the lockdowns worse for LGBTQI+ persons was that while being denied access to basic services, such as healthcare, let alone special policy support, they were also faced with a loss of access to the community.

This coincides with the pandemic’s impact on queer community resources, a term we use  to encompass not only funds but also shared living spaces, volunteer time, mental health, ability to physically mobilise, and more. With community resources impacted, queer lives are increasingly at risk, as previous solutions of relocating someone at risk, trying to locate employment, offering financial assistance, offering emotional support, mobilising for protest or intervention, etc, becomes harder to make available to those in need. The very possibility of in-person meetings and the chance to join queer groups has been impacted, both by the lockdown and by community resources for new members being stretched thin. Moreover, the pandemic affects the community itself, as members of our queer communities who are more at risk have died or been significantly impacted by COVID-19 in a variety of ways. Often, this is not only the loss of a community member but of queer knowledges and histories.

The pandemic has also taken a toll on queer mobilising, added Nadkarni and Swarnim.

For example, they cite the government’s recent push for responses from the community when it comes to implementing the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. 

By demanding feedback at this time, the government is asking many trans communities to choose between their current survival and the future violence this act will entail if not combated. There is little doubt that asking for responses at a time when numerous trans communities are struggling for basic survival, limits their ability to fight for the changes and support they require to ensure not only safe existence, but the chance for equity in society. Moreover, as public meetings are not possible at this time, gaining responses from trans people, most impacted by discrimination and with limited access to social capital, technological capital, language capital, and caste capital, is nearly impossible. As a result, the only trans people who have the resources to do this are those who have access to a comparatively more stable lifestyle, who likely will be impacted but upon whom the impact of these laws will be mitigated by their access to financial stability (which is not to be compared by any measure to the stability cis-gender people have).

All in all, it is clear that the pandemic has left the LGBTQI+ community vulnerable to the whims of society, and government policies have disregarded their legitimate concerns.

Interrogating the gendered inequities in relative access to resources and services, Jashodhara Dasgupta and Sona Mitra (2020) called for consultation with LGBTQI+ organisations while developing gender-responsive policies in the post-COVID-19 scenario.

Women’s and LGBTQI+ organisations must be part of monitoring and accountability mechanisms. Gender-responsive and data-driven dynamic policy responses will be the most effective in terms of delivering outcomes and formulating the gender-responsive budgets in order to adapt to emerging requirements in the post-COVID-19 world.

 

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