Queer activists and organizations have led from the front during the pandemic, raising funds and ensuring relief reaches communities that live on the margins
When the pandemic first struck, Santa Khurai, arguably Manipur’s foremost queer activist and champion of transgender rights, reached out to donors and with support from the National Council of Churches in India, and began distributing ration to 200 people from the trans community in Imphal. Gradually, these efforts moved beyond the capital, and beyond basic ration kits, to the community in other parts of Manipur. And to some from other communities too.
Queer activists and organizations have led from the front during the covid-19 pandemic. They have been raising funds, coordinating with government officials and private donors to ensure relief reaches communities that live on the margins—their own, as well as daily-wage workers and others.
This, in fact, is what distinguishes the relief effort this time, with members of the LGBTQ+ community finding the means and agency to try and support other marginalized communities as well.
Khurai, for instance, identified widows in the neighbourhood whose children did not have the means to attend online classes. She ran a fund-raiser on Ketto to provide 15 children with smartphones and tablets, but since she could not meet the target, she put the funds raised to the best use possible. She bought smartphones for the three poorest widows and used the rest of the money to organize Wi-Fi, stationery items and a smart TV for a community hall—30-40 children now have access to it.
Khurai’s experience has helped her. Associated today with the civil society organizations All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association and Solidarity and Action against The HIV Infection in India, she was 16 when her parents stopped her pocket money, making it conditional on her “behaving like a boy". But Khurai would not negotiate on her identity. She started sketching designs for pillow covers and bedsheets— ₹5 per pillow cover and ₹10-15 a bedcover. She also started tutoring the neighbours’ children.
“When I was younger, I faced a lot of backlash. I encountered a lot of brutality. I was beaten up, people peed on my face. A lot of horrible things happened to me," says Khurai. “When I think about all that, it’s like a nightmare to me. But it also gives me power today to speak up and say no to all the humiliation. To all the prejudices imposed on us."
Such experiences are translating into a determination to assert their place in society. “What has been inspiring is that there have been countless queer people who have stepped up to provide relief during the covid-19 pandemic. Initially through community networks that have sent out SOS requests for help and then through more organized channels, LGBTQIA+ people across the board have led efforts to provide emergency food and sanitation relief," says Anish Gawande, curator and co-founder, Pink List India, the country’s first archive of politicians supporting LGBTQ+ rights.
“This has made a difference. Section 377 (of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized sexual acts between consenting adults “against the order of nature") may be off the statute books, we may have NALSA (National Legal Services Authority of India)—despite the Trans Act—but it’s moments like these that transform the public understanding of queerness. By going beyond respectability politics that requires queerness to conform to societal norms, this form of coming together as a community and helping each other is a much better path towards finding ‘acceptance’," adds Gawande.
Evidence of this is visible across the country—whether it is Nazaria in Delhi, which has been providing a helpline for the LGBTQ+ community; Queerspace Saga, an organization in Mangaluru, which raised almost ₹4 lakh on Instagram and Twitter; Grace Banu in Tamil Nadu or Mudraboyina in Telangana, who set up Ketto fund-raisers and got the word out through social media.
Sumit Pawar, who set up Guftagu Cafe, a queer-friendly space in Mumbai, has been using his infrastructure to organize food for vulnerable communities in the city. “By 30 August, we managed to cook and distribute 2,525 meals from our community kitchen," says Pawar. They are now raising funds and hope to reach a target of 5,000. “These meals were not exclusively made for community members only, they were distributed amongst daily-wage workers, people living in slums, queer individuals etc," he says.
Take the example of Rachana Mudraboyina, part of the Telangana Hijra Transgender Samiti, who initially raised funds and coordinated with the state government to ensure cash and ration for members of the trans community. This included long-term assistance and skilling since options for sustenance, such as sex work and begging, had come to a standstill.
Mudraboyina raised funds to provide sewing machines for the trans community in Telangana and resources and training for them to make pickles under an initiative titled Quickles. But her work has moved beyond the queer community—the activist has since collected enough to provide ration to 500 “impoverished Muslim families in the ghetto near home", as well as sex workers in the area.
Gawande, too, has been involved in relief work in Mumbai, after a chance call from a friend who was bringing together a group of young people across the country to create a national campaign called Youth Feed India. They have so far delivered relief kits to almost 50,000 families across the country.
“The focus was on daily-wage labourers, not particularly on the LGBTQIA+ community. But because of my work with Pink List India and general work within the community, I got a bunch of relief calls to help vulnerable folx—particularly trans* folx who had lost out on all means to earn a living," says Gawande. “Over the course of three months, we must have delivered ration kits to around 600 queer families across the city through grass-roots organizations working within the community. From Kamathipura to Bhiwandi, from Vikhroli to Malwani, we covered large chunks," he adds.
As fatigue sets in and fund-raisers start losing steam, these activists continue the fight. They spend their days—Mudraboyina says sometimes from 8am-10pm—distributing ration, alert to the needs of their community as well as those around them. Khurai perhaps sums it up best: “What I have done for the both queer and non-queer communities in the pandemic is just the beginning. We are part and parcel of society—it’s true we are on the margins but we can’t walk alone."
“We face a lot of extreme violence," she says. “Manipur is a conflict zone and then from the non-state actors also, they can attack us immediately, we cannot challenge them. But what we can do is we can assert our space in an intelligent and articulate way. It takes time—but we are working on it."
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