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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

How the lockdown pushed the queer community back into the closet

  • While people talk about job losses, salary cuts and an uncertain future, for many queer people the nationwide lockdown, which was lifted on Monday, brought a different challenge: staying with disapproving families

NEW DELHI: For Arjun J, who doesn’t want to reveal his identity as he hasn’t come out as gay to his family, the past 75 days at home have been “like being in a prison". The 26-year-old spent most days in his room, working and waiting for the day he could step outside. “My family doesn’t understand the concept of same-sex love. I’m just living a lie with them. At least my life outside gave me a little freedom to be me."

While people talk about job losses, salary cuts and an uncertain future, for many queer people the nationwide lockdown, which was lifted on Monday, brought a different challenge: staying with disapproving families.

Mumbai-based mental health practitioner Shruti Chakravarty says violence against queer people “significantly increased at the hands of homonegative and transnegative people" during the lockdown. “Queer people have had to hide their sexuality, pretend to be straight. That’s why loneliness, isolation and complete erasure of one’s authentic reality has become commonplace," she explains.

With the lockdown lifted on 8 June, Arjun is glad he can venture out. “It’s also Pride Month, so I’m glad to be free. It was like my mind had become a pressure cooker."

For the transgender community, the lockdown has been tougher. A month before the nationwide lockdown started, parts of Hyderabad city were filled with posters, saying “Hijras spread corona. Don’t touch them or give them money."

By April, hijras, who largely depend on sex work and begging, were out of money because of these posters, says Chandramukhi, secretary of the Telangana Hijra Transgender Samiti. “They can’t go back to their villages because their family doesn’t accept them. They can’t stay in their rented place because the owner is asking for rent. The discrimination is at every level. The least government could do was provide some help."

It’s not just about house and food, adds Grace Banu, founder-director of Trans Rights Now Collective. “Transgenders have to spend a lot of money of hormonal and even HIV pills. And their immune system is much weaker, which makes them more vulnerable," Banu says.

Then there’s the mental toll. In one week last month, a transgender allegedly committed suicide at her Malwani residence in Mumbai because she was not able to make ends meet, and a man allegedly killed his live-in transgender partner in Kalyan. “Queer-trans people experience discrimination and violence in several ways because of the unaccepting society that we live in," says Chakravarty.

Throughout the lockdown, there were several instances when a man stood outside sex worker Kiran D.’s house in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, asking for services. But Kiran, who’s HIV-positive, refused. With zero income for over two months, Kiran knew the cost of her no. “What to do? Our first priority is to stay safe. How else will we do business after the lockdown?"

Like many others, Kiran has been living on food provided by local NGOs and voluntary organizations and bargaining with landlords to pay rent later. Even after the lockdown is lifted, business will not return to what it was before the outbreak, she says. “I used to get five-six clients a day. I don’t know if I can do that now. Ours is a close body-contact work; we will have to be extra careful."

When finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman offered the 20 lakh crore covid-19 package last month, Kiran was hopeful that help was on the way. “They offered money to the migrants, farmers. We are poorer than the poor. Are we so invisible to the government?"

These questions became louder when the Delhi High Court dismissed a petition in May, filed by an advocate, seeking direction to the Centre and the Delhi government to take effective measures to provide financial aid, including food, shelter and medicines, to sex workers and the LGBTQAI community during the lockdown. “To say the least, the petition is filed without any ground work and without any thought to it," a bench of Justices Rajiv Sahai Endlaw and Sangita Dhingra Sehgal said, adding that “when we asked the counsel for the petitioner, for whose benefit the petition has been filed and how such people/persons are to be identified, he had no clue and appears to be thunderstruck by the question."

While Philip C. Philip, a queer activist working with Human Rights Law Network, admits the petitioner wasn’t fully prepared, he believes the judgment is “problematic" since asking for personal information is infringing on privacy. “If you start identifying people, it could lead to more discrimination among marginalized groups."

Besides the government, the civil society is also silent, says Banu. “This is the time we need more help and there’s no one coming forward."

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