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Challenges to right to life and wellness of being: queer lives in the COVID-19 pandemic in India 

New losses, new challenges

Elizabeth Bishop, the Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, whose love affair with Lota de Macedo Soares was immortalized in one of the best lesbian romances ever, Reaching for the Moon (2013), wrote: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/so many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” These lines from the poem, “One Art”, encapsulate the eternal agony of loss which defines LGBTQ+ lives across the globe. Loss is so common, whether it is the loss of home, family, nation or a lover, that in order to live on, it needs to be mastered as an art. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this already vulnerable and oppressed community face to face with new losses and deprivations, new challenges of survival. The “art of losing” needs to be honed and refined to deal with the new losses so far unanticipated.

The COVID- 19 pandemic is a crusade against an apparently invincible virus which spreads through close physical proximity between humans, and mutates swiftly, thereby delaying the invention of a vaccine.  The world has rarely encountered a health crisis of such monstrous proportions, amid which averting a massive economic slump looks impossible. ‘Minority’ discourses, under such conditions, would undergo an overhaul, when ‘differences’ within every minority community, rather than similarities, are becoming more conspicuous with each passing day into the lockdown. For sexual minorities across continents, where they stand, not only in terms of economic security, but also in terms of legal status within their country, mental and physical health and medical insurance facility, is and would continue to be their index of ‘wellness’ in this unprecedented crisis and thereafter. This pandemic, therefore, is bound to widen already existing fractures within the LGBTQ+ community along the line of privilege and the lack of it, which could end up encumbering the movement particularly within weaker economies. This would be a major ‘loss’ for the community and the movement as such. The state would barely pay attention to their demands, its priorities having changed significantly. The members of the community, on the other hand, having to deal with unimagined challenges of survival, would also be compelled to shift their focus.

by Arnab Biswas and Bishal Dey

Loss of Community Care: declining emotional health

Because of compulsory physical distancing, one major loss, though temporary, is taking a heavy toll on sexual minorities – the loss of community care which is their basic means of sustenance, irrespective of class, caste, religion and nationality. Community care is not only interpersonal acts of affection and empathy, it can take forms of social protests, political organizing and cultural comradeship, within which one feels worthy of living a meaningful life in the presence of more individuals like oneself. Patricia Omidian, founding director of Focusing International, providing community wellness services in countries such as Afghanistan, says that community care is an especially powerful form of care in marginalized communities that are more collectivist than individualist.[1] For members of the LGBTQ+ community, the community provides them with a sense of home and ensures wellbeing through emotional interdependency. For most, the biological family is not the primary caregiver, when it comes to preserving emotional health. Soon after the world went into a lockdown, a report released by the Trevor Project, a US-based LGBTQ+ charity, which runs a suicide hotline for the people of the community, showed an extraordinary upsurge of SOS calls from its members. “LGBTQ youth already face increased risk of anxiety and suicide and disproportionate rates of unemployment and unstable housing. The COVID-19 global pandemic has the potential to exacerbate these on-going concerns and to create new, unique problems for LGBTQ youth”, said Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of the Trevor Project.[2]

The scenario is no different in India, as revealed by personal interviews with members of the community, who are not ‘out’ to their immediate families. Srijoy (name changed), a student of Delhi University, now in lockdown with his family in a small town in West Bengal, said, “Away from home I could explore my femininity to the fullest; dress in a certain way, grow my hair, and pursue interests which were never approved by my parents.” Forced to return to his biological family, Srijoy feels trapped, having to deal with their fem-phobia and constant vigilance of gender non-conforming activities. There are several such individuals who are encountering similar issues. A Delhi-based doctor, Siddharth (name changed) pointed out, “Quite a lot of queer people, locked up with their family, are unable to be themselves on calls or video chats because of lack of privacy. Only the affluent can afford a separate room to themselves; even if they do have a separate room, the concept of privacy being alien to Indian families, members are barely allowed their own space.” For most, the community is their primary family, spatial distancing from which is causing severe depression and anxiety. Siddharth added, “The best form of therapy for most queer people is meeting up with their kind; it must be remembered, only a handful, the economically privileged, can afford professional therapy”. Even if professional therapy is available through video conferencing it is not as secure as sharing a closed space with the therapist. Also, in this case, lack of privacy is not allowing many to avail therapy through video conferencing. On the other hand, same-sex couples, estranged by this lockdown, are facing hitherto unexpected challenges to preserve their relationship which is not socially approved. Arpan Das, an academician based in Shirdi, Maharashtra, said, “Unlike heterosexual couples, many of us have not been able to enter the quarantine with our partners. This compulsory separation is affecting us in ways we had never imagined. We have to put in a lot of effort to keep our relationship going.” This in turn is causing unendurable tension in maintaining emotional health on the part of both the partners separated physically for an indefinite period of time.

Gender affirmative care: non-essential?

In her book, Precarious Life, Butler wrote: “The body implies, mortality, vulnerability, agency … but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies [those] for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own.”[3] At this moment, the queer body has acquired an unforeseen vulnerability than ever before, when the question of livability and right to life is being raised with much greater urgency. People with gender dysphoria have been rendered most vulnerable. Their right to life has been temporarily suspended, for gender affirmative care, which is indispensable for their wellbeing and sustenance, has been classified as “non-essential” by the state, as priorities of the health sector have changed under the threats of the pandemic. Also, those who are contemplating gender affirming surgery and are in the middle of the transition may have to postpone their surgeries indefinitely. Sanjeevan (name changed), who self-identifies as a transman from a district town of West Bengal, said, “Sex reassignment surgery is far from ‘non-essential’. It is as essential as treating cancer; suspension of these surgeries and treatment can cause many to take their lives.” Hooghly-based Sampurn, who also self-identifies as a transman, added, “In this health emergency, it has become extremely difficult to access hormonal injections as well.” Plus, due to physical distancing obtaining hormone supplies through community network has been thwarted. While limited access to healthcare is causing tremendous anxiety and evoking suicidal tendencies, a certain section of the LGBTQ+ population is undergoing unwarranted stress, worrying about the next meal.

Loss of livelihood: anxiety of survival   

The precarity of the lives of transgender persons in India has become even more manifest in the loss of livelihood which countless transwomen are currently dealing with. A large number of transwomen are migrant workers and daily wage earners, making both ends meet through chhalla (alms collection on public transports and traffic signals) or badhai (giving blessings at auspicious occasions as marriage or birth). They have no source of income at this moment, and no savings to fall back on. Those who are into sex work have been equally badly hit. Physical touch becoming a taboo during the pandemic, sex workers could be out of business for a long time now. Sintu Bagui, the Secretary of Kolkata Anandam for Equality and Justice, working for transwomen’s rights, said, “With so many people losing their jobs, who would have the money to pursue pleasure? Also, there will be a sharp decline in collection of alms; people would barely have disposable income for charity.”

Unfortunately, during these troubled times, whatever little is being offered by the state to the destitute is also out of bounds for many. As pointed out by Argha Roychowdhury aka Silk of Sampriti, Nadia, which works for transwomen’s rights in that district, “Many transgender women are not being able to avail the free food grains offered by the government, for many do not have ration cards registered under the National Food Security Act.” Most transgender women, having left their homes under hostile circumstances, have their ration cards in the custody of their biological family, which are now impossible to retrieve.

In this context, one may pause for a moment to point out that in India, the state, despite its apparently ‘inclusive’ attempt at protecting transgender persons’ rights, has significantly failed the community. The Transgender Persons Bill 2019 has been described by members of the community as a “series of betrayal of assurances and a convolution of a law that would do nothing for the trans-community and would rather snatch away the bare minimum that existed.”[4] While the harm caused by the bill was being debated and critiqued across the nation, the pandemic made this struggle to force the government into reviewing the bill, which is now an act, even more arduous, for priorities, as one can see, have suddenly changed.

Health insurance and civil rights

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the downside of India’s embarrassingly meagre investment in healthcare services, which has never been more than 2 per cent of its GDP. The question whether right to health be made into a fundamental right is being fiercely debated all over again. Healthcare services being rapidly privatised, corporate health insurance which comes against an exorbitant annual premium is currently the go-to option for those who can afford it. For transgender and other queer persons, who find it difficult to even get by on a daily basis, health insurance is an unaffordable luxury. While this applies to any socio-economically disadvantaged citizen, an additional disadvantage faced by visibly queer persons (especially, transgender people) is unspeakable discrimination in government hospitals where free treatment is available for those without insurance. At the time of a pandemic of the COVID-19 scale, government hospitals too would be out of bounds for many, simply because these hospitals are pitifully unequipped to deal with such health emergencies. Therefore, it goes without saying that risks economically unprivileged queer persons are currently exposed to are significantly much more than those of heteronormative citizens of comparable economic status.

Turning to another end of the class spectrum within the LGBTQ+ community, it is important to note, that those who can afford health insurance, do not benefit from it as much as their heteronormative counterparts. Since same-sex partnership is not legally recognised in India, joint medical insurance for same-sex couples is not available (though one or two corporate houses offer it). Therefore, if one partner is medically insured, and the other is not, the former’s medical insurance cannot be used to cover the latter’s hospital expenses, if the latter is infected with the virus. Also, in the absence of the biological family of the infected person, the partner may find it difficult to get the former admitted to the hospital, the admission form of which requires the signature of a blood relation or a legally married spouse. It does not mention ‘partner’ in the list of ‘allowed’ signatories. However, this is not unique to the pandemic, and can happen with any other kind of illness which demands hospitalisation. But, during this emergency-like situation, the glitches of not having civil rights are becoming all the more pronounced. The pandemic having brought in its wake unforeseen problems will in a way hinder the LGBTQ+ community’s future ventures, one being moving the state into granting them civil rights. The partial reading down of Sec. 377 of the IPC was only the beginning; it would be long before an equal right to life is eventually guaranteed.

What this article attempted to do is briefly document the magnitude of the losses and deprivations suffered by the LGBTQ+ community during the compulsory lockdown, which in turn reinforce the degree of oppression and pains of marginalisation the community is a victim of. There is, as one may claim, a political necessity of documenting these losses at this time. For, as, the British-Australian queer-feminist scholar, Sara Ahmed once wrote: ‘[T]he failure to recognize queer loss as loss is also a failure to recognize queer relationships as significant bonds, or queer lives as lives worth living.’[5]

 

[1] Heather Dockray, “Self Care isn’t enough. We need community care to thrive’, Mashable India, 24 May 2019: <https://mashable.com/article/community-care-versus-self-care/>

[2] https://www.thetrevorproject.org/trvr_press/the-trevor-project-releases-new-report-on-implications-of-covid-19-on-lgbtq-youth-mental-health/, 3 April 2020.

[3] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (London and New York: Verso, 2004), p. 26.

[4] Rachana Mudraboyina, Sammera Jagirdar and Philip C. Philip, ‘A Critique of Transpersons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019’, Feminism in India, 5 August 2019: < https://feminisminindia.com/2019/08/05/critique-transgender-persons-protection-of-rights-bill-2019/>

[5] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), p. 129.

Cover Image: By Sourajit Saha

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Article written by:

Dr. Kaustav Bakshi is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. His latest published books include, Popular Cinema in Bengal: Stardom, Genre, Public Cultures (Routledge, 2019), Queer Studies: Texts, Contexts, Praxis (Orient Blackswan, 2019) and, Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art (Routledge, 2015).

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