Our lives are not contained in just our struggles but in existing as persons outside the strictures of a deeply violent society; they come to be defined by the solidarities and friendships that anchor us in order to withstand and resist such violence. The nationwide uprising against the CAA, NRC and NPR showed us the mushrooming of new kinds of resistance and struggle. The Shaheen Baghs of the land brought together people from across different marginalised communities – Muslim, Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi persons, queer persons, and many more. Why I mention this is because even if people have little in common, once they enter these spaces of solidarity, they are connected to a larger community. These spaces become wellsprings of an unspoken sense of safety and mutual support between individuals of communities that share a sense of having been othered.
Who we are, where we come from, and what we do dictate the kind of spaces and institutions we have access to, and the kind of spaces we want to create. The inverse is also true, in that these spaces often shape who we become; to be queer is to resist, and, in the face of violence, to find and create alternative means of survival based on different paradigms of love and care. This piece is a reflection on what support systems look like outside the norm, what they can provide, and my experiences with seeking them out as well as building them.
In a country where the law and its agents are actively violent against queer persons, what kind of institutional support can one expect? Look at the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019, for example, in its egregious violation of what it means to be safe, to be protected, and in what family means. The trans community has faced unimaginable loss and violence at the hands of a not only complacent but a complicit State that enforces varying forms of control and surveillance. Not only is it a horribly patronising Act that curtails the agency and the right of trans persons to self-determination, it also sees as illegitimate the different kinds of chosen family, and other familial structures that emerge within queer communities, especially in trans communities, as a direct consequence of the violence of natal families. For many queer people, natal families are often the first site of violence, and their rejection of our identity and expression can take all kinds of forms: from emotional to physical to financial abuse, including being subjected to conversion therapy, which can have a devastating impact on mental and physical health.
As far as institutional support (or the lack of it) goes, an ill-conceived lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to healthcare, employment, and other essentials, including housing and nutrition. This, along with forced cohabitation in abusive households, may have further marginalised those among us who face the most violence every day, such as Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim, Trans* and gender non-conforming people, sex workers, and even more so, those who are at the intersections of these identities and outside the State’s imagination. Across the world, the failure of statist capitalist systems and their fundamental antipathy towards marginalised communities is out in the open for all to see at this moment. As part of the state’s disastrous implementation of welfare measures, if any, we are also plagued by the structural violence of being left out of the public imagination as accessing these welfare measures is increasingly impossible for many without documentation.
At such a time, the only respite has been community-led organising in grassroots mutual-aid networks: from online fundraising campaigns to on-ground relief work. Many trans* folks have come together to extend support to community members by raising funds for ration, medication/medical assistance, employment, education, etc. The queerness of mutual aid has a long history: chosen families where we take responsibility for one another and see each other through, in solidarity and hope. There’s also something so essentially anarchist about mutual aid – the state fails us, and so, we build our own systems and ways of surviving and thriving, disrupting the violence of hierarchies and institutionalisation. Mutual aid is not only a practice of community-care but also an important political act of building alternative structures to reimagine and transform the world we live in. A case in point is Sangeethamma’s Covai Trans Kitchen – an eatery that is run entirely by trans folks. The murder of the beloved trans activist and elder who shaped the lives of thousands has shown us not only the violence perpetrated in our cis-heterosexual society, but also the potency of the act of organising.
The coronavirus pandemic has also brought to the fore the violence that exists in the natal family. In what felt like almost one fell swoop, the world was brought to a grinding halt, with many of us forced back home, into often extremely restrictive or even violent environments. Is the family really a site of emotional support when you transgress its boundaries? As an institution of control that is meant to regulate the protection of private property, the purity of the ‘bloodline’ (read: caste) and therefore to further caste structures, and in its reproduction and enforcement of all other kinds of social norms, the heterosexual family is and is sustained by its bounds. It takes very little, then, for these families to turn into sites of potential emotional and/or physical trauma for many. What do support systems look like when we have neither the luxury of physical escape nor much (or any) privacy? Some of us have the privilege of lives and relationships which can be kindled online and even then, we are plagued by our own struggles The Internet has been massively useful to create and sustain access not only to our chosen families, counselling, and various forms of media that affirm our identities, but also to online communities where we can express ourselves freely (often with the luxury of anonymity) and has been a lifesaver in this sense. But how many of us in this country can access the Internet freely and without harassment? For the kind of double life that many queer folk are used to leading this is a new transmutation of our struggles, with our internal lives and queernesses being contained in our minds and our little online niches, if at all, yet on the outside we are often forced to just adhere – to families, to norms, to ‘normal’ ways of being and being seen, in order to survive. Our doubleness magnified, this pandemic has left many of us with only ourselves to reach out to, and only ourselves to soothe.
Everyone needs space(s) where we can breathe easy – where we truly see without filters and are seen for who we are, whoever that may be. Maybe this space does not present itself as one whole, and by force of circumstance or sheer serendipity, different parts of our self find safety and support in different places.
The university campus may be a space which can really change one’s life. In a life where every day is marked by some sort of big change, be it mental, political, sexual, when the self is also stretching, and we are testing the limits of our imagination and understanding, to be less afraid, to be vulnerable, are rare luxuries. I had the luxury and privilege of accessing a safe space in the AUD Queer Collective where I, for the first time, found a chosen family where there are no tense moments of coming out or grand declarations to make, but just conversations through which we tease out or navigate the self bit by bit, with a little help from our friends.
I want to speak with all kinds of optimism, and hope that experiences like mine are something everyone should be able to have; although even my own experience – of finding community that was vital in not only shaping and propping up my sense of self but also giving me my chosen family and best of friends – was still only one aspect of a stormy part of my life. But I also know that I speak from a place of immense privilege: caste location, gender identity and presentation, politics, all of these vastly complicate and determine what community looks like, and what spaces we can access safely.
The idea of coming out as being a singular, revelatory moment is fairly misleading; you spend your entire life coming out – to people, to institutions, to spaces in different ways. To come out to the self – to come to terms with the self is the most difficult yet rewarding process that I don’t think ever comes to a close. But to have the space to be okay in one’s confusion, in one’s contradictions, abstractions, and grey areas is only possible when you have an affirming support system. People who do not require you to be someone as much as they just require you to be. To revel in your presence as you do in theirs. That’s where lives are saved every day.
Active Mutual Aid Fundraisers and Other Links:
- Support Grace Banu’s campaign for first Transgender Run Cooperative Society in Sandeep Nagar, TN
- A live master list of LGBTQ+ fundraising initiatives (COVID) by Pink List India
- Master list of mutual aid funds in India
Cover Image: Pixabay