Kolkata: Shaina (name changed), a 30-year-old trans woman from Bengaluru, is a primary school English teacher. Even though she has not come out, she suffered significant bullying and humiliation due to her gait and body language at the school.
As classes moved online during the pandemic situation, the harassment soared.
“In school, I still had a point of authority to deal with bullying. But when classes shifted online, people started entering classes using fake IDs, kept their cameras off and abused me during the classes with words such as hijra, chhakka, and meetha. The school authorities downplayed the case when I complained,” she said. “Now, when I start a class, I ask everyone to put on the camera and make sure that it’s only the students who are present."
As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, the relentless fight for acceptance among the sexually marginalized transgender community has become more challenging in many ways, unanticipated or unsurprising.
Ranjita Sinha (she/they), a transgender woman who is the director of the Association of Transgender/Hijras of Bengal cited an example where four transgender persons had to return from a government hospital without undergoing the Covid-19 swab test after they faced public bullying and mockery over whether they should stand in the queue for men or women. Later, two of them tested positive at a private facility.
After Sinha raised the matter with the state junior minister for health, Chandrima Bhattacharya, the government earmarked 10 beds for the transgender community at M R Bangur hospital in Kolkata.
While the entire LGBTQI+ community has been severely impacted by the pandemic due to prevailing social prejudices (see here and here), it is trans men and women who have been the worst sufferers.
Trans persons are more easily identifiable by their appearance or body language than others in the third-gender spectrum, exposing them to greater discrimination and institutionalised abuse. They have to bear the recurring cost of gender-affirming treatments and also face problems related to documentation once they change their birth name.
Adrij Basu, an English literature gradudate from Jadavpur University, had just been reconciled with his parents as a trans man and was beginning a hopeful journey towards a life-altering sex reassignment surgery when the Covid-19 pandemic hit India in March 2020.
“When the lockdowns began, the first problem I faced was securing my hormone shots,” said Basu, 22. “The shops went out of supply and took time to renew stocks. I had to go months without the injections. The clinic that administered the shots shut down, and I had to learn to self-inject.”
Hurdles In The Way Of Hope
Basu was born female, and his family had found it difficult to come to terms with his transgender identity. He left home in 2018, and returned after several months at the request of his family who, by then, had educated themselves about third-gender identities and accepted Basu as a trans man.
But what he hoped would be a smooth medical journey to transition turned out to be arduous. Missing hormone injections have severe repurcussions on a transitioning transgender person, often resulting in mood swings and significant depression.
“Before hysterectomy, the menstruation cycles stop because of the intake of testosterone hormones,” said Adrij, who is transitioning from female to male. “If hormone shots are missed for two or three months, menses will resume and the cramps or the pain it inflicts is severe. To be precise, the body can never produce testosterone naturally so the only means of hormone in the body is the external injections. If that stops, there is a hormonal imbalance and it affects the proper functioning of the body.”
With the lockdown, Basu not only lost access to regular hormone shots, but also suffered from a lack of mental-health support, since his existing therapist had not made the shift to online counseling yet. Basu sank into clinical depression for three months, not leaving his bed, not caring for hygiene and overeating, before he finally reached out to non-profits, such as Sappho for Equality, for free mental-health support.
By October 2020, when the first wave started to ebb, and it was time for the annual Durga Puja festival of Kolkata, Basu was ready to take the next step required for the surgery. Here too, the virus intervened.
“We found a doctor in Delhi but he informed us that due to Covid protocols all interactions have to be done via video chat… I got to see my doctor only on the day of the surgery–the period in between was fraught with intense anxiety,” Basu said.
Though happy with the surgery today, Basu encountered health scares such as unexpected menstruation and continued the battle to locate his regular healthcare providers who had fallen off the radar during the lockdown. Hanging up, he tells me with a giggle about expecting an interview call, and how he’s keeping his fingers crossed for better days ahead.
Even with a story as intricately woven with unpleasantness as Basu’s, support from family is a luxury for many transgender individuals who are struggling during the pandemic.
Vippy, a trans woman who lives in New Delhi’s Karol Bagh neighbourhood had to discontinue hormone replacement therapy (HRT) due to loss of income during both the first wave and the second. In March, the unisex parlour at Lajpatnagar area where Vippy was a beautician closed down without paying her salary for a month and a half. Since then, Vippy has hardly found any work.
“Even when I got work, customers offered Rs 500 for which I used to charge Rs 1,000. I have no money to continue HRT,” said Vippy. “Most of the trans persons around me are in sex work or begging. I never wanted to be in those professions. But transgender individuals have very few job openings.”
According to community members, HRT costs around Rs 1,000 per month.
The requirement for new identity cards as per their preferred identity, according to the new Transgender Act of 2019, has further complicated Vippy’s circumstances. “When I get called for work at some hotel, they seek identity cards. But I have my old card and therefore I am often not allowed to enter those hotels. I could not change my documents as a transgender person due to the prolonged lockdowns.”
Vippy had no hopes of getting the vaccination either had it not been for a non-profit that arranged for the vaccination based on the old identity card.
“The new trans act has made the procedures and screenings very complicated and when the vaccination is dependent on these very documents, it gets impacted,” said Pooja Nair, a counsellor and faculty at the Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice by Mariwala Health Initiative, Mumbai. “A lot of trans persons have had to leave home overnight due to abuse or poverty and have not carried their documentation with them.”
Heightened gender dysphoria or distress that arises from not being able to align preferred gender and sexual identity to socially accepted or enforced ones has been one of the fallouts of this period.
Mumbai-based psychologist and queer affirmative counsellor Aanchal Narang, the founder of Another Light Counselling, said the health needs of India’s LGBTQ+ community have not been regarded as “essential services” during the pandemic, impacting their availability in the lockdowns.
“Not being able to step out for a testosterone shot is not an emergency in the eyes of the society or law but it is so in the life of a trans person because the dysphoria is so acute,” said Narang.
Speaking to trans persons and queer collectives across India, it is clear that Covid-19-induced job losses resulted in a large section of the transgender population struggling to cover basic expenses such as rent, and having to forgo hormone shots.
Dolly, a launda dancer based in Balia, Uttar Pradesh (UP), is one of the several hundred transgender folk artists who migrate to the northern Indian states of Bihar and UP from Cooch Behar, Siliguri, and Kolkata in West Bengal every year.
A veteran of the Bhojpuri art form that involves cross-dressing and dancing on the occasions such as marriages, anniversaries, and birthday parties, Dolly said it has been hard going for transgender artists living outside their home states during the lockdown:
“In the past 1.5 months, 15 out of 20 booked shows were cancelled. Among the few that we still get to do, we are getting paid one-fourth our usual price,” she said. “What option do we have but to settle for it?”
Aruna, a trans woman from West Bengal’s rural Murshidabad district, narrated how trans community members engaged in the traditional profession of chhalla (begging in trains and buses) and sex work were the worst-hit. They had little savings and were now completely broke.
“Challas have their territories divided. When local trains first started after the lockdown of the first wave in 2020, only one route was opened,” she said. “So, trans community beggars from both routes gathered at the station and this led to a scuffle, ultimately throwing bricks at each other.”
Thirty-six-year-old Priya (name changed) from Kolkata, West Bengal, revealed that the lockdown had not only impacted her business as a sex worker but was now on the verge of taking away her hard-earned privacy. Being the primary earner for a large family, Priya was used to having a separate flat as her safe space and practicing her profession without judgment. But with customers disappearing and savings drying up, she is running out of options.
“Even customers who have shifted to video chatting and calling have cut their rates by 80%, citing income shortage and threatening to move to cheaper options,” said Priya. “I have to accept anything now if I want to keep this flat and afford my HRT treatment, over and above all other regular expenses.”
Debika from Xomonnoy, a queer collective based in Guwahati, spoke of an issue unique to Assam: trans people at risk of detention because of documentation changes to register sexual transitions.
“Due to the Assam NRC process, the change in documentation which is mandatory under the new Transgender Act got stalled,” said Debika, who uses only one name. “So, it is not only the fear of being a homeless person anymore, but also, the fear of landing up at the detention center,” Debika said.
The National Register of Citizens, Assam, popularly known as NRC, is a citizenship screening exercise in which the residents of the state are required to produce documents to prove they or their ancestors had Indian citizenship before March 1971. More than 3,000 people who were declared foreigners were sent to six detention centres, according to a government statement last year.
Hayan, an 18-year-old trans man from Ernakulam in Kerala is a beacon of hope in these dim times. He explained how his journey from the first to the second wave of Covid-19 lockdown has been one of acceptance and peace, which he largely credits to finding an empathetic psychologist and starting his HRT.
He said he had grown more confident and is thankful for the hard-earned acceptance of his parents, with whom he can now have “lovely talks.”
“I think parents of queer and trans kids should use this time to get to understand them better and explore health options together,” said Hayan. “I have seen that at other times they are too distracted by the question ‘what will the people think?’ This has been a very good time for me!”
(Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.)