COVID-19 lockdown: transgender community pushed further to the margin

Trans and non-binary individuals struggle with lack of funds, food, stigma, safety and mental health concerns

Begging is no longer an option for Zoya Thomas Lobo (25), who is solely dependent on the money she used to make in the women’s compartments of Mumbai’s locals. On an average day before the lockdown, she would make anything between ₹500 and ₹1,100 on a daily basis. But the nationwide lockdown, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, has left her and several other transgender persons struggling to make ends meet.

Lobo noticed a drop in her earnings as the number of women travelling by local trains began to reduce for a week before the lockdown. But she could rely on the vegetable vendors in Dadar to provide her with free groceries. “But now I can’t go there or if I do, the police would chase us away,” says Lobo, who stays alone in a rented room in a slum area in Bandra (West).

Lobo pays ₹2,500 in rent but has deferred her payment for the month. “My landlord is very understanding,” she says. Although she has been struggling to procure assignments as a journalist and photographer to earn some money during the lockdown, a majority of the transgender and hijra community are facing a mammoth challenge, as food supplies are depleting and they have no savings to pay rent or access to social security. The community’s livelihood is largely dependent on social interactions, making social distancing and isolation an unachievable task.

Stigma and HIV

“The transgender community is a heterogeneous community, so there are different concerns for different people,” says Chayanika Shah of LABIA – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective. “Those begging or doing sex work are the worst affected because they have no livelihood, they stay in small houses and these are not safe conditions.” These congested areas are likely to be a hotbed for COVID-19, as positive cases are beginning to be detected in slums and chawls of Mumbai. Earlier this week in Hyderabad, transphobic posters were found at a Metro station saying, “If you talk to transgenders, you will get corona,” bringing to light the prevailing problem of social stigma.

With a general lack of healthcare support and awareness, there is a looming fear among the transgender community about the potential impact of coronavirus on those who are HIV positive. Although, there is little clarity on whether those living with HIV are at high risk to COVID-19. According to the UNAIDS estimate, Around 68% of transgender people living with HIV are aware of their status, making them vulnerable to fear and stress. The HIV prevalence among transgender people in India was estimated to be 3.1% in 2017, the second-highest prevalence among all key populations in the country.

While several members of the Hijra community have support in community households and gurus to help with food supplies, transmen are scattered in the city. “Most transmen are either living with their partners or alone and not being able to be in touch with the community,” informs Shah. Lobo, for instance, has a guru in Jogeshwari but she prefers to stay by herself in Bandra. She left her family when she was 18 to join the transgender community. “The difference between migrant labourers and transgender persons is that the latter don’t have homes to go back to and are often cut off from their families,” says Shah.

Hostile homes

Transgender and non-binary persons living with hostile families under the current lockdown have to deal with stress and trauma, especially those who have recently undergone sex reassignment surgery or are taking hormones. Sasha (20), a freelance writer who lives with their family in Bangalore and identifies with the pronoun ‘they’, takes hormones once a month, and has been transitioning since September last year. They were supposed to go for a review with their doctor but were unable to do so due to the lockdown. “The hospital is 20 km away, so I can’t go and I don’t know what is going on in my body and if it is reacting well to the dosage,” they say.

Sasha is worried that the chemists might run out of their medication or may not stock it due to the lockdown. “If I don’t take it, I will have intense dysphoria, sadness and anger,” they say. With a history of depression and anxiety, Sasha finds it challenging to spend all day with their family. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, they found solidarity in members of the queer community, with whom they spent most of their time. “Now at home, when I talk about my medication or that I won’t find it in time to come, my parents make a face, don’t show sympathy or don’t want to talk about it,” they say.

Dan Rebello (27) has been experiencing similar problems during the lockdown. He identifies as trans/non-binary and works as a teacher in Thane. “My parents comment on my appearance or talk about getting me married,” he says. Dan has stopped talking to his parents for three days, and is afraid their verbal hostility might turn to physical abuse. With a history of anxiety disorder, Dan has decided to stay in his room all day and have minimal interactions with his parents.

Alongside the lack of access to therapy due to the lockdown, the transgender community is also battling discrimination, phobia and stigma in healthcare, along with a lack of adequate documentation or identity proof to avail benefits. India currently has around 4.8 lakh transgender people, as per the 2011 census data, of whom only around 10% have a voter ID. “Healthcare practitioners don’t know how to deal with trans people outside of surgery. There are questions like, will you put a transwoman in a male ward in quarantine and would you have a female assistant to take care of them?” says Shah. With lack of food supplies, medicine and money being the concern of the hour for the transgender community, it is not long before the healthcare concerns add to their existing woes.