On 22nd March 2020, without much prior warning, India’s Prime Minister announced the first lockdown to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the next couple of months, the duration of the lockdown was repeatedly extended. With no proper social security mechanisms in place, people from working classes were hard hit. Millions of daily wage migrant workers struggled to get back to their native homes as there was no work left for them in cities, depriving them of shelter and of two square meals per day.
The calamity transgender persons from the working-class population faced during this period didn’t get much attention in the mainstream discourse. A significant number of trans folx are in the informal sector but unlike many others, the safety of “returning home” was not available to them. Transgender persons often face violence within their natal families, forcing them to escape to other areas where they can find livelihood.
Food and shelter
Vikas (name changed) is a twenty-two-year-old trans man who was forced to shut down the food stall he ran in Delhi. He told me that the lockdown meant there was no source of income left at all for him and his partner. The perishables he bought just a day before the lockdown all went to waste; he had used up his last savings. The couple did not even have money to buy any food the next day. Just like Vikas, many working class trans persons run small businesses such as restaurants, garment shops, and beauty parlours. They were all pushed into a deep life-threatening crisis.
Trans sex-workers were also severely impacted. Their survival was at stake when, understandably, within days clients completely stopped visiting them, afraid they’d get infected. Transgender persons of hijra gharanas (households based on non-biological family kinship) lived in deras (settlement). Shelter wasn’t an issue for them but their livelihood comes from toli badhai (the tradition of visiting a family in a group on auspicious occasions). This was no longer possible given the strict lockdown conditions. Everything came to a standstill, leaving them with nothing to survive on.
Paying monthly rent became difficult for those in the transgender community who could afford to live as tenants before the pandemic. Devendra (name changed), a thirty-three-year-old trans man told me his rent came from wages earned working in a garments shop that had to be abruptly closed down. Even though he and his partner lived just five minutes away from his natal home, going back would have meant reliving trauma because of the humiliation and violence he had faced there.
Trans networks were abuzz during the pandemic with heartbreaking stories of those who were forced to turn to their natal families. Some were denied entry into homes and many had to face domestic violence. Those who had already been living with their families couldn’t put up with the violence and were forced to move out in the middle of the lockdown. Lack of transportation and the risk of the pandemic made this highly distressful.
The tyranny of identity cards
Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (2016), a welfare and food security scheme, the Indian government created special provisions for the poor during the pandemic. Special aid packages were announced for people who came under vulnerable categories—health workers, farmers, senior citizens, self-help groups—but no reference was made to the transgender community. This reflects the generalized apathy wherein people fail to understand how precarious India’s trans population is. Claiming the ration and cooking gas allowances under the scheme was impossible for most trans people as they did not have the ration cards and other compulsory documents that require proof of residence. Those who approached authorities were not only denied these benefits, they even had to put up with harassment.
The Delhi-based National Institution of Social Defence that lists transgender issues as one of its current priorities announced an interim aid of 1500 INR per month for transgender persons. But to access that, online forms had to be filled along with Aadhar and bank details—anyone familiar with transgender issues knows well how providing these are a real challenge. Working class transgender persons didn’t have access to internet and smartphones and even though civil society groups were trying to help, the ration was not reaching a great number of trans people. Activists said barely one percent of trans people in India were able to avail this grossly inadequate sum which should have been raised to at least 3000 INR. Some in the trans community started fundraising, but again, the support could only reach a limited number of people living in urban areas. Due to lack of transport and unavailability of bank accounts, getting money to trans persons from semi-urban and rural areas was next to impossible.
Health crisis and deepened dysphoria
Plunged into crisis, many trans people battled with mental health issues and deepened dysphoria. Those on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) were not able to afford it any longer. In hospitals, with only emergency cases being allowed, HRT was not considered urgent. Those living with HIV/AIDS (Human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) in semi-urban and rural areas were not able to access antiretroviral therapy (ART) as there was no transport to go to urban areas to get the treatment. Those living with other chronic conditions such as Tuberculosis (TB), Blood Pressure, Diabetes, etc. could no longer afford to buy vital medication.
The landmark NALSA judgement (National Legal Services Authority vs. Union of India, 2014) clearly mentioned that transgender persons are equal citizens and have the right to live with dignity. But the pandemic laid bare the harsh reality on the ground—trans people are constantly being criminalized and live precariously. Working-class transgender persons have always been vulnerable to police brutality but they faced even more violence now as many were rendered homeless and forced to live on streets.
Those who were fortunate enough to afford shelter, food, and medicines said they faced gratuitous police violence outside their homes. Fathima (name changed), a thirty-two-year-old trans sex-worker said she once stepped out of her rented home in Lucknow to buy groceries when the police assumed that she was out on the street to beg and started beating her with a lathi.
During the lockdown, the Indian government failed to safeguard the basic fundamental rights of the trans community, one of the most vulnerable in the already frail unorganized sector. As the pandemic is peaking once again, there is growing awareness that in the near future, severe public health crises may not be as rare as we could have imagined. Brutally deprived of the basic needs for survival, trans people in India are demanding special measures to shield them from yet another catastrophic situation.