The lockdown because of the pandemic has been extremely challenging for everyone.
The LGBTQIA+ and especially the transgender community has special challenges that may be beyond the imagination of society. The lockdown also meant financial disruption for the community, especially for the Hijra community.
The response from the government has been lackadaisical. Much needs to be done especially through the instrument of The Transgender Persons Act for creating solid safety nets against Domestic Violence, providing safe-home services and short-term relief, and long-term empowerment of the community through their active engagement.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all sections of society. But it has affected some sections of society more – one such section is the transgender community. While a lot of problems are faced by most of the members of the LGBTQIA+ community, some problems are unique to the Trans community.
A section of the Trans community is transitioning at any point in time. Transition through gender affirmation procedures can be a very long process. One could be transitioning through one or multiple aspects.
The transition could be in the form of medical or surgical transition – through puberty blockers, cross-hormone therapy, laser hair reduction, top surgeries and bottom surgeries, genital reconstruction surgeries, plastic surgeries, etc. It could be in the form of voice therapy even. The transition could also involve legal transition, social transition, and so on.
Lockdown did put a brake on transitions of most of these kinds for many trans persons.
In the lockdown, while most doctors and surgeons shut their clinics because of the COVID scare, this also included doctors dealing with transition services. Many of the hospitals were converted into COVID-dedicated hospitals which meant that elective procedures and services were put on hold for an indefinite period. Very few of the government hospitals offered gender affirmation services in the first place and thanks to Covid even those that were doing it, stopped doing so.
Even service providers from private set-ups shut shop given the uncertainty of COVID and the risks involved to their patients. The poor financial situation meant fewer financial resources to spend on highly expensive gender affirmation services. Also, during the lockdown, most of the government offices were closed or were working only for essential services – making the legal transition very difficult.
Most of the government offices dealing with the change of name and gender in the IDs stopped offering their services during this time. The social transition needs an amenable social environment and being locked into a hostile home is not a favourable situation at all for any kind of real-life experience for a transitioning transgender person.
In addition to these special needs, the basic healthcare needs of trans persons were also compromised during the lockdown. There are needs for contraception, abortion services, services related to reproductive tract infections and sexually transmitted infections, Pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV and, HIV prevention and treatment services. Almost all of these were compromised or annulled during the lockdown, at least in the early part of the lockdown.
Also, one must not forget the highly affected community of Hijra or Kinnar. The Hijra/Kinnar community makes its living by engaging in various cultural activities like Badhai, giving blessings, and dancing on social occasions like births and marriages, begging, and also sex work. As expected, the lockdown meant doom for them. Not just were their traditional occupations disrupted, there was an increased marginalization of the transgender community during the lockdown.
Many of the members of the Hijra community stay in rented premises. While in the first one or two months of the lockdown, the house rent was not such a pressing issue but it increased later with eviction threats and risk of homelessness. The lockdown affected the economy of the entire world and India was no exception. This meant that most people stopped giving alms to the begging Hijra community members.
As the fear of the virus spread across the world it brought sex work to a halt for many months thus again affecting the livelihood of the community members. It is known that such situations can force community members to adopt higher-risk behaviours be it in the form of unsafe sex or substance abuse.
When it comes to food relief, most members of the Hijra community do not possess ration cards or even Aadhaar cards. Therefore, getting the benefit of food supplies became an enormous task. No special scheme was made available by the government through its much-touted 20 lakh crore financial package with even the one of direct benefit transfer of Rs 1500 through National Institute of Social Defence reaching less than 1% of the transgender community.
When it comes to the community of transmen, the problem is even more acute because unlike Transwomen of Hijra community, Transmen do not have traditional Gharana system or social support networks as such.
India has passed The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019. Though this law was repressive and much opposed by the Transgender community, it was passed with much fanfare and force. Domestic violence is one area in this Act that is severely lacking.
It’s time to provide the safety of the transgender person from domestic violence. There is a need to set up safe homes for the transgender community so that those who are homeless or cannot stay safely with their families can stay free of cost. It is important to make the night-shelters transgender-friendly so that the homeless transgender persons can find a place to rest with dignity and safety. It’s time to look at our medical and health facilities and how trans-friendly they are as we deal with the Covid crisis.
The existing Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act is family-centric and assumes that natal families are the best places for transgender individuals while not recognizing the Gharanas or other support networks.
Also, the penalties for the abuse of a transgender person are disproportionately lower. It needs no overemphasis that to be truly inclusive there is a need to involve Trans persons in consultations while framing or revising rules concerning Domestic Violence or any other relevant legislation.
Famers, labourers, and even migrants are supported by the governments during the lockdown and unlock phases. The establishment needs to take an honest look at what they have done for the Transgender community, remove the roadblocks, and reach out to the community through financial and food relief support. We do understand that in a pandemic situation it is difficult to cater to all the sections of the society but one must never forget this – the measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.