During COVID-19, trans people in India came together to keep each other alive
Trans people in India without caste and class privileges have been made vulnerable during the pandemic.
The tough and strict public health regulations put in place by the Indian government during the first phase of the pandemic resulted in a loss of livelihoods for trans people. This has led to food and housing insecurity for trans people, sex workers, and those who beg and perform, who earn a daily wage.
As a result of job losses, closures, and a lack of equitable, government-funded medical supports designed to meet the health needs of trans people, many have been unable to access hormone replacement therapy. During a panel, transgender rights activist Ranchana Mudraboyina said:
“Those who were in transition did not receive hormone therapy due to the lockdown. The few people who were on monthly testosterone hormone therapy started their periods again because of the lack of regular injections. Additionally, there have been cases of suicide in our community due to worsening mental health during the pandemic. “
Trans people have lost access to public spaces and places, preventing them from earning a living.
The pandemic has increased precariousness
Although promises were made to make social security schemes available to trans people, the cisnormative bureaucratic structure presented obstacles.
Advocacy started early for financial assistance. Extensive negotiations have taken place between trans people and government authorities. But many were denied help without explanation.
Trans people who do not have government issued IDs and bank accounts under their preferred name and gender, who do not speak English or Hindi, and do not have digital literacy – but still needed to fill out forms online – were unable to receive limited government assistance.
In the absence of guaranteed financial assistance, many trans women had to borrow money from private lenders at high interest rates, leaving them vulnerable to debt-related violence.
Suicide rates have increased among trans people. It has become a necropolitical feature of the pandemic.
Mutual aid as a strategy of resistance
Even when food and socio-economic insecurities began to take their toll, trans communities and community organizations organized themselves effectively to keep themselves alive.
Mutual aid has become a strong resistance strategy.
Trans Dalit activist Grace Banu, director and founder of Trans Rights Now Collective, has funded crowdfunding to support trans artists, performers, people living with HIV and sex workers in rural Tamil Nadu.
Community aid facilitated by Banu filled the gaps in social services. She has demonstrated through action that equity crises cannot be resolved by symbolic gestures of inclusion. This is something the government often resorts to instead of providing robust horizontal affirmative action policies demanded by trans communities.
And Banu was not alone, many community organizations stepped in to provide survival aids.
Over time, negotiations between trans activists and the government ensured the availability of life-affirming supports. Through these efforts, trans people have overturned government assumptions about availability associated with their lives.
For example, led by trans activist Santa Khurai, the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi association worked to create two quarantine centers for trans migrant workers returning to Manipur state.
Community work and advocacy lead to change. Members and leaders of the trans community have told the government that many working class trans people do not have citizenship documents or bank accounts to access financial assistance, so the government has had to create provisions for those who didn’t.
It challenged the government’s door-control policies, challenged its one-sided developmental interventions during the pandemic, and forced it to recognize the complex lived realities of trans people.
Trans politics and the pandemic
Even though trans people and communities have had to take responsibility for providing support to community members on behalf of caring during the pandemic, this can also be read as resistance.
Through their negotiations with the government, trans people have demonstrated their political wisdom, questioned universal notions of well-being, protested unattainable relief measures, rallied for fairness, and built critical solidarity between marginalized communities.
As they continue their fight to ensure access to social safety nets as an issue of equity, rights and justice, we must be careful.