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Locating sexual subalterns and transphobia during the pandemic

By Surabhi Jha

The COVID-19 pandemic puts the entire world into an unprecedented crisis and uncertainty, which results in countless deaths, economic downturn, unemployment, quarantine, and an unavoidable lockdown. From the very beginning of lockdowns, some women’s organizations have observed a significant increase in the number of recorded incidents of violence against women. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as well as sex workers, who are considered as sexual subalterns, form India’s marginalized community. Of them, the transgender community has emerged as the most ruined section at the time of the pandemic. Except for some social media posts, the transgenders’ wretched condition hardly receives any attention from both the Indian state and the society out of their distinct gender identifications.

In Transgender History, Susan Stryker defines transgender as “…people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender…it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place – rather than any particular destination or mode of transition – that best characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’…” Transgender people can change their sex either by using hormones or by surgery. They are gender-deviant individuals who transcend the fixities of gender construction. In transgender theory, the term ‘transgender’ refers to a wide range of identities, such as transgender men, transgender women, gender queer, gender diverse, non-binary, genderfluid, polygender, two-spirit people and others. People who identify themselves as intersex may also be called cisgender or transgender.

Transgender people have autonomy over their own bodies. Society possesses a very derogatory opinion regarding the genesis of transgender individuals. It deems that a transgender person is born into a family because of the family’s prior transgressions. Instead of accepting reality as ‘normal,’ the family starts blaming their favourite gods and goddesses. Transgender individuals have historically experienced marginalization despite their presence in the country’s cultural landscape. Additionally, some colonial laws that criminalized them have further denied their fundamental rights. They are forced to leave their homes and stop their studies due to harassment and bullying, which leave an adverse impact on their personalities. Researchers had noted society’s intolerance towards those who were misfit into the heteronormative identities, before the COVID-19 epidemic. It is believed that COVID-19 worsens already existing negative attitudes towards transgender people. The society that judges a person on the basis of the organ between the legs, becomes more insensitive and abusive towards the sexual minorities. Studies on the impact of coronavirus on transgender women and the hijra community are very limited. Therefore, it is crucial to comprehend how transphobia and conventional societal norms might have affected transgender people’s access to healthcare in India during the pandemic.

Most of the transwomen earn in manifold ways: by begging at traffic lights, dancing at weddings, and commodifying bodies. They usually resort to all these activities due to their lack of education and low-level skills. While they are trying to appear as a visible force and fight for recognition and their constitutional rights, the pandemic drives them further into despair. HIV-positive transgender people may be considerably more susceptible to COVID- 19. Along with this, the delays in receiving medical support have left them vulnerable to discrimination.

They lost their daily wages due to mobility restrictions and a prolonged prohibition from singing and dancing; they were in urgent need of immediate financial assistance to survive. Priyanka Saha Kundu (Transgender activist and President of Gour Banglar Sanghati Samity, Malda, West Bengal) asserts that some transgender women who are working as maids in Railway Police’s mess, or at Doctor’s chambers have lost their jobs. She has been trying to help them for two years by collecting funds from here and there. Priyanka admits that the Government provided rations three or four times, but those were not enough. Some transgender women borrowed money from private money lenders at a high-interest rate. Few of them prepared alcohol at their homes, whereas some others disobeyed the lockdown rules. Most of the people in the transgender community have no government-issued identity proofs such as Aadhaar cards, PAN, Voter identity cards, and Ration cards. Consequently, they are excluded from several schemes of the Central and State Governments. It is important to note that transgender people who live in densely populated areas with unstable housing and poor sanitation, may find it difficult to adhere to the most advised COVID-19 control measures, such as physical separation, proper hygiene regarding coughing, frequent handwashing and wearing masks. Key elements that negatively impact their mental health include financial hardship, the pandemic’s unpredictability, physical violence, and inaccessibility to healthcare treatments.

Transgender persons received some assistance from the Bihar government in the form of housing, but most of the transgender people have not yet been able to take advantage of the programme. Many transgender people suddenly faced a situation where they had no access to money, food, or shelter. Sunita, a transwoman near the Muzaffarpur-Samastipur border shares her condition, “I was forcibly evicted from my rented room and had to seek shelter at my folks’ room which was some relief.” Sunita’s daily earnings decreased from 200 rupees per day to zero. National Backward Classes Finance and Development Corporation (NBCFDC) promised to transfer 1500 rupees per person to 5711 transgender people’s bank accounts. Unfortunately, a transgender activist of Siliguri, West Bengal, reveals that no transgender has received this amount. Hyderabad railway stations and bus stops, to our great surprise, hanged malicious posters that condemned the transgenders for spreading the coronavirus. Cuttack-based transwoman, Meghna told in anguish that some non-governmental organizations extended their helping hands, but those were not adequate. Binandan Sarkar (Founder and Director of AALOK- Journey Towards Development, West Bengal) shares the fact that during the lockdowns, when almost every transgender individual lost their job, they were bound to be confined to their homes. During that time, they revealed their sexual identities to their family members. As a result, some were thrown out of their homes; some were sexually harassed and even raped. Transgender people in villages encountered more bitter experiences in comparison to the urban areas. Binandan highlights some NGO politics with the poor condition of the transgenders, for whom helping the sexual subalterns is less important than sharing photos on social media platforms.

The Supreme Court of India recognized transgender people as a third gender in 2014 and stated that their rights should be protected. Following this order, they are ‘allowed’ to join in programmes. As a matter of fact, many state governments set up Transgender Welfare Boards (TWBs), but they did not produce any tangible results, in terms of fulfilling transgender people’s demands for social protection. Transgender people were concerned about COVID-19 transfusion, but many of them were not aware of how to prevent the disease. Anjali, a 26-year-old trans woman, said, “COVID-19 is a deadly disease, spread with touching, coughing of COVID-19 infected persons… I am unaware of Government’s COVID-19 treatment services nearby my residence.” For them, social media and television were the main sources of information on COVID-19.

The disease had a profound psychological impact on people’s minds, which led them to be superstitious about their mental satisfaction. In Madhya Pradesh, a woman named ‘Pari Mata’ demanded that her water would cure people of coronavirus. In Rajasthan, Prem Agarwal suggested that reciting Hanuman Chalisa 11000 times within 15 days would decrease the power of the virus. There are several factors behind these superstitious views, including ignorance, lower socio-economic level, lack of proper knowledge, traditional beliefs, and fanatic cultural ideas. These factors are more prominent in the lives of transgender people. Asha, a 53-year-old transgender woman, claims, “We are a disciple of Behchara Mataji [Goddess Behchara Ji in Gujarat]. If we are true Bhakt [devotee], she will save us.”

A trans rights activist Ranchana Mudraboyina said, “Those who were transitioning did not get hormone therapy due to the lockdown. The few who were on monthly testosterone hormone therapy started having their menstruation again due to the lack of regular injections. Also, there have been suicide cases in our community due to the worsening of mental health during the pandemic.” Many transgender men and women seek and receive regular hormone therapy as a part of the transition process. Transgender men take testosterone therapy to suppress their feminine traits and thus promote masculinity. Anti-androgens and oestrogen are used by trans women to repress masculinizing traits and to develop the feminine qualities. The lockdowns appeared to be a curse to the transgender individuals who were not getting appointments in hospitals for their injections. Sudden discontinuation causes weight issues, depression, and other complications. The director of the Association of transgender/ Hijras of Bengal, Ranjita Sinha cited a case in which four transgender people were compelled to leave a government hospital without undergoing the COVID-19 swab test because they had been bullied in public for debating whether to stand in the line for men or women.

As per the new Transgender Act of 2019, the transgender people will get the identity cards according to their preferred gender identities. The prolonged lockdown complicated their circumstances. They confronted the problem of identity at the time of vaccination. Hesitation and a lack of accurate information from authorized authorities resulted in a poor acceptance rate for vaccinations among the transgender people. They have many misconceptions regarding vaccines. Most of them believe that receiving the vaccine has no advantage and it would even lead them to death.

The heterosexual people have no idea that their fellow citizens have been suffering from gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder that generates from being unable to match one’s desired gender and sexual identity. Severe distress, anxiety, depression, eating disorder, schizophrenia, and suicide attempts are the results of the gap between how society perceives them, and how they feel at the back of their mind. While the pandemic gives ample time to explore the hidden talents of the ‘normal’ or socially accepted people, the parents of the queer children could have spent their time understanding them better. The family members should render flexibility to their children to explore his/her sexual orientation or gender with which they were struggling alone. A phobia is described as the fear of a particular object, or situation. Transphobia is deliberate, hateful discrimination against the transgender and gender non-conforming people. Dishonouring transgender individuals in the way they lived their genuine lives, is the outcome of transphobia. Sadly enough, not only the Indian society, the Central or State Governments are also transphobic and, therefore, indifferent to their obstacles.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019 was introduced in Lok Sabha on July 19, 2019, by the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment. The Bill forbids intolerance against transgender people in the following areas: education, employment, healthcare, access to goods, enjoyments, opportunities, rights to movement, rights to reside, rent or occupy the property, and the facility to hold private or public office.  Battles of the feminists revolve around sexual assault, dowries, marriage laws, sexual harassment at workplaces, equal pay for equal efforts and so on. Do they need to fight for their sexual orientation or gender identities? The feminists kept their distance from the battles of the trans women until some queer women introduced the problems of queerness to the so-called mainstream movements. Amita Kharakhedkar, TEDx public speaker and Counsellor, differentiates between the feminist movement and the transgender movement by asserting that gender inequality is the problem of feminists, whereas the gender identity is the root cause of transgender people’s problems. She even criticizes TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), the misogynist women who want to take away womanhood from trans women, making their struggle more difficult. Urvashi Butalia, an Indian feminist writer, insists that trans women attacked the feminists for being oblivious to their sexual identities. She demands that the movement of queer individuals is an integral part of the Indian feminist movements.

The government is required to represent the transgender people while designing the policies. Transgender Welfare Board must recognise the problems of transgender people’s livelihood and the Board should provide social protection to the transgender community, including housing, healthcare, and employment-related opportunities. During public health catastrophes like COVID-19, it is crucial to offer psychological therapies, ongoing hormonal therapy, and other gender-affirming operation to them. Access to proper healthcare services is a fundamental human right irrespective of a person’s gender, caste, religion, and status. Brinda Bose in her book, The Audacity of Pleasure: Sexualities, Literature and Cinema in India, declares, “…the evolving relationship of the state with the hijra possesses the potential of creating a space for her sexual identity without stigmatizing it, and her sexual difference without fetishizing it in a reductive exercise.” Some non-government organizations have made several attempts to grant the transgenders legal protections, but these efforts have proven to be a difficult undertaking because the mindsets of ‘normal’ people are not ‘ready’ to cope with the non-normative identities. The fanatic virus which is inscribed into our minds needs to be cured. The COVID-19 epidemic has taught us numerous notable things. These findings highlight the importance of having a culture and government that are sensitive to gender issues when preventing impending disasters.

Photo: The Leaflet


Bose, Brinda. 2017. The Audacity of Pleasure: Sexualities, Literature and Cinema in India. New Delhi: Three Essays Collective.

Stryker, Susan. 2017. Transgender History. Cypress, California: Seal Press.

Dr. Surabhi Jha
is an Independent Researcher. She has completed her Ph. D. on Holocaust and Gender studies. Her areas of interest include Holocaust, Gender studies, and Dalit Literature.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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