In a year unlike any other, as people across the globe are commemorating the pride month to recognize the progress made towards equality and justice for LGBTQ, the community is perhaps facing an exceptionally challenging time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This June, there were no pride parades with rainbow-coloured floats on the streets due to COVID-19 triggered restrictions and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community received little attention during their continued struggle to make both ends meet amid the lockdown.
The LGBTQ people, who continue to remain marginalized and socially isolated in a conservative India, lost their livelihoods, evicted from rental accommodations and suffered psychological distress.
Gauri Sharma, 33, a transwoman was evicted from her rental accommodation in the month of May and also lost her source of livelihood during the lockdown. “I was working as a makeup artist at a beauty salon in Zirakpur but due to the nationwide lockdown announced in March, the parlour had to be closed and I lost my source of income. I could not pay the rent for the month of April and was evicted from my rental accommodation in Manimajra,” she tell The Pioneer“I had no savings and was left with no money, to even buy food. Since May, I have been living with my friends, going from one place to another after every 15 days as I don’t want to become a burden on anyone,” says Gauri, who belongs to Dehradun (Uttrakhand) and came to Chandigarh nearly four years back after her family abandoned her.
Gauri says the beauty salon where she works is likely to be opened in July and she hopes to return to her work soon. “These are really difficult times…Staying alone at home with the fear of being evicted, left with no money and no job took a toll on my mental health and I had started having suicidal thoughts.
My friends counseled me, provided me with ration and accommodation,”she says Gauri is not the only one facing economic hardships and emotional distress. Many people from LGBTQ community are going through tough times as their plight remains under-the-cover due to government’s neglect.
Divya Kumar, 32, a transgender tells “She used to earn from ‘Badhai’ (earn money by singing, dancing and conferring blessings on people during weddings and child birth). But due to the pandemic, there are no functions now and she has no way of earning money to pay rent, utility bills and buy groceries.”“We have always been isolated and socially neglected but the lockdown period added to our woes,” she says.
Divya also used to beg earlier but that is no longer an option for her now. She belongs to Chamoli district in Uttrakhand and was abandoned by her family a long time back. “I have to pay around Rs 12000 rent for the last three months to the landlord. I do not have any job and any savings... can’t earn this much by begging. I am dealing with psychological distress and do not know when the things will get back to normal,” says Divya, who lives in Khuda Lahora here.
“I had received financial assistance of Rs 1500 from the government during lockdown but have spent it. I was provided with ration from our community leaders during the lockdown period,” she adds.According to the 2011 census, there is a population of 142 transgenders in the city. However, the number is estimated to be much higher as many transgenders do not disclose their gender identity due to fear of harassment and embarrassment.Most transgenders have mainly three sources of income—earnings from Badhai, begging and working as sex workers. The community is barred from most of the employment opportunities as discrimination runs rampant in employment and there are no policies in place to ensure job opportunities and a healthy workplace environment for transgenders in the country.
Dhananjay Chauhan, a transgender activist and member of the Chandigarh Transgender Welfare Board says, “The LGBTQ people faced mental distress, lost their livelihoods and was left with no money for food, pay rent and utility bills due to lockdown restrictions since March. Due to the COVID-19 triggered lockdown, many transgenders were also stuck at home with their families and faced physical and mental abuse.”“The transgenders living in the deras following hijra culture and practice of ‘Badhai’ still have some resources to survive. But those who had no support of families and living alone ran out of money and faced starvation, depression and got suicidal thoughts during the lockdown period,” she adds.
Dhananjay, a trans woman herself tells, she used to receive 8-10 calls every day in April and May with transgenders seeking monetary help, ration and counseling to cope with depression.The National Institute of Social Defence (NISD) of the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had promised Rs 1,500 financial assistance for transgenders but everyone did not receive it. Many members of the community do not have basic documentation such as Aadhaar cards and bank accounts to receive financial aid.“We had submitted a list of around 400 transgenders to the NISD for depositing Rs 1500 in their bank accounts but only 50 percent of them received the money,” Dhananjay says.“On our request, the Municipal Corporation had provided ration to 15-20 transgenders. But we are working on our own to provide help to the LGBTQ community in these difficult times.
The prominent transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi had sent 100 monthly ration kits and we are distributing it among transgenders,” she adds.A 28-year-old transwoman, who did not wish to reveal her identity tells, “She was working as a sex worker. This has been her only source of income for the last many years.
But since the lockdown, there was no client and she could not earn money. She along with 23 others, who work as sex workers, are experiencing severe financial hardships.” “We ran out of money and food. It was our community leaders who helped us by providing stock of ration and money for paying rent in the last three months,” she says. She however maintains they did not face any difficulty in getting supplies of antiretroviral (ART) drugs for treatment of HIV during the lockdown period.
While the lockdown rendered the community completely vulnerable due to lack of food and income, there was a positive development for three members of the community, who were given vending licenses by the civic body to ensure their livelihood.Transwoman Mona Singh, 40 is among three of them who received the vending license and is preparing to start a tea stall near Elante Mall in Industrial Area here.
“The last three months were really difficult as I was not able to earn even a single penny. Before lockdown, I had a stall to sell cigarettes and tobacco. Our community leaders helped me by providing ration in the last two months as I was left with no money to buy anything,” says Mona.She further says, “I am yet to be allotted the place to start tea stall near Elante Mall and waiting for the same. But I am thankful for finally having a source of livelihood. Shrishti and Vijayta are other two transgenders who got vending licenses from the civic body for selling tea and have started working.”For empowering the LGBTQ community in Chandigarh, the transgender rights activists Dhananjay Chauhan and Kajal Mangalmukhi have long been pushing for welfare measures like issuance of trans identity certificate, ration cards, employment opportunities for transgender in Government and non-government organisations, shelter homes for them, pension scheme for non working or disabled transgender, free sex reassignment surgery, among others.
But, the local authorities are yet to implement welfare schemes for the upliftment of the community and the urban city of Chandigarh still has a long way to go in building a society with equality.
Notably, it was in the year 2014 when the Supreme Court had created the “third gender” status for the transgender community and later in 2018, the Apex Court had in a historic judgement scrapped Section 377 of the Indian penal code, legitimizing same-sex relationships in the country.
However, the social rejection and stigma around the transgender identity still persists in the society. And, with no financial security, absence of family support and no permanent shelter, the LGBTQ community has apparently ended up with the worst of both worlds during COVID-19 pandemic.