Queer Perspectives and COVID-19: Linking Queer Pasts to Queer Futures

While COVID-19 brings new challenges to the table, queer communities in India have a range of issues that remain unaddressed regardless of circumstance. This article is an attempt to articulate these conditions and provide context for how these change within the lockdown.

 

While COVID-19 is a new and terrifying scenario for our contemporary world, the underlying concerns it is exacerbating and making more visible are ones that have long been present for queer communities. While the pandemic makes these issues more widespread and prominent, they will not conclude with its end, nor are they likely to be addressed without widespread societal change. In order to address queer vulnerability, whether in a pandemic or not, there is a great need for not only more awareness and understanding, but the active will to change and challenge current societal biases. 

Mariame Kaba says, “Let this radicalise you rather than lead you to despair” and we echo this here. Our hope is that by naming conditions of violence that queer people engage with every day—before, during, and likely after COVID-19—this article will serve as a call for action rather than passive consumption. We are asking for solidarities and engagements to address these conditions, not merely sympathies, however deeply felt they may be. 

Subgroups within the Queer Community

At the outset, it is best to be clear that queer people are not a homogeneous entity—our politics and the worlds we inhabit are messy and complex and inflected by cruelty as much as solidarity, much like cishet (cisgender and hetereosexual) society. Dependent on caste, sex and gender, class, language, religion, race, disability, carceral systems, geographical location, and more, a person may or may not have different vulnerabilities that allow or have an impact on the possibilities of their survival under COVID-19. 

Dhiren Borisa notes that even previous to the striking down of Section 377, kothis and trans women were more likely to be routinely harassed and arrested in comparison to gay men (particularly upper-caste cis gay men)—partly owing to the heteronormative assumption that a feminine expression of gender is inherently linked to attraction to men and the cisnormative belief that trans women are, in fact, men—who were more likely to have access to lawyers, public representation, and safety networks. This hierarchy of presumed disposable queer selves persists to date (Nooreyezdan 2019). Under COVID-19, the disposability of queer selves is exacerbated and extended outwards to encompass a range of possibilities: homeless queer people (as queer people are often thrown out of families, they may be poor and unhomed as a consequence), queer sex workers (who use sex work as primary or supplementary means to an income), queer migrants (as many queer people leave rural areas in search of acceptance and/or anonymity in larger cities), queer people with pre-existing or ongoing healthcare needs (which can include disability needs, HIV/AIDS treatments, hormone replacement therapy [HRT] and more), incarcerated queer populations (as queer people may be incarcerated for a variety of reasons that may or may not be directly related to their queerness), etc. Depending on intersectional factors, and given what we know of crises facing each of these communities, the possibility of safety is limited and the risk to self is immense. 

Many of these communities cannot practise any of the safety measures for COVID-19. Social distancing may be impossible, access to sanitation facilities is limited at best (where available), they are particularly vulnerable to being homeless, and often have limited access to (nutritious) food, all of which affect their ability to stay healthy or recover from COVID-19. Depending on access to funds, they may or may not be able to seek medical treatment—itself already hugely overburdened during the pandemic—and many may not want to, given histories of being treated badly by these institutions. Healthcare itself is often cis-centric and heteronormative, and access to proper medical care has been limited for certain members of the queer population even before COVID-19.

It is clear that pre-existing conditions thus affect not only whether people are able to access healthcare, but whether or not they would be willing to do so; a factor that is crucial when we consider the impact of early and/or preventative treatment in a pandemic. As Swarupa Deb notes, this longstanding discrimination also plays out in the fact that “the fear of being stigmatised and ridiculed by healthcare professionals discourages them from using healthcare services which is now leaving them at increased risk of not being tested or treated for COVID-19.” With COVID-19 stretching resources, discrimination becomes further marked as what was a violent hierarchy of whose lives are seen to matter is played out in literal access to treatment, care, and other interventions (Roy 2020). 

COVID-19 and “Lives of Risk”

Given histories of violent policing and some members of queer populations at particular risk of being incarcerated, the government’s choice to enforce the lockdown through violent policing and the carceral system affect possibilities of safety and survival for members of the queer community at risk. For those queer community members trapped in the carceral system in India, prison overcrowding increases the likelihood of getting COVID-19 (Bokil et al 2020). Notably, this vulnerability continues even after COVID-19 and, for those who are affected and experience symptoms, health conditions can impact their ability to survive long term dependent on access to prolonged treatment, rest, or caregiving. This is emphasised for those suffering from long COVID-19 (Venkatesan 2021). 

This coincides with the pandemic’s impact on queer community resources, a term we use  to encompass not only funds but also shared living spaces, volunteer time, mental health, ability to physically mobilise, and more. With community resources impacted, queer lives are increasingly at risk, as previous solutions of relocating someone at risk, trying to locate employment, offering financial assistance, offering emotional support, mobilising for protest or intervention, etc, becomes harder to make available to those in need. The very possibility of in-person meetings and the chance to join queer groups has been impacted, both by the lockdown and by community resources for new members being stretched thin. Moreover, the pandemic affects the community itself, as members of our queer communities who are more at risk have died or been significantly impacted by COVID-19 in a variety of ways. Often, this is not only the loss of a community member but of queer knowledges and histories. 

Queer Spaces

Many conversations about the experience of COVID-19 focus on the loss of touch and intimacy. This itself may be a thorny question within and outside of queer communities as, for many, access to queer spaces has always been online (where possible). Within larger cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai,  there are queer communities that are visible and offer some access to queer spaces. But in the vast majority of smaller cities or towns, in-person queer spaces are still unlikely. As a result, touch, intimacy, and access have always been contested questions, dependent not only upon access to technology and the internet, but also on how social capital is constructed in these queer spaces around language, bodies and desire, and personal safety. 

Queer spaces come with their own negotiations both online and in person, and can be trans-exclusionary (Nadja 2015; Banu 2019), casteist (Chandran 2018; Borisa 2019; Banu 2019), misogynist, transphobic, ableist (Modi 2020), classist, fatphobic, homonationalist (Das and Bund 2020), and more. Queer communities may themselves police expressions of desire and may echo cishet society’s demand for conformity even within queer spaces. Negotiating access for queerness on the one hand often requires negotiating within these other factors, and can limit in-person access for many even within larger metros where queer spaces are seemingly more present and potentially available to them. As a result, COVID-19 does not renegotiate how public visibility functions so much as makes it more immediately visible. 

Those that reach out to queer communities seeking assistance during COVID-19 will likely find themselves having to deal with this, and in some cases needing to choose between their personal ethics or access to queer resources; even this is dependent on whether these spaces would accept them at all. It cannot be stressed enough that internal queer violences are themselves a factor during COVID-19 as the policing of these spaces now has even more direct consequences for queer survival. 

However, it is worth noting that COVID-19 has normalised the need to spend long periods of time online, thus allowing for queer people to more easily explain their need for online interactions without as much fear of being outed in private spaces. This opens up possibilities of escape from surveillance by patriarchal and heteronormative family members; there is a pre-existing fear of being cast out, unhomed, attacked emotionally and/or physically, that is always present in these interactions. These fears take on an additional immediacy under the conditions of COVID-19 where the ability to be safe and have a resource and support system are essential for survival. In Indian contexts, where family is often the first resource system and space of (conditional) acceptance, queer fears are magnified as abandonment is likely to lead to vulnerability and the im/possibility of survival. 

At the same time, the normalisation of online access for those that can afford it (which is dependent on a range of factors such as geographic access to electricity, caste capital, class capital, language, familiarity with technology, surveillance and policing, and more) might allow for more people to find social media spaces where queerness is accepted and validated. As more people engage with this online and use markers that signify their own queerness and positionality, queer peers are finding each other in ways that did not always seem possible pre-COVID-19 because being online for such long periods was not considered normal. However, the very real fear remains of being outed or doxxed, because while these spaces may allow for queer friends to discover each other, they continue to exist in cis and heteronormative frameworks that could turn violent at any moment. It is impossible not to be aware of the dangers and irreparable harm that could come from being recognised in online spaces while still not out in one’s personal or private spheres (Nadja 2015).  

These fears are heightened for trans people. While cis people may understand the challenges of trans persons being asked to return to domestic spaces that may be unwelcoming or violent towards them, and of being unable to seek affirmation through gendered expression (such as clothing or hairstyles), they often fail to understand that this only forms a surface level engagement with trans lives. The reductive idea that clothes define experiences of transness elides the reality that people have an understanding of their own identities regardless (Nadja 2016).1 As Swarnim notes, “I am always trans and the world is always cis.”

Queer Community and the Challenges Posed by COVID-19

In effect, the world outside of these domestic spaces is geared to be cis-normative and to reject, exclude, punish, or harm those who do not wish to follow these gendered constraints. While some may find trans-friendly spaces to rent, this is a rare exception and the fear of being discovered remains even within the seeming protection of private spaces (subject to residential welfare associations, etc) outside of filial domestic spaces. Additionally, while some may choose to disclose to supportive family members, this may be limited by larger dynamics of power within the family. So while the private domestic space is violent, it is merely a continuum of violence that also exists in public spaces. This will not substantially change during the lockdown since it pre-exists COVID-19 and is likely to continue until large-scale social changes occur. 

However, under COVID-19, these issues are magnified. Given that trans people often struggle to find long-term employment, finances are always a concern since it affects access to all kinds of amenities. This additionally increases as places of employment seek to slash budgets and/or withdraw offers of employment. Members of the queer community who might otherwise have provided financial assistance are consequently unable to do so as well. Queer people, and particularly trans people, are unable to search for friendly housing as opportunities for interaction are limited in the pandemic, often requiring that one gamble in the hopes of acceptance. Notably, this can be as terrifying as landlords or locals may turn violent and abusive at any time, and, many of the queer community’s resources for emergency mobilisation have been impacted during the pandemic. 

The pandemic has also taken a toll on queer mobilising; for example, the government’s recent push for responses from the community when it comes to implementing the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. The act in itself is “tokenist and piecemeal, ignoring the lived experiences and struggles of transgender persons” (Ray 2020; Sahai 2020) and falsely conflates understandings of the terms “intersex” and “trans” (Kothari et al 2020). This demand ignores the reality of longstanding struggles the trans communities in India face—such as access to livelihood, healthcare, housing, and personal safety—now exacerbated under lockdown (Bhattacharya 2020; Centre for Law and Policy Research 2020). 

While the state has announced potential welfare packages, in most cases these are yet to be disbursed and require some form of “official” certification as trans (itself hard to obtain), leaving communities to largely fend for themselves (QUEERelief 2020). Additionally, in cities like Hyderabad, transphobic violence has intensified, leaving local trans people fearing for their safety (Madhukalya 2020). 

By demanding feedback at this time, the government is asking many trans communities to choose between their current survival and the future violence this act will entail if not combated. There is little doubt that asking for responses at a time when numerous trans communities are struggling for basic survival, limits their ability to fight for the changes and support they require to ensure not only safe existence, but the chance for equity in society. Moreover, as public meetings are not possible at this time, gaining responses from trans people, most impacted by discrimination and with limited access to social capital, technological capital, language capital, and caste capital, is nearly impossible. As a result, the only trans people who have the resources to do this are those who have access to a comparatively more stable lifestyle, who likely will be impacted but upon whom the impact of these laws will be mitigated by their access to financial stability (which is not to be compared by any measure to the stability cis-gender people have).

While there have been calls to address queer needs during the pandemic through the provision of mental health services, it is unlikely to be viable or sustainable. Outside of issues around access, language, culture, caste (Chandran 2018), and cost, not all therapists may be queer-friendly (and even those that are queer-friendly may not be trans friendly). As the case of Anjana Hareesh makes clear, “conversion therapy” is still seen as reasonable in a society that sees queerness as something to be “cured” or “overcome” (Kappal 2020). Horrifyingly, some therapists practicing conversion therapy are likely to see themselves as “queer-friendly” as they claim to be engaging with the queer community through the offer of this discriminatory practice. As a result, therapy itself may be a source of violence rather than a safety net as presumed, though there has been increasing pushback against “conversion therapy” from mental health practitioners.

Notably, this wariness around mental health practitioners has long been a factor for trans communities for whom psychologists in particular have acted—and under the Trans Act 2019 will continue to act—as gatekeepers refusing or forcibly moderating access to acceptance of their own identities. This remains a factor in how much a person may choose to disclose or what sort of help they may be able to seek, particularly if they know that their options are restricted by access to funds, availability, or technology. And the option of therapy itself is only viable for those for whom basic necessities such as food, shelter, and housing have been met. Moreover, genuinely queer-friendly therapists may be overbooked or burned out given the length of the pandemic and the calls to action. 

Conclusions

As COVID-19 draws attention to queer vulnerability, we must be careful not to use the impetus of a return to normalcy as a means by which to elide the underlying conditions that create these vulnerabilities. If we are to address the harms of the pandemic, we must begin not only by dismantling the conditions that made people particularly vulnerable to its effects in the first place, but also address the need to build better worlds. For the queer community, this has to mean not only addressing the violence of cishet society, but also the violence within our queer societies. 

 

 

A version of this paper was first presented at the webinar series on Gender Equity and COVID-19 organised by the Women’s Development Cell, University of Mumbai in association with Ghanshyamdas Saraf College of Arts and Commerce on 15 May 2020. The webinar series was conceptualised by Gita Chadha and Meher Bhoot.

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