Subordinate and Marginalised Masculinities and the COVID-19 Pandemic

The abjection, stigma, and precarious existence of transmen, and gender-nonconforming and sexually marginalised men, reveal specific risk and powerlessness, especially in this pandemic, calling for timely intervention from the state and civil society. There is also evidence that during the pandemic, Dalit, Muslim, working-class and Adivasi identities would create specific vulnerabilities under certain circumstances. This article attempts to delineate the experiences of subordinate and marginalised men during the pandemic and lockdown based on interviews and media reports.

In most of the media reports and visuals of the fight against COVID-19, the scientists, often men from privileged backgrounds, appear as experts and scientific team leaders engaging their rational self and scientific temper in researching/finding vaccines to save humanity, spearheading the war against the deadly virus. The reiteration of such imageries and visuals not only gives us hope of overcoming the pandemic but also to normalises privileges of certain race, class and caste masculinities, legitimately filling circuits of scientific knowledge and discovery, reinstating privileged, rich and able-bodied heteropatriarchal male figures in authorial positions at such “critical” moments.1

On the other side, criticism in media and academic writings, webinars and podcasts highlight the masculinists’ supremacy in denial mode, causing a delay in executing preventive steps against the spread of the virus within the boundaries of different nation states (Gopinath 2020). Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro figured more prominently in such assertions and blaming—the hegemonic political masculinity in decision-making putting citizens at risk (Sharma 2020). The macho masculinity of the police that was depicted as enforcing discipline during the pandemic has been found equally susceptible to disease and deaths (Alcadipani 2020), while reports from across the globe have shown an increasing incidence of domestic violence, a reaffirmation of masculine power amidst lockdowns and closures of public spaces (EPW Engage 2020).

With the lifting of the ban on liquor shops by the Indian government, the visuals of masculine defiance of safety norms and police laxities in controlling chaos point to the tacit and mutual understanding of police and common folks about street rowdiness as a natural part of manliness.2 The tremours of nationalism and war mongering drew citizens’ attention towards military and chivalrous masculinity. But the rape threat emanating from online spaces such as "Bois Locker Room" indicated that the coronavirus crisis did not shake the fundamental ways gender is constructed and reproduced in societies.

What was lost in these multiple discussions on masculinity is the specific vulnerability and negotiability of gender and sexual non-conforming masculinities (also called subordinate masculinities) despite the legal amendments instituting “sexual citizenship” through two Supreme Court verdicts—the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) verdict of 2014 and reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 2018.

Though the media evoked fiery debates revealing the necropolitical handling of the marginalised workforce by the state power, there are many other ways the pandemic situation pushed several men on the margins to violence and precarity through stigma, abjection and brutalities. Dalitness, Muslimness and Adivasi status are markers which might subject certain men to specific discrimination under specific circumstances, examples of which are being witnessed during the pandemic. The major part of the article is focused on subordinate masculinities which also intersects with caste–class inequality in many instances, while the last section highlights a few instances of marginal masculinities and their precarity during the pandemic.  

Hegemonic and Multiple Masculinities

The concepts of hegemonic and multiple masculinities are associated with R W Connell,3 the Australian sociologist. Connell (1995: 71) maintains that gender “is a way in which social practice is ordered” in relation to the body marked by historical and social processes, and human reproduction, and gendered power is relational. In her understanding, hegemonic masculinity not only exists in contrast to femininity but also in relation to other non-hegemonic forms of masculinity, which she calls marginalised masculinity and subordinated masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity may not be a commonly observed form in society, but it certainly enjoys cultural acceptance at a given point in time.

Not all men embody and perform hegemonic masculinity; however, it remains a marker for the ideal masculinity that is constructed in opposition to femininity. It is not constant and historically constituted, rather it is dynamic and changes when the “condition for the defence of patriarchy changes” (Connell 1995: 77). White, upper- and middle-class hetero-masculinity could be examples of hegemonic masculinity in the West: men disadvantaged in terms of race, class, caste, ethnic minority status create marginal masculinity, examples of which may be black and working-class men in the Western context, and Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim men in the Indian context.

Hegemonic masculinity is premised on the maintenance of patriarchy and heterosexuality, and hence, gay or transmen who stand in opposition to heterosexual norms exemplify subordinate forms of masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity does not mean total cultural elimination but subordination of other forms of masculinity. While marginalised masculinities are non-hegemonic on account of class and race disadvantages, what they share in common with hegemonic masculinity is heterosexuality. Subordinate masculinity itself is not a homogenised category—class, race, ethnicity, gender, caste, etc, divide subordinate masculinities despite unity through their homoerotic desire and practices. 

Methodology

The interviews were conducted by the authors between 10 and 30 June 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown, telephonic interviews were conducted. The interlocutors were selected through a snowball sampling method. Snowball sampling is a non-probability technique of sampling wherein the initial group of subjects refer or nominate future interlocutors from their own acquaintance, social networks and community (Morgan 2008). Since these men face multiple marginalisation due to their sexuality and social location, it is difficult to use probability sampling to locate and access them. Snowball sampling is an ideal method in this context. The age range of the interlocutors or subjects are between 20 to 33 years. All interviews were conducted among men from Kolkata, Hyderabad and small towns in Maharashtra. We also incorporated some relevant information from online sources which are duly quoted and acknowledged.

Subordinate Masculinities: COVID-19 and Tropes of Suffering

Within subordinate or non-heterosexual masculinities, we include here transmen, self-identified Kothis or homoerotically inclined feminine men, gay men, intersex persons preferring male identification and self-identified non-binary genderqueer persons misgendered and identified as male by others.4 Though each of these identities is complex and exists in variations along the spectrum, a rather simplified understanding is attempted here. Transmen are those assigned female gender at birth but identify themselves as male; Kothis5 are men who articulate feminine self in Kothi subculture but stay within family and community contexts and lead a dual life of man and Kothi; they also call themselves as pant-shirt wearing Kothi or Khada Kothis in their Kothi bhasa6 (Kothi language); gay is a modern identity associated with men who are sexually and emotionally attracted to other men. In India, this identity is generally taken by English-speaking and/or persons from the middle class.

However, there could be working-class gay men who do not publicly articulate the modern gay identity. There are persons assigned male gender at birth but self-identify as non-binary transpersons. Their families and surroundings identify them as male and their official identity still remains male; so even when they are subjectively non-binary genderqueer, they are compelled to live as men as per the expectations of the family, kin, community, neighbourhood, educational institutes, etc. Such persons have the possibility of being invisible. The intersex community has a wide spectrum of subjective identification but here we include those who identify, articulate and sometimes pass off as men, though they strongly feel alienated from the idea of macho masculinity and might experience gender fluidity. This tentative understanding is based on the narratives emerging in the interviews and we do not interpret these identities in any deterministic manner. 

Kothis

To begin with, the Kothi men who lost both petty jobs and sex work found themselves subjected to a greater degree of domestic and public violence. Our Kothi interlocutors from small towns are also from Dalit and Adivasi communities engaged in petty jobs. There are various degrees of effeminacy surfacing on the body of a Kothi (Kumar 2018) having critical material consequences: the Kothis who can pass off as men have a better chance of having jobs as office boys earning Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 a month, while those who appear more effeminate get more feminine jobs of cleaning, washing and caregiving. They are paid less salaries as compared to the previous category. The latter group work in restaurants and dhabas and in the households of big businesspeople. Kothis have to surrender this monthly income to their family in order to negotiate their stay in the small, generally one-room household of their natal family, with constant threat of eviction due to their effeminacy which is considered a threat to the family honour.

Kothis also engage in sex work for pocket money and exigencies as they cannot rely on their rather hostile heteronormative family and kin for support. Due to the lockdown and closure of restaurants, the Kothis became unemployed and their sex work was drastically affected with police surveillance of public places. This took away the modicum of self respect as an earner for the household and intensified the precariousness, with increased domestic violence for many. While many of these restaurants are reopening, the Kothi workers are not very sure of being hired by the same employer considering the fact that many working-class women compete with Kothis for such jobs. Further, with restaurants cutting down on workers, Kothis continue to face uncertainties in the employment market.

For their gender transgression, the Kothis have to contend with abusive fathers and brothers, even though some of them have understanding mothers. T is a Kothi from small city N in Maharashtra and belongs to a nomadic community. She has an alcoholic and abusive father who beats both her and her mother. The father, who was a cleaner in a factory, lost his job during the lockdown. The father’s persistent presence in the single-room household resulted in beating his wife and effeminate son very often. The only earner of the family was T’s mother who worked as a domestic help, always on the verge of losing her job due to panic spreading in the neighbourhood of her employers. T has worked in a seth's (businessman’s) house as cleaner and caregiver for the latter’s toddlers; during the lockdown, the seth threw her out without paying any salary. This has left her devastated as she says—“he never bothered to call and ask how I am surviving despite him having trusted me so much as I looked after his home and children.” T is then compelled to do sex work amidst police surveillance and face the dangers of COVID-19 infection. She called five regular customers out of which only one responded. She went with her mask on and used a condom in both oral and anal sex. She was paid Rs 200 and, on her way back, she was beaten by three rowdies who probably consider effeminate sex workers as vectors of disease. If she does not even do sex work, she will not be able to feed her siblings. This remains her major anxiety. T does not wish to go back to the same employer out of self-respect as the latter treated her as a stray, and is still unsure about getting another job.

S is another Kothi who worked at the home and office of a petrol pump owner, earning Rs 5,000 a month. She lost her job; her father who worked at a shop and mother at a plant nursery, also lost their respective jobs during the lockdown. She belongs to the Buddhist community. She has a history of facing domestic violence and presently she has to stick to a one-room tin shed house with other members of her family fearing more physical violence. The abject poverty of the family compelled her mother to ask her to look around for food during the lockdown; she used to stand in the que of transgender persons to receive some ration while escaping the familiar gazes in her small city and has managed to bring some ration for the family. She thinks that life is not worth living. It is difficult to convince her family and kin about the legal changes—NALSA and reading down of Section 377. They have beaten her mercilessly for fleeing to another city and begging in trains with the hijra communities, a year back. She wishes to earn through sex work to feed her siblings but fears her father who is often watchful and wants her to get married like other men of her age. The family is surviving on one meal a day. Post lockdown, she is unable to get back to the same job; her gender and sexual deviance are known to the employer and they are reluctant to take her back.7 

Gay Men

Many gay men working in the corporate sector as software professionals, experienced sudden loss of job. One of the interlocutors, who identifies as gay and worked in the corporate sector said that revenue for the companies have been falling during lockdown and the management has been waiting in the wings to get rid of assertive and vocal queers. P is a gay man working with Amazon in the city X as a software employee. He shares how Glamazon, the LGBT official support group of Amazon company has been dominated by straight men and women. P has been questioning this arrangement to the annoyance of his boss. P says that his protest was disliked and he was put in a “red zone.” With the start of the pandemic, P was overburdened with work. He says, “Despite gender diversity policies in the corporate, there is entrenched homophobia particularly towards those who are expressing concerns about gender issues and articulating overt gayness and are vocal about gender and sexual injustices.” Despite his track record of hard work, this gay software employee could not complete the assignments in time and was compelled to resign. He shares an anecdote of his boss’s dislike of him which triggered his removal during the lockdown. Preceding the lockdown, P had to run away from his own upper-caste middle-class family as he was badly beaten and assaulted and mob-lynched by 40 members of family, kin and community, injuring his leg. The family and kin violence are due to his gender deviance bringing dishonour to the former. He took an auto rickshaw and went to his office to take shelter for the moment as he had nowhere to go. At office, he wanted an exemption from the training that he was expected to attend, as his shirt was torn and he could not walk properly. The manager said—“You go to all such events (referring to queer events in the city),” implying that P wanted an excuse from an important meeting while being extra-active in queer events. P says, “The message is that, if you are a gay or queer do not be open and vocal about that.” He connects this attitude of the manager with his removal during the lockdown. With much difficulty, P was able to get another job in a software company and might not raise gender and sexual injustice issues at his new workplace considering his previous experiences with Amazon.

A, another gay man working in the corporate sector says that many corporates used the lockdown as an excuse to remove many queer persons. C, a doctor who lost his job, says that if you are gay and gayness appears on your body, even the assistant staff like nurses and juniors do not take you seriously. Whenever he instructed any junior assistant staff in the hospital, they would say pehle khud sudhar jao, phir humein sudharana (first you reform yourself and then ask us), probably referring to his sexuality. C says even patients do not take you seriously if you are openly gay. He continues, “Since I opened up as gay, things became very difficult for me in the corporate hospital.” So COVID-19 was the right time to chuck him out of the job by the hospital management. He went back to his family in another city of Andhra Pradesh. The parents had plans to get him married and upon his denial he was thrown out of the house one evening in the midst of the lockdown. He had nowhere to go and he spent the whole night in the car shed of a hospital. 

A, a corporate working gay man who also lost his job, provided shelter to many queer persons who were either thrown out of their natal homes or found the natal home environment very toxic. He shared that the gay men who have gone back home after the loss of jobs, found the home environment rather toxic. A closeted gay man’s family found gay apps on his phone and unleashed trauma on him, forcing him to flee. Many gay men who were forced to join their natal home due to job loss experienced mental stress. A says that he had to multiply the weekly mental health sessions which he regularly organises.

K is another gay man from city V in southern India. Belonging to a conservative Brahmin family, he says that people in his city do not know what LGBTQI is. As an MBA student he only found respite in the college where he could resort to gay apps like Blued and Grinder. Staying within the domestic space during lockdown with his mother losing her school teacher job and father always around, and the latter talking about his marriage proposals, heightened his mental anxiety and depression. 

The lower-middle-class gay men from city Y who worked in corporate and shopping malls on low paid salaries of Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 were suddenly unemployed due to the lockown. Many of them are HIV positive and are hiding their HIV status from their family and workplace. They have been under ART treatment, which they access in privacy during their outings for work. With the lockdown, their accessibility to ART treatment has been a major challenge. They could not think of someone dropping the medicine to their home for fear of their HIV status getting revealed.  Some of them have felt suicidal and extremely depressed. Many of them are still not certain about getting jobs but have been consulting some transgender activists for support. 

Intersex Persons with Male Self-identification

It is difficult to educate people about intersexuality because most people understand bodies and gender in binary terms. In simple terms, intersex is a condition in which a person is born with reproductive and sexual anatomy that does not seem to fit the typical or conventional definition of female and male.8 Intersex persons may take male or female or transgender identity. The application of the queer lens indeed emphasises that masculinity cannot be completely separated from a person’s subjective bodily experiences (King 2015), and hence, many intersex persons identify themselves as male.

M identifies himself as an intersex person with gender fluidity and passes off as a male. To M, mental health has been a major issue during COVID-19 for intersex persons. Hormonal therapies are indispensable for many intersex persons (Warne et al 2012) but they are very expensive. There is a class demarcation among intersex persons; lower socio-economic conditions create helplessness and rural spaces are uncongenial to intersex persons. M narrates that in the COVID-19 pandemic situation many intersex men who work as car mechanics or plumbers, journalists, and in other petty positions lost their jobs. M surmised that during the pandemic, there have been discussions around special wards for transgender persons, but no one speaks of intersex persons. T, another male identified intersex person from city S refers to the “Advocates for Intersex Youth,” a collective in the US which wrote to the Congress to include specific needs of intersex persons in the relief package for COVID- 19. The document states:

Access to services, facilities, and relief should not be denied or impaired for any discriminatory reason, including whether a person is intersex. Many intersex diagnoses correspond with unique medical needs, and our community must be assured of the availability of care absent discrimination on the basis of their variations in sex characteristics. In times of increased public anxiety, we feel it is necessary to affirm guarantees of just and equitable treatment and to remember our common humanity. (Zieselman 2020)

To reiterate this variation among the intersex and related complications, it goes on to say the following in a footnote: 

For example, some forms of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia – one of the most common intersex traits—cause a hormonal variation that must be carefully managed with medication to prevent life-threatening adrenal crises. Falling ill causes the body to require more adrenal hormones, which increases the risk of a crisis. Individuals with these more dangerous forms of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia who contract COVID-19 —or even a cold or flu—have an increased chance of death. (Zieselman 2020)

These complexities are clear to only a few medical practitioners in India as they are not part of the mainstream medical education, as M says, and the Indian government which is reluctant to pass a progressive transgender act may not find the “intersex” health issue important, but for intersex persons, their visibility and specific health issues are further marginalised.

Gender Queer Misgendered as Male

L is genderqueer non-binary bisexual person assigned male at birth. They belong to a middle-class Muslim family in the metropolitan city C. We include them in the discussion on subordinate masculinity as L is perceived as a man and constantly misgendered by their family, kin and others except their close friends. Staying at home during pandemic, the misgendering of L has intensified creating mental stress. L says that smoking and eating pork which are so close to their heart have been difficult and socialising with friends has been curbed. Privacy has been a big issue as L remarks—“So, yea, like I said, I can’t lock my door. I will be asked questions. I go to the terrace because I need privacy. I need to spend time alone, just be myself. But I can’t do that. I am asked questions constantly.” L is also HIV positive and there is a shortage of medicines and uncertainties of accessing medicines 

“There is a shortage of medicine in my city … there is that fear all the time that I might run out of medication and not get it. Medicines are expensive, I have two medicines, one bottle of it costs Rs 4,500 and that has now gone up to Rs 6,000. The other one which is Rs 1500 has now gone up to Rs 2,200-2,500. It is also becoming difficult to afford and if I don’t get the free aid from the government, I won’t be able to afford these rates. That is my biggest worry.”

During the unlock process, while HIV medicines have been accessible, mental health crises, due to constant misgendering and sudden violent acts by their father has been a constant companion for them, says L. Their close friends form their support network, which they have not been able to access even in the post lockdown period. Due to their HIV condition, their family will not let L move around freely or even visit friends at their houses. This has caused severe loneliness and led L to resort to the four walls of their room. 

Marginalised Masculinities and COVID-19

Class position remains an important factor in negotiating with the pandemic and lockdown (Sengupta and Jha 2020). There have been cases, however, where class intersected with ethnic, minority, and caste status causing specific vulnerabilities and violence for marginal men. We illustrate the impact of COVID-19 on marginalised masculinity through Islamophobia following the Markaz incident and an instance of caste discrimination during lockdown from rural Maharashtra.

Kasbe is from a village in Marathwada in Maharashtra. He belongs to the Dombari community considered as a nomadic group embodying “untouchability” in the traditional caste structure which also continues in contemporary times (Rindhe 2012). Kasbe is poor and his family ekes out their livelihood through sugarcane cutting by seasonally migrating to Solapur. They also work at brick kiln industries in bordering districts of Karnataka. Before the lockdown, Kasbe was in Belgaum in Karnataka working in the brick kiln industry. He has borrowed Rs 2.5 lakh from the owners (of the brick kiln) and is expected to repay through family labour.

With lockdown, the owner asked Kasbe and his family to leave. Kasbe had no choice but to return to his village in Marathwada. In their own village, Kasbe and his family were prohibited from entering the quarantine centre. They were asked to quarantine at gairan jamin (village common) which is used as a burial and cremation ground (smasan bhumi). It reinforced the traditional experiences of untouchability. The family had to obey the instructions given by the dominant caste group in the village. Finding it difficult to stay in the burial ground, Kasbe’s family tried to shift to the nearby agricultural fields of villagers from other castes. The family was threatened and reprimanded by the owners of those fields. Kasbe’s family encountered snakes, scorpions, and other poisonous insects at the burial ground and the scorching heat of April was just unbearable during the daytime. While the landholding castes chose to stay in their own agricultural field, forcing a Dombari man to gairan land or the cremation grounds shows how untouchability can be symbolically reproduced and projected on certain bodies even during such pandemic situations. Post lockdown, Kasbe and his family would be back to work, but the scars and trauma of dehumanisation in his own village during the pandemic will be inscribed in his memory. 

Conclusions

These narratives situate men not in relationship to patriarchy that puts them at an advantage in terms of control over women, but locates men in relation to other men and intersectional identities that they embody. Caste, class, sexuality, religion, and regional contexts interact with the gender identity of men and position them in a relational hierarchy with other men and society at large. The complex experiences of the interlocutors during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown point to the ways in which subordination and marginalisation functions within this gender structure and how they have material as well as emotional consequences in the lives of such sexually subordinated men. “Untouchability” and various forms of ethnic violence were witnessed during the crisis and men from certain social locations were subjected to overt violence and stigma. 

 

 

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 S M Shetty College of Science, Commerce and Management Studies on 15 July 2020. The webinar series was conceptualised by Gita Chadha and Meher Bhoot.

Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Concerns have been raised about criminalising triple talaq now that the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017 has been passed as an ordinance. This reading list is to help...
Back to Top