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A trans woman holds her phone up to take a selfie with her friend in a big crowd
Even though trans people and communities have had to assume the responsibility of providing supports to community members during the pandemic, this can also be read as resistance. (Shutterstock)

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 rendered vulnerable during the pandemic.

Harsh and stringent public health regulations put in place by the Indian government during the first phase of the pandemic resulted in loss of livelihood for trans people. It led to food and housing insecurity for daily wage earning trans people, sex workers and those engaged in begging and performing.

In the wake of job loss, lockdowns and in the absence of equitable government-funded medical supports designed to meet trans people’s healthcare needs, many could not access hormone replacement therapy. On a panel, 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.”

Trans people have lost access to public spaces and places which has made it difficult for them to earn their living.

Pandemic heightened the precarity

Even as promises were made to render social security schemes available to trans people, the cisnormative bureaucratic structure presented barriers.

Advocacy started early for financial aid. Sustained negotiations took place between trans people and government authorities. But many were denied aid without explanation.

Trans people who lack government-issued identity documents and bank accounts under their chosen names and self-determined gender, who are not conversant in English or Hindi and who are not digitally literate — but were nonetheless required to fill out online forms — were precluded from receiving the limited government supports.

An overview of Mitr Clinic, India’s first comprehensive community-led transgender clinic.

In the absence of guaranteed financial aid, many trans women had to borrow money from private moneylenders at high interest rates, rendering themselves susceptible to debt-related violence.

Suicide rates rose among trans people. This has become a necropolitical feature of the pandemic.

Mutual aid as a resistance strategy

Even as food and socio-economic insecurities started claiming lives, trans communities and community-based organizations have effectively organized to keep each other alive.

Mutual aid has become a pronounced resistance strategy.

Dalit trans activist Grace Banu, director and founder of Trans Rights Now Collective, has crowdfunded to support trans artists, performers, those living with HIV and sex workers in rural Tamil Nadu.

Community aid facilitated by Banu bridged social service gaps. She demonstrated through action that crises of equity cannot be solved through tokenistic 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 wasn’t alone, many community organizations stepped in to provide survival supports.

Throughout time, negotiations between trans activists and the government have ensured that life affirming supports are available. Trans people have subverted government-crafted assumptions of disposability associated with their lives through these efforts.

For example, led by trans activist Santa Khurai, the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association worked to create two quarantine centres for migrant labouring trans people who were returning to the state of Manipur.

Community work and advocacy leads to change. Trans community members and leaders told the government that many working class trans people did not have citizenship documents or bank accounts to access financial assistance, so the government had to create provisions for those without them.

This challenged the government’s gate keeping policies, contested its unilateral developmentalist interventions during the pandemic and forced it to acknowledge the complex lived realities of trans people.

Trans politics and the pandemic

Even though trans people and communities have had to assume the responsibility of providing supports to community members in the name of mutual aid during the pandemic, this can also be read as resistance.

Through their negotiations with the government, trans people have demonstrated their political wisdom, challenged universalized notions of welfare, protested against inaccessible relief measures, rallied for equity and built critical solidarity across marginalized communities.

As they continue their fight to secure access to social safety nets as matters of equity, rights and justice, we need to pay attention.

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