On June 3, 2020, 18 years old Chanda (name changed) died by suicide in Balurghat, a town close to the Indo-Bangla border in the Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal. Chanda supported her family with her earnings from Launda Nach. Her community peers shared that she had been under tremendous stress because the lockdown had dried up her income. Though she lived separately from her family, she was worried about their survival. But her concern for her family was never quite reciprocated because her parents and brother did not accept her as a trans woman.
Chanda apparently was keen also to undergo gender affirmative surgery (also known as sex reassignment surgery). But her peers wondered how much of her strong desire for surgery at any cost was personal, and how much of it was to meet her boyfriend’s expectations of what a woman’s body should be like. They said all their warnings to her about her personal safety and her partner’s intentions went unheeded.
In the end, neither her family members nor her partner came forward for her burial. What shocked and enraged trans community members in Dakshin Dinajpur was the family’s disowning of Chanda. They wanted to make sure that her family would not be able to lay claim on Chanda’s possessions. It is not known if this line of action was pursued, but local trans activists and community members took the initiative to ensure a semblance of dignity for Chanda’s last rites. They sought legal advice from a local queer-friendly lawyer and requested the police to perform the last rites on the same day as Chanda died. Some of her closest friends were also present.
While such painful lack of family acceptance for trans persons is nothing new, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have aggravated matters for many trans persons. The authors of this article, participants in Varta Trust’s citizen journalism programme (inset below), conducted a situational assessment of the survival and sustenance priorities of West Bengal’s queer communities during and after the lockdown. Respondent after respondent – mostly trans women, trans men and genderqueer persons – shared stories of family apathy and violence.
Many of the respondents said they were unable to sleep and function well because they were worried about making ends meet, looking after ailing parents or other dependent family members. Several respondents had had to discontinue hormone therapy and other gender affirmation procedures, which had sent them into severe depression.
Raima, 35, another Launda dancer, lives in Maslandapur, North 24 Parganas district. She said: “I’m depressed thinking about the future – will I get any work at all? My mother’s dependent on me, but other family members, especially my elder brother, aren’t supportive at all. It’s all on me.”
Tinku shares her age and profession with Raima. She lives in Habra, which is also in North 24 Parganas. Tinku was lucky enough to return home from the Lagan season in Bihar just before the lockdown started. Her mother earns a small pension, but Tinku’s income from Launda Nach has been the mainstay for the family. Tinku’s younger brother is married but unemployed and is also dependent on her. Her elder brother lives separately and does not take any responsibility for the family. Tinku shared, “I was injured in an accident, but I haven’t had the money to see a doctor. Thinking about the future has given me insomnia.”
Till the time of the interview with her in early May, Tinku, like many other trans persons in West Bengal and other parts of India, had received financial support worth Rs.1,500 just once from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India. This too was a process initiated only after advocacy by trans rights activists. Shouldn’t it have been a natural corollary of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, which the government pushed through despite serious opposition? And this is the same legislation which reposes great faith in the biological family to protect and nurture trans children in the household!
On a somewhat brighter side, there are some examples of family support, but even these are not instances of unconditional support. Pooja, 28, a trans woman who works in a private firm in Kolkata, is the only earning member of her family and is single-handedly managing family expenses even during the lockdown. She is worried about salary deductions, as has been the case with many colleagues in her office; ultimately she is not sure if she will even have a job. Pooja’s parents and siblings do not reject her because of her gender identity. But when it comes to dressing up as she likes, she has to keep her family’s social status and her workplace in mind. She has to travel all the way to her friend’s place in suburban Kolkata to ‘be herself’ for a few hours or to participate in queer community events. During the lockdown, even this opportunity has been denied to her.
Meeth’s is another example of selflessness. Meeth (name changed) is a trans masculine person, 29 years old, and runs a real estate promotion business in Barasat, a northern suburb of Kolkata. Even with a steep fall in income and their aged mother’s failing eyesight that cannot be treated during the lockdown, Meeth is not only running the household but has also made sure to pay all their employees during the lockdown. They also provide ration support to two individuals in the neighbourhood, who have been hit hard by the lockdown.
Meeth shared: “I was always a spendthrift and rather fond of drinking alcohol. But the lockdown has taught me the importance of saving and I’ve also cut down on the drinking.” Shouldn’t Raima and Tinku’s brothers undertake similar introspection? But will they ever, steeped as they are in their privileges of being ‘proper’ sons of the house, ‘appropriately married’ and all?
Even as the much maligned Poojas and Meeths of our society show exemplary courage, put others’ needs before their own, and continue to look after the very families that often let them down, who exactly is thinking about their needs? Both governmental and social institutions are repeatedly failing them. Are you doing any better?
The situational assessment mentioned in the article was a qualitative enquiry into the livelihood, physical health, mental health, and social security needs of around three dozen queer persons in West Bengal, Assam and Odisha. Data collection was conducted through semi-structured interviews over phone. Standard norms of informed consent and confidentiality were practised in recording the interviews digitally and storing them securely with Varta Trust. The assessment is part of Varta Trust’s third pilot of its community reporters training and citizen journalism programme – Editor.
Read here a Bengali version of the article published in Qaanchalonka webzine. The article was also cited by Dr. Kaustav Bakshi, faculty at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in a paper titled The Gujhyo Tatwa or Deep Philosophy of Sex, Gender and the Body: Syed Mustafa Siraj’s Maya Mridanga and the ‘Puzzle’ of Queerness published in the journal South Asian History and Culture, 2021 – Editor.
Main artwork credit: Ranjay Sarkar (pencil sketch on paper), Pawan Dhall (visualisation)