Let us look at the ongoing lockdown from the eyes of Saroj, a 17-year-old from Sambalpur in Odisha, who identifies as a trans man. Saroj is an orphan who lives with his sister, who is around 10, and an elderly relative whom he refers to as his grandmother. Saroj has been facing extremely challenging circumstances from a very young age.
Talking to the lead author over the phone, he wonders, “What should I deal with first – fear of starvation, fear of tomorrow, looking after my grandmother and sister, dealing with harassment in public places, or my feeling of gender dysphoria?”
Being a minor, he finds it extremely difficult to find a job, even if it is a daily wage earning job. Prior to the lockdown, he managed to find some work or the other. But since the lockdown started, his income has come down to zero. He says, “I’m not sure when I can resume the work I was engaged with earlier. I’m not even sure if that work still exists!” In the meantime survival has depended on the kindness of friends who provided ration support for a month and a monetary donation facilitated by NGO SAATHII.
Saroj is one among several trans individuals the authors of this article, participants in Varta Trust’s citizen journalism programme (inset below), spoke to as part of a situational assessment. The assessment looked at the survival and sustenance concerns of trans persons in Odisha during and after the lockdown.
Sushant, 27, identifies as a trans man, and lives in Puri with his aged mother and partner. Both are financially dependent on him. As a daily wage earner, the lockdown has hit him hard. He has been struggling to get food for the family and pay the house rent. A government request and partial support for a month’s rent notwithstanding, Sushant’s landlord has not relented on monthly payment of the rent. He keeps insisting that Sushant should clear the outstanding rent of four months. As the lockdown eases in fits and starts, Sushant is still not sure if his earnings will again be at the same level as before.
There has been some government and NGO support forthcoming in terms of ration provisions and financial help. But what seems to hurt Sushant the most is the near total lack of support for continuing the hormone therapy that he started before the lockdown. “How am I to afford the Rs.400 that my doctor in Bhubaneswar charges for every visit and Rs.300 for each dose of hormones?” he asks tearfully. Three of the four trans men interviewed for the situational assessment shared similar concerns. For some individuals, the concern is that the right dosage is not available and they have no choice but to settle for a lower dosage of hormones, or to miss their dose entirely.
Sadly, the governments at the Centre and most states across India have not yet addressed the gender affirmative care concerns of trans communities with as much seriousness as other health concerns during the lockdown. Due to advocacy efforts by local NGOs and trans community members in the past few years, gender affirmative surgical procedures are now available in one government health facility in Odisha (S. C. B. Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack). Hormone therapy, however, is available only in the private sector.
This situation has led to irritability, depression and a desire to stay aloof among individuals like Sushant. If they are fortunate like Sushant, they may have supportive family members who try and provide as much emotional support as possible. But for most trans and queer persons in Odisha, family and social support seems a rarity.
In a recent incident in Bhubaneswar, a trans man and a cis woman, both adults and living together since some time, were forcibly separated by the woman’s family with the help of the police. The trans man was falsely accused of kidnapping. The lead author, a health worker with SAATHII, and his colleagues are trying to provide legal aid to the couple. Though the government of Odisha has included trans people as beneficiaries to avail free legal aid from the State Legal Services Authority and its district level counterparts, lack of publicity somewhat hinders the access to these services. The positive aspect in this is the fact that trans masculine individuals (as also lesbians and bisexual women) in Odisha today have at least some options regarding legal aid and mental health support.
While the trans women’s movement in Odisha goes back to the mid-2000s and is comparatively well established today, mobilization of lesbians, bisexual women and trans masculine (LBT) individuals began only around 2015-16. Till date, a few community peer leaders have reached out to 140 LBT persons across various districts of Odisha, with community mobilisation and collectivisation support from SAATHII. The collectivization process is at a stage where community meetings are being organized for exchange of experiences and information, emotional support, and to facilitate access to health, legal aid and social welfare services. LBT community members have also started organizing and participating in district and state level workshops around health and legal concerns.
The pandemic and lockdown are testing the resolve of the emerging LBT network in Odisha. A lot needs to be done to support individuals like Manoj, 21, a trans man from Khordha town, who is desperately waiting for the lockdown to end. He says, “I’ve never depended on my family for money other than for my education. I used to manage all other expenses by earning from small jobs and stipends. But now I have to think of full-time work and need guidance for my career.”
Manoj, whose cousin sister is a trans woman, has support from everyone in his family barring his father and grandmother. “Had my father been more supportive, I may’ve been in a better situation,” he adds.
He has to also figure out when and how he can resume hormone therapy. Bhubaneswar, where he would earlier go for the therapy, is 70 km away and he has no means of conveyance. Yet he sounds upbeat when he says, “I’m fortunate to have support from my peers and friends, and organizations like SAKHA and SAATHII are helping with ration and monetary support. Today, thanks to SAATHII, we can dare to come out of our homes and have space for meetings.”
Saroj, like Manoj, is not about to give up. He says if he can find some funds, he can start selling vegetables and earn an income – never mind his age. Now, if such enthusiasm and resilience isn’t reason enough for people to come forward with guidance, livelihood support and philanthropy, what else can be?
Helpline alert! SAATHII Gender and Sexuality Counselling Unit, Bhubaneswar: Free and confidential mental health counselling and referral services available over phone and in person. Contact: 0091 94373 97545 (Monday to Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm, barring second and fourth Saturdays); firstname.lastname@example.org. The functioning of the helpline may be disrupted because of the lockdown. In case of an emergency, please call 0091 79788 07004.
For more queer friendly health and legal aid services across India, please click here.
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. Names of all the interviewees have been changed in this article. The assessment is part of Varta Trust’s third pilot of its community reporters training and citizen journalism programme – Editor.
This article was shared with the District Legal Services Authorities in all 30 districts of Odisha by the co-authors Bana and Chandan Kumar Nayak as part of their advocacy work in SAATHII NGO – to make the officials aware about the challenges faced by trans masculine individuals in Odisha because of the pandemic and lockdown – Editor.
The article was cited by Dhriti Shankar, former student of queer studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in a paper titled Redefining ‘Safe Bodies’: Queering the Shifting Body Politics during the COVID-19 Pandemic published in the journal Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, May 9, 2022 – Editor.
About the main photo: Workshop on gender affirmative surgery organized with trans masculine individuals by SAATHII in Bhubaneswar on November 23, 2019. Photo courtesy SAATHII