Before the coronavirus lockdown started in Guwahati, Namrata (name changed) would be on her usual cycle of waking up, going to office, returning home, cooking, catching up on TV series or films, speaking to her partner over phone, and calling it a day after dinner.
In the same city, another woman Mayuri had just resigned from her job of many years of teaching in a reputed university in Guwahati. She had applied to pursue a PhD course in the University of Auckland and was looking forward to fly off to New Zealand.
Neither had an inkling of what was in store for them in the months ahead because of the ill-planned lockdown.
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Both women are cisgender lesbians with fluid or non-binary gender expressions. Both belong to well-read and property-owning families in Guwahati. But both women have been living in rented homes on their own since years. Their experiences, before and during the lockdown as well as more recently, have been directly related to surviving as queer women in a heteronormative and heterosexist society at large.
Namrata, 26, has been living apart from her birth family since almost two years. She was initially in a live-in relationship, but that ended a few months ago. Now, she shares her home with a cisgender straight woman, an office colleague. She has a warm professional rapport with her colleague, but there is not much of an emotional connect between them.
When the lockdown started, her colleague left for her home in another district of Assam but Namrata decided to not go stay with her family. Though they asked her to come over, she was unsure how living 24×7 under the same roof with them would affect her mentally. She has a communication gap with her parents because of a conflict of ideas, and she did not want her relationship with them to be affected further.
Namrata explains, “My siblings are aware of my sexuality, and my parents may have an idea because I try to live an open life. In the past, when I took my partners and lovers home, there was a lot of disapproval. My siblings shamed me for my sexuality, calling me a disgrace and many other things.” So when her family asked her to stay with them during the lockdown, she wondered how she would connect with her lovers over phone. Surely her parents would figure out the romantic or sexual tone of her voice. They would not be able to make out the gender of the caller, but they would know that their daughter was partnered. She decided that rather than keeping a constant watch over who might be listening to her calls, it was better that she be alone and happy.
Mayuri, 33, does not have any conflict with her family around her sexuality. Three years ago, she told them about it, and since then has been living on her own to grow independently. Yet, on and off, she also feels guilty about staying apart from her family. She feels that her parents need her more after her sister started struggling with mental ill health.
Mayuri’s parents have stood by her all along and assure her that she need not worry about them. “But what gets to me is our relatives – they keep nagging my parents about my marriage and why I’ve moved out of home when I’m living in the same city!” she ventilates. She is also increasingly more open about her sexuality in many spaces outside home, and is among the few queer persons in Assam who are open about their relationship.
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During the lockdown, Mayuri took to reading and engaging in creative and leisurely activities to keep herself occupied. But gradually the lockdown took its toll. Memories of queerphobic experiences from her childhood and academic life while pursuing an engineering course began to haunt her. Once, a fellow boarder in the college hostel to whom Mayuri was out about her sexuality started painting her as a ‘sexual pervert’ among the other boarders. This was all in an attempt to hamper her chances of finding space in the main hostel!
The hostile environment in the hostel forced her to find paying guest accommodation at Rs.2,500 a month, whereas the main hostel would have cost her only Rs.500. She even thought of dropping out of the engineering course. She skipped all college functions because of tremendous guilt around being queer and her parents having to pay more money for her accommodation than required.
The trauma around these incidents resurfaced without warning. Luckily, her partner came to stay with her and helped her in meeting the expenses on rent and food. They did things together like cooking. Mayuri sounds happy as she shares, “I felt proud that I’d started to enjoy eating vegetables which I abhorred earlier!”
This phase of Mayuri and her partner living together has helped her also in opening up about the abuse she faced in childhood. Her partner is the very first person she talked about the abuse to. She has also started releasing her emotions through poetry. “Our relationship has grown much stronger, and it matters less and less what others think about us,” adds Mayuri.
Namrata experienced a change as well. Like many others, she worked from home during the lockdown and busied herself with browsing news, social media posts, webinars and culinary experiments. But once her food rations started to dry up, the fear of going out to buy groceries and being exposed to the coronavirus put an end to her experiments. Reading books was her next distraction. But this too became monotonous. Like Mayuri, she too was affected by unpleasant memories.
Frictions with people who were once close friends meant that she had few people to turn to and a sense of isolation enveloped her. Innumerable stories of trauma faced by marginalized communities began to flood her with negative emotions.
Namrata is dependent on cigarettes to help her release stress. But the simple act of buying cigarettes from a shop can be a challenge for her. She elaborates, “My short hair often invites judgmental stares and some shopkeepers try to ignore me. During the lockdown, I didn’t want to be marked as ‘that woman with short hair who smokes’. I tried not to smoke but the withdrawal symptoms were severe. I had inconsistent sleep and suffered two anxiety attacks. To make things worse, I’d run out of anti-anxiety pills and thanks to the lockdown, I couldn’t find them in any pharmacy either.”
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The lockdown was not just about ordeals for both women. It was also about revelations. They found new sources of strength – within themselves and among the people around them.
At one stage, Namrata became increasingly worried about job security. There was pressure to deliver the best. In response, she started to read more and build her own capacities by picking up new skills. She absolutely loves her workplace which has a queer affirmative approach. But the rising cases of job losses made her anxious. It was not as if she would not get other jobs, but would they be queer affirmative?
“Not many workspaces know how to deal affirmatively with queer people, especially those who’re open about their gender or sexuality. In all my life I’ve hardly met such supportive people, who went out of their way to provide emotional support to me during the lockdown through Zoom calls. I never felt isolated!” recalls an appreciative Namrata.
This support she says is something she has never had to ask for. It has been there right from the time of her interview for the job, where she spoke about being lesbian. Her employers and colleagues have been genuinely inclusive, never making a show of it. She jokingly adds that at times she even gets to boss around and voice her concerns without becoming conscious about it. She has quite a reputation of standing by issues she believes in even if she is the only one. She wonders how many workplaces provide such a space to any of their employees.
Mayuri’s workplace was never so inclusive and queer-friendly. Her students loved, respected and supported her, and she loved teaching them. But her colleagues and the university administration were not as forthcoming and lacked a queer affirmative sensitivity. Despite being good at her job, she was targeted because of being vocal about her sexuality. She got a hint and also had a gut feeling that the lockdown would be used as an excuse to slash her salary and pressurize her to quit. A reduction in salary would have hurt her prospects with any future employers. She pre-empted the situation and resigned before the university could act.
Though it was a big blow to have her travel to New Zealand put off indefinitely, the lockdown acted as a tool for self-analysis for Mayuri. First, she confronted and dealt with her mental health concerns. With the lockdown being relaxed from time to time but also extended, Mayuri teamed up with a colleague to start a weekend queer adda. This was new for many queer people in Assam and provided an opportunity for sharing and empathetic listening. “But it helped me too tremendously. It became the one thing to look forward to,” she remarks.
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The lockdown also provided Mayuri an opportunity to have a deep conversation with her mother again about her sexuality, which was becoming more visible on social media. She had posted a photograph of herself with her partner on Facebook on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia & Transphobia in May this year. The photograph provided her an excuse to have a chat with her mother, which brought them closer.
Mayuri started to write more often and participated in webinars and other online discussions on queer issues. This visibility helped in even more conversations with her extended family members around her sexuality.
“I also started experiencing regular periods and was able to mark the dates. This is something that never happened while I taught in the university I left,” she sounds calm and confident as she shares this intimate detail.
Things came full circle for Namrata too with friends and family. She mended the broken links with friends, and had a change of heart seeing her family’s concern for her well being. As the lockdown was relaxed, she visited her parents more often and even stayed with them an entire week, the longest in two years! “The conflict of ideas with my parents became more manageable,” she shares with a laugh. And once her office re-opened, she no longer had to fret about buying cigarettes or finding a ‘safe space’ to take a relaxing puff or two.
The author of this article, a participant in Varta Trust’s citizen journalism programme (inset above), carried out a situational assessment of the survival and sustenance priorities of Assam’s queer communities during and after the coronavirus lockdown. The stories narrated in the article are based on semi-structured interviews conducted over phone as part of the situational assessment – Editor.
About the main photo: Skyscape from the balcony in Mayuri’s home. Photo credit: Mayuri