Pandemic pushes transgender community on the brink of poverty

Teja Vishnu, president of Liberty Rebellion Organization in Visakhapatnam, which works for the rights of sexual minorities in India said Covid-related lockdowns have caused financial and mental trauma to the community
Representational Image. (File photo)
Representational Image. (File photo)
Updated on Jun 01, 2021 03:57 PM IST
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ByUmar Sofi

The recent death of a 26-year-old transgender woman in Ranchi, Jharkhand, underlines the heavy toll that the pandemic has taken on transgender communities across the country, which faced with a lack of steady income and family support, are among the hardest hit vulnerable populations. Aaliyah was found dead, allegedly by suicide, in her one-room rented apartment on May 4.

Teja Vishnu, president of Liberty Rebellion Organization in Visakhapatnam, which works for the rights of sexual minorities in India said Covid-related lockdowns have caused financial and mental trauma to the community.

“Due to lockdowns, most of these people, who would otherwise be seen on trains, traffic signals, wedding parties, have been restricted to homes. While those who are living on their own are struggling to manage their rents and food, the ones staying with families have been under severe mental stress. They are constantly being bullied. When they stepped out during the day, they had a sense of community and would meet people like them but lockdowns have alienated them. Being stuck at home with people who judge them, they feel abandoned. This has led to suicidal tendencies among most of them,” Vishnu said.

Hailing from West Bengal, Aaliyah was disowned by her family and moved to Jharkhand in 2010. “She managed for 10 years. She would get around three hundred rupees a day by begging in trains, but after trains were suspended last year, she starved for days,” Aaliyah’s friend Amarjeet, who is also a member of the community, said.

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Once the rail service was suspended, Aaliyah begged at traffic signals, but a complete lockdown meant she couldn’t even step out of her room, Amarjeet said. “All her savings were exhausted. She had to sell off some jewellery she had bought a few years back to pay the rent and buy herself food. As if this wasn’t difficult enough for her, her mother called her up from Bengal and sought her help as her brothers had been rendered jobless.”

“She called me up on April 28, saying there was no ration left and she had no money... I have been struggling to feed my own family, all I could offer was emotional support. On May 4, I got a call from her neighbour that she had died by suicide,” Amarjeet said.

The financial constraints are being felt across the board, but the more vulnerable communities are the worst hit.

Vaishnavi, a 28-year-old transperson from Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh worked in the private sector but was laid off during the first Covid wave last year, forcing her to return home from Bengaluru. “Though both my brothers would still taunt me for the way I talked, I was used to it since childhood so it didn’t affect me much. But things deteriorated once my father died of Covid in March this year,” she said.

Since her father died without leaving a will, her brothers started pressuring her to move cities, Vaishnavi said. “They wanted me to go away so that they could get dad’s property transferred in their own name. When I protested, they threw me out of the house.”

Vaishnavi approached the police which did not register her complaint but tried to broker peace between her and her brothers. “They let me in again. But they still harass me. I have been to the police thrice but every time they just offer a compromise which doesn’t even last for a day,” she said.

“My [fear is that my] brothers will kill me for the property, and I will be counted as another suicide by a transgender person,” she added.

She said she has nowhere to go and she could afford to stay on her own when she had a job. “At a time when companies are laying off more people, who would offer me a job,” she said.

Hyderabad-based transgender rights activist Rachna Mudraboyina said that in absence of family and social support, a large number of transpersons have been living isolated from society. “People hesitate to even give us accommodation and now even if they do, they charge us double the normal rate. It is because of who we are. Since many of our people have been sharing rooms, how do you isolate someone who contracts Covid?” she said.

Mudraboyina offered the instance of a recent case when a transperson’s condition deteriorated after contracting Covid. “We took him to the hospital, but he could not make it. We had collected 10,000 for his treatment. His family cremated him only after we gave them that money,” she said.

Ashwini, another transgender person from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, recounts how she had no money to get home which is two hundred kilometres from Asansol, West Bengal.

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“I had no money to buy my ticket so I sat on a train to go back to my home. Once the train started moving, two railway police constables asked me for my ticket. The train was largely empty, and I told them that I did not have enough money to purchase the ticket. They started abusing me,” Ashwini said. She alleges that they told her she could travel for free in exchange for sex.

While the Centre announced a 1,500 one-time subsistence support for members of the community on May 23, it mandated that the beneficiary’s identifying documents should indicate that they are a transgender person.

“They have long been abandoned by their families. Most of them don’t even have Aadhar cards or any other document. Those who do, have been identified as males or females. They are not in touch with their families or someone in their states who can help them to get it changed. The conditions set by government for Rs1,500 will make most of them ineligible for the support,” Vishnu pointed out. They further said that the amount should be increased, and made a monthly aid, at least till the crisis lasts.

Vicky, a Mumbai-based transperson said that for members of the community who are HIV+ regular medication is costly. She said the government should provide free medicines to all transgender people at their door step. “While the government is giving some medicines free of cost and a few NGOs also do that, a transperson suffering from HIV or diabetes is scared to go to hospital for medicines as hospitals are hubs of infections and they are already vulnerable,” Vicky said.

She said that getting medical help is also a problem for the community as “we are seen through a different lens by doctors as well as patients. While many of us are gasping for breath, other patients and their attendants judge us,” she said. There should be separate quarantine centres for them and hospitals should also have dedicated rooms for them, she said.

She added that there should be a documentation drive where members of her community can go and get their documents updated so that they can avail of the government schemes.

Aruna from Vizag, another transgender person, said his family got him married to a woman. “While my spouse has been very cooperative, it is difficult to survive...we have a child now. I cannot even think about gender reassignment surgery when I don’t have enough to feed my baby,” he said.

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