A consortium of civil society organisations as part of their campaign to commemorate slain independent journalist Gauri Lankesh have highlighted the effects of the pandemic and lockdown on queers in India.

“Queer persons face societal and familial pressure to conform to sexuality norms. These pressures also take the form of mental or physical violence, such as forcing someone into taking conversion therapy, or abusing them into conforming,” they stated in their campaign titled ‘Hum Agar Nahi Uthe To’ (If We Do Not Rise).

In a fact sheet they reflect on the past year for the LGBTQIA+ community in India considering government policies, social acceptance and the pandemic and lockdowns.

Activists told The Citizen that the lockdown had multiplied queer misery, saying that before the lockdown the families of many had decided to accept them since they were bread-earners, but with their jobs gone they are subjecting them to ill treatment.

The activists further disclosed that those who had migrated to other places for livelihood experienced insecurity and threats at multiple levels when they were unable to return home, and were stuck with people who perform heterosexual violence.

“Trans persons, particularly among Dalits, often drop out of schools because of the dress code and general environment where those around them lack sensitivity towards them. This later impacts their livelihood. During the lockdown they not only faced hunger but a hostile environment that also impacted their mental health,” says Maya Sharma of Vikalp, an organisation in Vadodara that works with LGBTQIA+es.

Sharma told the story of a queer labourer couple who passed themselves off as a heterosexual married couple in Gujarat. “They have to remain cut off even from their neighbours, who keep hounding them with questions on their not having a baby.”

The factsheet reports that “One queer helpline from Delhi received more calls during the lockdown. Of the 86 calls received 60 were from queer ciswomen and cismen, who reported domestic violence by their family because of their sexual orientation. This included house arrest, physical and emotional violence. There was constant surveillance about who they talk to over the phone. Some even reported not being able to recharge their phones.”

Queer women face double discrimination and erasure, the factsheet reminds us, targeted both because of their assigned sex at birth and their sexual orientation.

“The biggest challenge” according to Sharma is the absence of data on queers which “leads to their being left out. While there is some idea about trans males, trans females are not figuring anywhere. It is the government that needs to come forward to collect this data.”

A transwoman living in the temple town of Chintpurni in Himachal Pradesh told The Citizen, “We did not get any help any help from the authorities and were left to survive only on the help extended off and on by common people.

“People have a misconception that we have a lot of money. Had this been the case, why would we be asking for help at traffic junctions?

“The lockdown took away even that source of income. We cannot go to anyone’s house for singing badhais as people are scared of the Corona outbreak. Tell me, how do we survive?” she asked.

Several activists disclosed that many queertransuals feel let down even by the NGOs working among them, which were also helpless to extend the required help during the lockdown.

“We were left helpless as we did not have even transport available to reach out to members of the community in the villages we have been working in,” said a social activist from Kangra, Himachal Pradesh.

The factsheet relates the story of a lesbian couple in Tamil Nadu driven to suicide for fear of being separated as the family of one was forcing her into a marriage. “The couple used to work together under the same employer, who fired them on suspicion of them being queer,” the document says.

Many such cases go unreported as women targeted in domestic violence do not report it due to society’s pressure.

“Harmful practices like ‘conversion therapy’ that claim to be the ‘cure’ to homosexuality persist in India. There is no provision outlawing this practice yet, but it is a clear violation of clause 21a of the Mental Health Care Act, 2017 which prevents mental health practitioners from discriminating against patients based on gender and sexual orientation,” it states.

Activists demand that the government establish safehouses nationwide as well as operational queer-affirming helplines for mental health in regional languages to mitigate the lockdown’s detrimental effect on transqueersuals stuck with implicitly or explicitly violent, phobic families, and their loss of support networks.

They also want it to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity till 2023.

Activists also say there is a dire need to sensitise medical professionals to the specific needs of the LGBTQIA+ community to combat discrimination and stigma.

There is a further demand to ensure transqueers’ access to social security benefits for this and future crises. Such social security will need to be “dislodged from the mandate of the state for documents like ration cards or Aadhaar cards which this community often find difficult to acquire or produce”, curtailing their access to public entitlements.

There have been some positive developments in the last few months. The first instance is the Uttarakhand High Court’s acknowledging that while same-sex couples may not be eligible to tie the knot yet, they do have the right to live together.

The court observed that “even if the parties, who are living together though they are belonging to the same gender; they are not competent to enter into a wedlock, but still they have got a right to live together even outside the wedlock’.

The factsheet says the judgement by Justice Sharad Kumar Sharma “grants queer couples the option of living together by giving them legal support.”

Another young lesbian couple living together were provided relief by the Punjab and Haryana High Court when it directed the Senior Superintendent of Police, Mohali to assess the threat posed to the couple by their families and provide security if required.

There has also been an active effort on the part of civil society groups and collectives to better recognise how society marginalises people based on queerness, caste and ability.

Another positive development, they say, was the official statement issued on May 21 by the Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists discrediting ‘conversion therapy’ and calling it a “dangerously harmful, painful and traumatising unprofessional practice”.