Abhijith was working as a radio jockey in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit India in March last year, prompting the government to impose a nationwide lockdown. Abhijith returned to the rural district of Pathanamthitta, where his parents live with a common family, including uncles, cousins ââand grandparents.
Describing the experience of living with homophobic parents and cousins ââas’ unbearable ‘, he said:’ Besides the frequent reference to my sexual ‘abnormality’, they took me to a hospital. guruji to “cure” me. He gave me food, which made me vomit. The guru assured me that I was throwing up any “demon” that possessed me and “made” me gay.
In early 2021, Abhijith returned to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work to uplift the queer community. âI wish no one else was going through the mental trauma I suffered,â Abhijit said.
Abhijith’s story of mental distress resulting from domestic violence is common among members of India’s LGBTQI + community, many of whom have been trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
As India continues to recover from a pandemic that claimed more lives (235,524) in the three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than the previous year (162,960 deaths in March 2020 -March 2021), the LGBTQ community faced a myriad of challenges. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from traditional prejudices, and the pandemic has exacerbated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, in addition to limiting access to essential care. This resulted in acute mental distress that overwhelmed the gay support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the increased levels of distress in the community were due to long-standing factors that were unfavorably triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who do not tolerate marginalized gender identities, often labeling their orientation as “troubled” or “just a phase,” have historically been among the primary perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence against queer, trans people. and homosexuals.
Sappho for equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized trans women and men, has seen a similar trend. At the start of the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was inundated with distress calls. He added a second helpline number. The comparative figures show a number multiplied by 13: from 290 calls in April 2019 – March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020 – May 2021.
âMost of the calls we have received from lesbians and trans men are urgent calls to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns. If they resist, they are either expelled or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren’t too many shelters, we have one that’s already at full capacity, âsaid Shreosi, Sappho member and peer support provider.
Shreosi says the nature of distress calls has also changed. âPeople used to call for long-term help, like professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it turned into immediate demands for rescue from oppressive family situations. Often times, they will speak in a low voice so that the parents cannot hear.
Lack of places
Like many of his fellow queer community members, the life of Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, Maharashtra, has taken a turn for the worse. The foreclosure resulted in the loss of safe spaces and extended residence at the home.
“It’s a very difficult time since the start of confinement. I suffer from a lot of mental stress because I cannot express myself freely at home. Even when making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if there is any. to someone. If I try to get out, my family demands an explanation for leaving the house. I feel suffocated. The loss of safe spaces, which were few in any case, has been extremely debilitating “, a- he declared.
Sumit also faces a peril that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and scarcity of income. Sumit had opened a cafe with two other gay friends, which is now experiencing losses. For others, the pandemic-induced job losses have forced gay people across the country to return to their home countries and move in with their families who have become abusive during this long period of lockdown.
Kolkata-based doctor, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata said the pandemic has forced some gay people out, succumbing to growing discomfort and pressure from homophobic families.
âIn most cases, family relationships break down when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee to their homes. They find respite or an âexit spaceâ in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems have increased dramatically, âhe said.
Not being able to speak freely in front of hostile, intolerant parents who often address transgender people by their pseudonym or their wrong gender has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she / they) cites an incident. A gender nonconforming person (preferred pronoun: her) died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and returning to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bracelets and a sari.
âWhen a member of our community asked her mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes her whole life, she simply replied that it was natural because after all, the deceased ‘was her daughter’. The absolute invisibility of someone’s desires, even after they’ve left, is deeply frustrating, âBiswas recalls.
Mental health care
In India, gay people ‘s access to professional mental health care has been “severely limited”, according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India’s first transgender lawyer who worked with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
âA large majority of psychiatrists still view homosexuality as a disorder and practice ‘correctional therapy’. It is only in the big cities that one can find gay-friendly psychiatrists, âBiswas said. âThe pandemic has further increased inequalities in access to mental health support for the Indian LGBTQ community. “
Biswas spends anxious days responding to an overwhelming amount of calls and rescues from gay members trapped in their homes, suffering mental, verbal and even physical torture. âWe don’t have the space, I’m just telling them to wait and put up with it a little bit longer,â he said.
Anuradha Krishnan’s story, while not involving the biological family, describes how the lack of physical support spaces affected India’s queer population. Abandoned by her biological family when she introduced herself to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she / they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala, who is studying dentistry, had to move into accommodation with four other people. âI’m used to talking and hanging out with friends. The isolation triggered my depression and I had to see a psychiatrist. Living in cramped quarters didn’t help with the quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive in the first wave.
What is deeply concerning is that India’s queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised by historical biases, is now in trouble, putting increasing pressure on queer collectives and support groups by peers whose resources are dwindling.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, You all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received around 1,000 distress calls on its LGBTQI + hotline. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telltale escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during Wave 2.
As India’s gay-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y’all founder Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, âHonestly, we are struggling to deal with so many. calls, it’s so overwhelming. We also face our own anxieties. We are burning.
Sreemanti Sengupta is a Kolkata-based freelance writer, poet and media studies lecturer.