How the Covid-19 second wave and subsequent lockdowns crippled the trans community in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is home to more than 50,000 transgender persons, who have suffered greatly in the pandemic.

The fierce second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has crippled the transgender community in Tamil Nadu, already one of the most vulnerable sections in the state.

Though lockdown-related restrictions are being gradually relaxed across the state, businesses, ranging from small tailoring units to malls and shopping complexes, are yet to reopen as a result of economic uncertainty. Many transgenders who were employed with these businesses are struggling. The state is home to more than 50,000 persons who identify as transgender, though official records are inadequate.

While the Tamil Nadu government has announced a relief package of Rs 2000 for those with a ration card belonging to the community, trans welfare organisations in Chennai have been doing their bit to help out such as supplying food and essential kits, providing shelter homes, securing jobs, and arranging vaccination camps.

For example, Sakkhi, a Chennai-based NGO working for the upliftment of the community designed the program ‘Fill our Plates’ to provide food supplies to 5000 transgenders across the state for a month during the lockdown. “The project was kickstarted during the last week of May 2021 and so far, we have aided 500 transgenders. We aim to cover about 1000 by this week and all 5000 by the end of July,” said Balaji Seshadri, founder and managing trustee of Sakkhi.

“We have identified around 2000 transgenders who usually visit shops as ‘lucky charms’ for businesses and are given a fee for the same. With businesses closed due to the lockdown, we have provided them with food and other provisions for a month under the program,” he added.

Similarly, Sudha S, founder and managing director of Transgender Health Oriented Zealous Holistic Initiative (THOZHI) in Chennai said around 2200 transgenders in Chennai, Thiruvallur, Kancheepuram, and Chengalpet districts were given provision kits during the lockdown last year with the help of local sponsors. ‘Thozhi’ is friend in Tamil. “This year, while we could not give out as many kits, we assisted around 900 members through the donation of a judge from the Madras High Court,” said Sudha who identifies as a transgender and prefers the pronouns she/her.

During the lockdown last year, Born2Win Social Welfare Trust in Chennai said it supported 3500 transgenders, including the elderly, sick and those from economically weaker sections (EWS) of society. “We also provided 450 transgenders with dry ration kits,” Shwetha Sudhakar, founder and the director of Born2Win Social Welfare Trust said. Sudhakar identifies as transgender and prefers the pronouns she/her.

Born2Win runs community shelters, a DTP centre and a tailoring unit in Chennai as part of skill training. “We had also started a community kitchen last year to provide free food to transgenders three times a day. This year also, we did the same for the community and for those who had tested positive for Covid-19 at homes,” she added. The community kitchen, she said, ran from May 3 till June 15, eventually closing due to paucity of resources.

Providing homes for the displaced

With the pandemic forcing children across the country to move in with their parents, there have been cases of conversion therapies being reported, along with queer children being turned away from their homes after coming out to their parents.

“When we come out as trans, parents usually kick their children out of the home. So the role of conversion therapy does not come in. Besides those who are not willing to accept their child being a transgender pre-pandemic will not accept even now,” said Sudha.

Seshadri of Sakkhi said conversion therapy boils down to education and privilege. “Most transgenders here hail from the lower strata of society so the awareness of such therapies is low. These therapies are usually followed by educated families who think that this is something that they can take up,” he said.

While those who have not transitioned were able to stay with their family albeit, under pressure, others chose to seek refuge in the community’s shelters.

Sudha said her outfit took in five transgenders who were forced to abandon their homes. Due to the lockdown, very few people from outside Chennai came into the shelter.

“We took in those who had been displaced and gave them provisions,” added Seshadri. The residents at these shelters are subjected to regular Covid-19 testing and vaccination.

Another focus area has been offering regular counselling to members of the larger LGBTQ+ community. “We have received calls from members who have not yet transitioned and are staying with their parents. We counselled them and encouraged them to be brave because staying at home is still better than not having a place to stay during the lockdown,” Sudha said.

“There was one person who had come out as gay to his parents and called us for help. He was firm in his decision that he would not stay at home. After visits to the police station, his family accepted his decision and took him in,” Sudhakar said.

The lockdown restrictions meant that few transgender persons travelled out of Chennai to get sex reassignment surgeries (SRS). Though there are hospitals that conduct SRS in the capital, very few are legally authorised to do so. Hence, most of them travel to other places to get surgeries often at a cheaper cost.

Demand for jobs to secure futures

With Covid-19 shaking the foundations of the Indian economy, there are bigger hurdles for the trans community in securing jobs than before. While both the current DMK-led government and the previous AIADMK-led regime have supported the community with three tranches of cash relief worth Rs 1000 each, it’s clearly not enough to sustain the future. There’s increasing willingness among the community to take up skill-training courses and take up jobs.

Born2Win said it has secured jobs for transgenders with corporate companies. “Two days ago, I had secured jobs for two transgenders with Amazon,” said Sudhakar.

The tailoring unit at Born2Win conducts classes for transgenders every six months. However, the lockdowns meant that classes could not be held this year. “We began classes early this year and a week later we had to close everything because of the lockdown. Online classes are not an option since most members do not own a smartphone or have access to the internet. Moreover, we do not know how effective online classes will be,” she said.

Seshadri added, “We have a few private companies who regularly hire candidates for posts such as stock-taking, retail services etc. In 2019, a lot of transgenders were hired to make paper bags in the wake of the plastic bag ban in Tamil Nadu. In addition to this, we also have project Diya where we paint and sell lamps to corporates. Both projects have been huge successes. This year, while companies have not hired members yet, they have screened potential candidates. We are expecting job offers by the end of the month.”

Several transgenders who had secured jobs last year were laid off owing to the pandemic, said Sudhakar, while a few companies resorted to salary cuts and others have promised to hire them once the pandemic subsides.

‘Shift in the mindset of people’

Welfare organisations said they have observed a shift in the mindset of people during the lockdown. “Everyone, whether straight or queer has been equally affected by the pandemic. This, in turn, has made them more sympathetic to transgenders,” said Sudha.

“There is a change in individual thought-process. We are seeing a lot of youngsters coming forward to help the community and private companies with offers of jobs. We are seeing more acceptance among the newer generation where they are willing to see them as people belonging to the same world and this positivity is empowering,” said Seshadri.

Vaccination yet to pick up pace among transgender community

While vaccination is gaining pace in Tamil Nadu, the transgender community is divided on getting the jab. Most are willing to get inoculated, but a few are wary of the effect it may have on those consuming hormonal pills.

“Because of pills, some transgenders have health conditions like high BP and diabetes. So we decided not to campaign for vaccination since we don’t know how the vaccines will affect them,” said Sudhakar. The TN Public Health Director has also advised the trans community to seek expert advice before taking the vaccine.

She added that members of the community are free to opt for vaccination if they want to, with only a handful having received the jab.

Seshadri said Sakkhi is also spreading awareness about immunisation. “We collect their details while providing the kits and ensure that they are vaccinated. At least 75 per cent of them are willing to get vaccinated,” he said. There have been no special vaccination drives for the community.

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