The Radio Active COVID-19 Special Series – Queer Lives in Times of Lockdown

As part of the Radio Active COVID-19 Special Series focused on the community outfall of the pandemic as well as the national lockdown announced in response to it, Bengaluru-based Curator and Art Historian, Sumitra Sunder authors a guest piece on the effects social distancing can have on queer persons.

It has been more than a month since we all have been told to stay indoors for our own benefit. People have also gone back to staying with parents. Colleges and Schools are sending students back home and going online. While it makes sense to live with family for the convenience of having shelter and perhaps more than one person to cook for you or cook for your elderly families, what has this meant for queer individuals who came out of the closet and had to leave their natal families?

Mental health is a subject that is increasingly spoken of today and the intersections between queerness and mental health cannot be ignored. Now I come from a space and background of privilege and can safely say that I have the agency to avoid the trauma of going back into the closet. This said there are the very real concerns of not having a physical sense of community nearby or the ability to go over to chosen family when times get rough. I personally have heard this: Why do you need to reach out to friends when you have us. Which may sound very kind but often reeks of trauma. When you have been in the closet for a while it is not just about having people whom you can trust, it’s about having the space to feel safe or even needed/loved.

But this is not true for many from the queer community. Going back to the point of coming out and living alone. While space is something that a lot of queer individuals need to survive, the current scenario prevents physical contact. It also automatically disallows the usual community gatherings and those without access to working internet cannot even take advantage of video calls and such. Worst cases are for those who are trapped at home after coming out with their toxic families. It isn’t just about overt homophobia, but physical abuse meted out to those who cannot conform.

What can most easily occur in situations where queer people have to live with their non-accepting natal families is gaslighting. From assigning motives for actions that are quite the opposite of intent to insisting an incident did not happen the way the queer individual remembers it, this is the most systemic way of abusing and retaining control over an individual. It is also not very different from domestic abuse in the context of making people feel ashamed.

Those who have mental health conditions that are in need of treatment could be living with families that don’t support medical treatment or believe that these conditions are real. It becomes a double bind in these cases where individuals not only are cut off from their chosen families but also from ways of treating their mental health. There is a real danger to these individuals and it is more important for those who are able to look out and help. In times prior to the pandemic, there were enough cases of trans and non binary individuals facing violence from their natal families. Now with the lockdown in place, it will be increasingly difficult for the same people to find support.

Queer individuals, especially those who are cis presenting and appear to conform can easily be forgotten in the statistics of those affected by the pandemic. Oppression here is not run of the mill marginalisation. Personal humiliation and having to continue living in abusive environments can and will have very serious repercussions on mental health. There is this matter of the lockdown being indefinitely extended and many experts are speaking of the long term effects of this. There is the unsurety of whether things can go back to ‘normal’ or when things can allow people to leave their homes. For those living alone, this means more uncertainty when it comes to reaching out to community for help. Access to the Internet which allows technology to help people connect also are not replacement for physical connections.

There is also the matter of people who earn their living on the streets, whether it is sex work or begging. Trans individuals who ply these trades cannot take their work online. Most of them are strapped of income and are also forced to stay indoors. There is then the matter of access to medication. Those who are transitioning and taking medication to treat HIV are unable to access their supplies. The layered way in which social isolation and lockdown affects queer individuals is a very serious concern. This needs to become a priority for mental health practitioners as well as medical and social work professionals. Having new and necessary helplines, equipped shelters and free and accessible medical services is the need of the hour. Young people who are still in college or have no real means of becoming independent should be able to reach out to spaces that can support them. Relief care that the State manages also needs to take into consideration the queer community as we are no longer minuscule.

Sumitra Sunder

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