Ray is a transwoman in her twenties who studies law at the Faculty of Law in the University of Delhi. She used to live in her college’s hostel, but had to move in with her parents in another part of Delhi when the lockdown to contain COVID-19 was imposed across the country. Although she told her parents that she is a transwoman almost a year earlier, Ray said, this did not translate into her having space to assert her identity. Since she moved back home, she has been feeling repressed, Ray told me. “It has put a lock on all activities that distracted me,” she said.
Ray is among several queer and trans persons in India’s cities whom the lockdown has forced back into environments where they are repressed and emotionally captive. Pooja Nair, a faculty member of Queer Affirmative Counseling Practice—a certificate course run by the Mariwala Health Initiative, a rights-based funding agency—told me that it can be harrowing for people in the queer community to live with their families. “The relationship between queer communities and their families is never a simple one, it’s not rosy at all,” she said. “How does your sense of self develop when everyone denies it? How will you experience your own self when everything around you is denying your existence, your identity?”
Like others, Ray told me that the lockdown was tough as her friends were a crucial part of her support system. Before the lockdown began, Ray said, meeting her friends, especially queer and trans friends, was her source of happiness. “It was my only way to survive and push through a week,” she said. On her university campus, she was free to express herself the way she wished to. She passionately discussed trans rights in her college and could wear saris publicly—she even carried one in her bag on most days.
But now she has little freedom to be herself. She has to spend more time with her parents, who are not accepting and supportive. She told me that her family had refused to fully accept her identity. “I am at a stage where an awkward silence has set in, almost a year after opening up about my identity. It’s almost like nothing happened,” she said. “I don’t have space to even video call or phone call some friends because every word, every action can hurt parents, put me through fights,” Ray said.
For Vaishnavi Shah, a 26-year-old pansexual woman, living at home meant being “mostly anxious, stressed, easily intimidated.” Shah works as a yoga trainer in Haryana’s Gurgaon district and had to move in with her family in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district due to the lockdown. Shah told me that hers is a middle-class family which disregards her sexuality altogether. “For my parents, the idea of dating itself is wild, dating a woman would make my parents lose their shit,” she said. “For them, either it’s some sort of disease or just a phase. … I have to lie about everything. It is like I live a double identity.”
A 21-year-old queer woman, who requested anonymity, told me that living with her parents during the lockdown was impacting her mental health. She studies literature at the University of Delhi and lives with her parents in the national capital itself. Living with an emotionally abusive person is tough, “because every aspect of you is criticised,” she said. “It places a lot of questions on your self worth.” Her family even makes homophobic remarks, but she said she is choosing to not engage with them for now. “It does affect my mental health because right now I am in an environment that doesn’t necessarily validate my being.” She added that she felt “invalid and forced to change myself just to be safe.”
A 29-year-old transman who works in the information-technology sector in Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai has also adopted a similar strategy. The IT professional, who requested to anonymity, uses the pronouns their, them or they. Their parents refuse to accept that they are not a woman and keep urging them to get married to a man. The IT professional was looking for a flat to move out of their parents’ home when the country was put under a lockdown. Their sister, a 20-year-old who studies economics, and friends advised them to try to be compliant at home as they do not have an option to move out presently.
The IT professional is trying to follow this advice. “If parents talk about marriage proposals I’m zoning out and listening,” they told me. “Which boy will come to see me now? If anyone steps out, the police will anyway hit so badly with sticks,” they said, laughing. They video-conference with their queer friends to feel better. “It’s like a mantra for me: cut off phones, pretend to be straight. Pretend to be straight,” the IT professional said. But doing this was very difficult for them. “It feels like I’m giving in or being subservient to my parents,” they added.
Everyone I spoke to said that having the agency to choose what to wear is important to assert their identity. Before the lockdown, the IT professional could wear clothes of their own choice when they were at home alone and when they stepped out. This was because both their parents are working. Now, they have to wear their sister’s clothes to present as a woman, which made them feel “dysphoric,” they said. The IT professional said it was as if “I was back to the days when I felt like my body is all wrong.” They told me, “When you are forced to wear something that doesn’t exactly feel like yourself, then you’re trapped in both the clothes and that body and asked not to leave. It feels like a direct attack on your sense of identity.” They added, “Why should I have to conform to their ideals of who I am?”
Rishi, a 19-year-old queer activist, is facing similar struggles. He is studying architecture from Amity University in Uttar Pradesh’s Noida. “Putting on make-up is my way of asserting my identity and it is very important to me,” Rishi said. Before the lockdown, Rishi told me, he used routinely wear saris and kurtis to college. “I have started putting makeup at night in secrecy so I do not plunge into depression,” he said. “I try to keep my calm and wait for the night to come so I can be myself when everyone has slept.” Sometime during the lockdown, Rishi’s parents confronted him about having makeup and sarees, which made him feel alienated, he said.
Further, he said, it is also difficult for him to work as an activist at home. He said if someone calls and says they need his help, “I’m not able to because I feel like parents are gonna think I’m up to something and ask questions.” Rishi said he feels like “I’m doing something illegal and need to stop, feeling like they’ll catch me or something.”
He told me he began taking medication for anxiety last year and eventually stopped. But the lockdown has impacted his mental health. “I feel so restricted,” he said. “I am back on pills and my mental health is deteriorating.”