COVID-19 & The Trans Community In India : A Conversation With Grace Banu

COVID-19 & The Trans Community : 
Grace Banu holding a mic and speaking. Illustrations on tiny trees with envelops on them is at the bottom of the image. Text on the image reads, "COVID-19 & The Trans Community In India : A Conversation With Grace Banu." "Suman Saurav in Conversation with Grace Banu, India"

“Queer liberation is not possible without the liberation of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi (oppressed caste communities in India) communities. It is not possible without liberation of the trans community,” Grace Banu’s voice is filled with rage, resilience, and empathy, all at once.

Grace Banu is a Dalit trans rights activist and writer from India. “I am the first trans person engineer from the state of Tamil Nadu,” she proudly states, with a smile on her face. She is also the Founder-Director of the Trans Rights Now Collective. “We are working with the trans and queer community across India. The people who want to continue their education and employment, we try to guide them through training. We also have a judicial advocacy program through which we are educating policy makers and civil societies.” The collective prioritizes working with and for Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi trans and queer persons, as “they are the most oppressed people from the community. They are facing a lot of discrimination and our community does not have the privilege to voice their anger and disappointment against this discrimination at mainstream platforms. We are creating a safe space to connect them to these mainstream spaces,” Grace says.

According to the 2011 census, India is home to more than 4,90,000 transgender people. This is only the reported number. Transgender activists estimate this number to be 6 to 7 times higher. It’s been ten years since this data was collected, and seven years since the Supreme Court legally recognised and upheld the fundamental rights of trans persons in India. Yet, the community is fighting every single day for their basic rights, and this fight has only exacerbated since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic – especially for those who find themselves at the intersection of gender and caste. “Being a Dalit, Bahujan, or Adivasi trans person, everything is going to be a fight. We don’t have a peaceful life. We are fighting for it. We are fighting for peace, safety, and security,” Grace says.

Why is it important to keep the intersection of gender and caste at the core of our advocacy while advocating for the rights of queer and trans community in India?

The question arises: Why is it important to keep the intersection of gender and caste at the core of our advocacy while advocating for the rights of queer and trans community in India?

Caste-based atrocities and violence are steadily increasing in India. According to the 2020 report titled, ‘Quest for Justice’, by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) – National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, crimes against Dalits have increased by 6% between 2009 to 2018. Every 15 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit person; every day, six Dalit women are raped; and every year 56,000 children living in urban slums die of malnutrition. The Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities have been historically, culturally, religiously, politically, socially, and economically marginalized for hundreds of years now. When religious marginalization of caste identities finds its harbour in social marginalization and discrimination of transgender identities, the discrimination, violence, and atrocity that stems out of it increases multifold.

While queer and transgender people across the globe have been hit disproportionately by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been particularly devastating for transgender people from the Dalit and other oppressed caste communities, who face the double brunt of Brahminical patriarchy (caste-based patriarchy, which speaks of patriarchal marginalisation of women and oppressed caste persons) and transphobia.

The solidarity that we have seen for Black Lives Matter across the globe, I want to see the same solidarity against caste based violence and atrocities.

Despite millions of people being affected by caste and gender based atrocity and violence, the conversation around this intersection rarely finds voice in global spaces. “In India, and across the globe, people don’t want to know about the issue of caste. All the international platforms are completely occupied by savarna (dominant caste) people – be it the feminist movement, trans movement, queer movement, LGBTQIA+ movement, or any other oppressed community movement,” Grace continues, “The US is dealing with the issue of white supremacy. Similarly, in India, we are dealing with Brahminical or caste supremacy. This is why being a Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi trans person, we have to fight not just this patriarchal society, but also within our own communities – we have to fight within the queer movement, we have to fight with civil societies, and we have to fight within the feminist movement. Adding to this, we are also having to fight fascism.” “The solidarity that we have seen for Black Lives Matter across the globe, I want to see the same solidarity against caste based violence and atrocities. But unfortunately, when cases of caste-based atrocities happen, all the other major movements prefer keeping their silence,” says Grace.

Talking about the challenges that the community has faced since the inception of the pandemic, Grace says, “Pre-pandemic, across the country, most of the trans community people were doing begging and sex work for a living. Trans people in rural areas, majority of whom are Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi, were working as folk artists. Post pandemic, our source of livelihood is completely gone. People who were working as folk artists, they don’t have the opportunity to perform because of the lockdown and social distancing mandates.” Social distancing – a “norm”, which in India, only the privileged had the opportunity to access or follow. For a large chunk of its population, social distancing in terms of COVID-19 is a foreign concept; a ghost, which they have only heard about. Never seen. Never felt. Never experienced. “In a single house, a group of 10-15 people are staying together. We don’t have the privilege of maintaining social distance.”

In a single house, a group of 10-15 people are staying together. We don’t have the privilege of maintaining social distance.

The one thing that was true pre as well as post pandemic is this – one’s access to resources are dictated by their social identity and location. Even those resources which have the potential to save one’s life. If anything, the pandemic has made this truth even more concrete. “When COVID-19 affects us, we don’t even have access to healthcare. People who have other serious health complications – diabetes, need of dialysis, and especially HIV infected trans persons, they don’t have the means to go and get their ART medications…An HIV infected trans person from Mumbai, who did not have a access to proper food and medicines, died by suicide last year”. Due to one’s social location, even the option of protecting oneself from everyday violence becomes inaccessible. The Pandemic has confined people within their own homes, and for many, these very homes are breeding grounds of violence. Explaining why it’s difficult for trans people to move away, Grace says, “Many trans people are seeking rental homes, however, are unable to find one. Upper caste cisgender-heterosexual people have the advange to finding a house they want and within their budget. But that’s not the case for us.” In India, it is illegal for the owner of a house to indulge in discriminatory practices on the basis of caste, gender, religion, etc, while renting a property. However, one can often find boards hung outside these houses reading, “only for vegetarians” – a discreet way of stating that oppressed caste people will not be given tenancy. “People are not ready to rent their houses to us, and even if they do, the house which costs upper caste cisgender-heterosexual people Rs. 5000, will cost us Rs. 10,000.”

The struggle around accessing life saving resources and its equitable distribution also extends to the access to COVID-19 vaccines. Explaining this lack of access, Grace states, “Healthcare for trans people is extremely limited in India. There is no dedicated healthcare wing, or specialization focusing on trans bodies or trans healthcare. The government took no steps to explain to us how the vaccine works or reacts on trans bodies. It has taken no steps to ease our doubts or give us clarification about how the vaccine is going to affect trans bodies, which have been through long term medical procedures – like gender affirming surgeries, or hormone therapy. The community is fearful of taking the vaccination due to lack of conversation and information on the issue,” she continues, “I have filed a PIL in Madras High Court asking for clarification and a separate awareness drive for the community. They haven’t done any awareness camp till now, which is one of the major reasons as to why in India, very few trans people have gotten vaccinated.”

The one thing that was true pre as well as post pandemic is this – one’s access to resources are dictated by their social identity and location. Even those resources which have the potential to save one’s life.

Talking about the government’s response to the multifold struggles of the transgender community, Grace says, “The Tamil Nadu government did extend some support by providing the community Rs. 1000 and ration kits. The Central government provided Rs. 1500 to 7000 trans people. But in India, more than 4 lakh trans persons are there. This amount is nothing. The government too left us to fend for ourselves,” she continues, “under the state (Tamil Nadu) relief initiative for trans people, the government was extending Rs. 2000 to trans people who possessed proper ID cards. The problem is, for the last one and half year, the process of issuance of these ID cards has been on hold because of the pandemic. I filed a PIL in the Madras High Court, demanding trans people who do not possess this ID card to be also recognised as beneficiary under this initiative, and we won!”

Grace has many such milestone feathers on her hat. Finding peace and joy amidst all the chaos the world is throwing at us is extremely important to continue to have the strength to keep the fight going. When asked about what brings her this joy, Grace mentions the Manthithoppu Transgenders Milk Cooperative Society – Sandeep Nagar. Sandeep Nagar, Kovilapatti in Tamil Nadu, India, is home to more than 85 trans people. “They lacked access to basic resources, including access to basic identification documents,” Grace says. They approached the District Collector of the area, who helped them acquire proper documentation. “30 trans people got individual houses, lands, and cattles, and we planned to create the Manthithoppu Transgenders Milk Cooperative Society.” The society was a dream 8 years in the making. “Now we earn our livelihood by selling cow milk. Those 85+ trans people are entrepreneurs, they own their lands, they have rights, and they are living a dignified life. Some of them are preparing for entrance examinations for government jobs. Some of them have already appeared for these examinations. They are encouraging each other.” she says with immense joy!

“People who leave their houses – we will always welcome them, and they will always have a home with us.”

Talking about her dreams for Sandeep Nagar, Grace says, “We received 2 and a half acres of land from the Collectorate, out of which, we have only used 1 acre till now. On the rest of the land we are planning to construct a multi-talent development center – an institution for trans people to reside while preparing for entrance examinations of various government institutions, and to also undertake skill development courses, like tailoring. This is our goal.”

She closes the conversation with hope, and a sense of community by saying, “People who leave their houses – we will always welcome them, and they will always have a home with us.”

BY SUMAN SAURAV