India’s Neglect of Queer Domestic Abuse, especially during the Pandemic
Pragathi Ravi and Treesa Shaju
Swarnim’s father has been meting out emotional abuse to her since she came out to him a few months ago amid the lockdown. The 23-year-old non-binary trans woman has been on the receiving end of taunts and transphobic slurs from her father because of how she chooses to express her femininity. Swarnim is on the brink of financial independence, and hence her father is dependent on her. Thus, while he does not say things to her directly, he takes it out on her mother who has been supportive of Swarnim “I was fine with him saying this to me because I could personally handle that, but I hated how he is emotionally torturing my mother” she says, voicing her guilt over her mother bearing her father’s transphobia. This has taken a massive toll on her mental health.
This is hardly an isolated incident in India. Author Ani Maitra in her book ‘Identity, Mediation and the Cunning of Capital’ uses “queer” as an action verb, denoting acts of resistance against heterosexist and capitalist norms. This holds true especially in the patriarchal societies of South Asia, where queerness of the sexual and gendered minorities is in itself an act of resistance.
An article titled ‘Resistance and Hope: LGBTQ+ Rights in the new decade’ holds modern homophobia responsible for intolerance against the community, rather than ‘rigid traditions and religion’. The author states that South Asia had no prior history of persecuting people for same-sex unions. Thus, the post-colonial homophobia has been examined as “a continuation of colonialist, apartheid and Christian discourses that work with the assumption that homosexuality has been a Western import (Epprecht 2005).”
As the region is largely patriarchal, everything and everyone who does not conform to the cis-heteronormative society is ostracized and denied normalcy. For instance, a lesbian who performs her femininity for women and not men, often draws the ire of the patriarchs as they realise they have no authority over her. They view this as a direct threat to their fragile fabric of patriarchy.
Pandemic and aggravation of abuse
The four tranches of lockdown in India disadvantaged several in its wake, by severing mobility and forcing its citizens indoors. It inflicted unprecedented hardships on the members of the LGBTQ community, who were confined with their abusers. Sharya* (name changed) who is an Assigned Female at Birth individual, identifies as non-binary. Post the imposition of the lockdown, they went back to their home and were living with their family. Sharya is also facing mental health issues, and suffers from severe anxiety. During an altercation with their parents, Sharya came out to them during the heat of the moment; and was met with severe hostility and abuse. The parents also began looking for prospective grooms, despite Sharya’s refusal.
The lockdown compelled several to leave their cities of work and come back to their home states, and the gendered and sexual minorities faced a lot of violence as a result. Koyel says they’ve been receiving calls from queers across the world on their helpline. Koyel Ghosh, the Managing Trustee of Sappho for Equality, an activist forum addressing the issues of gender and sexually marginalised people noticed an increase in calls of distress since the lockdown was imposed. She says they were receiving 20 calls a week prior to the pandemic, which then rose to 50. These calls have been from minors, those in their early twenties and thirties, she says. She also noticed a rise in intimate-partner violence among queer couples, and chalks it up to frustration due to loss of income of livelihood.
As per Koyel, a lot of members from the community were being forced into cis-heterosexual marriages by families when they went back to their homes. Native families were also locking their children up and depriving them of food. “We received calls from all over the country, and it was extremely heart-breaking to hear their stories,” she says. She says there were also instances of corrective rapes and families opting for conversion therapy. Sappho was compelled to start a Crisis Intervention Centre with temporary shelters, to accommodate those who were driven out by their families.
Vandita Morarka, the Founder and CEO of One Future Collective says they received twice as many calls as that in the pre-pandemic times on their helpline. She also feels that among community members, the pandemic also induced a feeling of isolation, because their access to support systems outside of their biological families was severed.
Indian families are inherently violent, where violence is used as a means of ‘cultural correction’ or taming conduct. Resistance or even differentiation in opinion or action is met with violent opposition from family members. Violence against the members of LGBTQ community is multi-faceted, as there is an added layer of gender and sexuality that comes into play. Violence against queer people can translate to shaming and outing without consent, says Vandita.
Vandita also reports getting increased cases of instances of economic violence, where the perpetrators withheld access to resources, education, employment, mobility, etc and the individual’s financial dependency was being exploited. While interpersonal violence as generally understood exists in queer relationships as well, there is sometimes the added danger of being outed by a partner offline or online. The calls on their helpline were from across the age demographic, even involving working professionals in their mid-twenties. “I remember a case where the father threatened a queer child that the next time they are in the midst of their online class, he will out them.” she said. There was also an instance where the parent called up their child’s manager at work, asking if they allow “all of this” in the workplace. These are also forms of extreme violence, says Vandita.
Rovan Varghese, queer-affirmed mental health counsellor states that there is always a chance of mental abuse being more than physical violence, as the former is less noticeable and forgivable. Expressions of gender and sexuality outside the heteronormative way has always drawn violence, he says. “If one’s behaviour dos not align with the sex assigned to them at birth, then the space where they choose to express themselves becomes unsafe”, says Rovan.
When asked if abusers within the queer community replicate pattens of violence seen in heteronormative marriages, Rovan said while he wouldn’t draw a direct link, it could be a contributing factor. “The perpetrators might be mirroring their own understanding of fear of social morality or cishet patriarchal spaces'' he says.
A multitude of barriers
The absence of adequate legal support for non-heteronormative couples or queers has aggravated the violence against them, by granting impunity to the perpetrators. Indian laws fail to recognise queer relationships, if the Intimate Partner or Domestic Violence Act warped in ‘man and woman wording’ is anything to go by.
Additionally, LGBTQ members from the rural communities are often left out of the queer conversations. Rovan agrees with this. He says legal and mental aid are urban-centric, and believes that awareness and advertising are very important in fostering inclusivity. “Offering therapy in regional languages is important, as it allows clients to express themselves in a way they're comfortable in” he says. While there is no clear derivation between economic situation and domestic violence among queer couples, Rovan says they face slightly more hostility if they have a rural or economically weaker background; depending on which has a lesser social acceptance.
According to Rovan, the pandemic has democratized the way therapy is meted out, and made it more accessible. “It has dissolved its walls,” he says, allowing people in remote areas to seek indiscriminate quality care. Swarnim also flags the dearth of queer-affirmed mental health practioners. “While my psychiatrist is not transphobic she is not well-informed of trans issues, causing her to slip up often,” she says.
Intersectionality cannot be denied when patterns of abuse also vary by class and caste. LGBTQ members from the marginalsied castes face the brunt of homophobia as well as caste-based violence; which are not necessarily exclusive to one another. An article in The Wire talks about how Dalit queer scholars are exposing how social identities construct the acceptance of sexualities, which lie beyond the purview of decriminalisation.
Changes in the legal sphere
Arvind Narrain, lawyer and co-author of Queer: Despised Sexuality, Law and Social Change proposes the setting up of an Anti-Discrimination Law that criminalises discrimination against sexual, gender minorities and social identities in educational institutions, healthcare settings, access to public spaces and rental accommodations. He opines that as per the Navtej Johar judgement, the state should have begun to invest in training police and government officials on the directions of the judgement. “That hasn’t happened. We haven’t been able to shift social morality to constitutional morality” he states, laying emphasis on the importance of recognising LGBTQ persons as individuals who have full access to the rights enshrined in the Constitution. Ensuring that the legal redressal available to heterosexual survivors of domestic violence is extended to queer people is the need of the hour.
Vandita says engaging with law enforcement agencies is strenuous for survivors as the former is not trauma-informed and therefore is insensitive to the latter’s needs. She also flags the government’s short-sightedness and apathy in providing state-backed support for survivors. A small example of this is that the pandemic made moving into shelter homes difficult as they required a COVID-19 test which in turn required a government ID, which is not something someone escaping an abusive home has easy access to,” she says. Most often the perpetrator was in possession of them, she adds. There were also no procedural alternatives in place for those unable to produce documents.
Alternatives to legal help
Vandita talks about how stressful it is to invoke legal action against perpetrators, especially when they are family or an intimate partner. The processes are also not survivor-centric. “The idea of justice has come to mean punitive action rather than any substantive change which does not always work in favour of the survivor’s situation” she says.
Apart from legal remedies, she says, there are several ways for queer survivors to ensure their safety. Identifying a safe space or building a community of people who know what is happening with you and are able to support you is beneficial. “When one has a safety plan in place, exiting a hostile situation becomes relatively easier” says Vandita. She also emphasizes on the need for financial independence, and for developing financial safety, secretly if needed, and if possible.
Pragathi Ravi is an independent journalist from Bengaluru,who has a keen interest in covering issues spanning across gender, social justice, urban mobility and governance.
Treesa Shaju is a 22-year-old Malayalee cis lesbian, a voice artists and a Geopolitics scholar with a prime interest in Asia.