COVID-19 pandemic takes toll on mental health of sexual minorities

People from the queer community take to social media to share experiences with depression, loneliness and stigmatisation

By Sudarshana Chakraborty
Published: Thursday 21 May 2020

People from sexual and gender minorities — who face widespread stigmatisation — are suffering from deteriorating mental health because of the nationwide lockdown to curb the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Several media reports point to suicides or attempts to commit suicide in the community. People from the community on social media have begun to share their experiences with depression and loneliness as well.

Members of the queer community usually live in isolation and are detached from their own community, a source of solace and comfort from violence, torture, abuse and teasing, said Raina Roy, a transgender activist who runs a queer cafe in Kolkata.

“How long can we talk over phone, WhatsApp and video calls? They cannot replace physical closeness and being together,” Roy said. “Post pandemic will our community exist? If yes, how?” she asked.

“I feel like a caged bird: I avoid the mirror, have become lethargic and my sleep pattern has changed,” Roy added.

It is stifling for people from the queer community to stay locked inside their homes, especially those who have to face regular stigmatisation and discrimination from their family members, factors that often take a toll on one’s mental health.

Several opt for psychiatric help that stopped since the lockdown, worsening the situation.

For Rahul Sen — a teacher at Ashoka University in Haryana’s Sonipat — this is a big challenge: “I came to Kolkata before the lockdown and am stuck here since then. One of the major problems for me is sharing space with my parents”.

“When I talk to my queer friends over phone, I have to go out to the balcony or the terrace. I have to readjust my lifestyle and ensure nobody stares at my laptop when I’m working. My only coping mechanism so far has been to go to the terrace and spend some time there: Make phone calls and walk a little,” Sen said.

Several students write to Sen on the issues of policing at home during the lockdown.

They have to tone down their gender expression and adjust with family members who have often been abusers in the past, according to Sen, who suggests activities to occupy oneself with and reaching out to others.

It was also important to not isolate oneself, said Sen.

“Lockdown or not, the queer community usually faces mental health issues due to social distancing maintained with them,” said transgender poet and activist Disha Pinky Shaikh, who lives in Maharashtra’s Nasik.

“The community is currently suffering from fear and anxiety about their livelihood. It is now absolutely necessary that we as community stick together,” Shaikh said. “There should be more counseling efforts like Tata Institute of Social Sciences is doing in Maharashtra for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex and Queer community,” she added.

Shaikh expressed concerned over ‘single’ transgender individuals, as they not just feel lonely but are also exposed to threats of being thrown out of their homes due to increased social stigmas during this pandemic.

In an incident that spread this kind of social stigma, posters in Hyderabad said transgenders can spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Violence — including ‘correctional’ rapes, attempt to forcefully arrange marriages and other physical and mental tortures — increased against the transgender community since the lockdown began, according to Ranjita Sinha, a transgender activist and former-member of the West Bengal Transgender development board. “I feel family members of queer community members should be counseled to accept their children as they are,” Sinha said.

Sneha Rooh, a palliative care physician and menstrual activist, said she was a “privileged” queer person presently locked down at a friend’s place. “Matters are challenging for trans community members. They are called by their dead name, are misgendered and can’t escape this via short meetings with friends who support them,” Rooh said.

“I did worry about having to pay the rent in Delhi while I’m in Hyderabad and the lack of hugs did take a toll on me,” Rooh added.

Transwoman and actor Suzi plays important roles in popular Bengali serials in her own gender identity. Suzi, who lives on her own in Kolkata, is now back with her family in the district and faces difficulty coping with family members at the cost of privacy.

“I am tense about my career, finance and investments. I fight hard to keep depression away and spend most of the time on social networks to remain connected with the community,” said Suzi.

“Within the family, I face pressure to maintain certain rules and norms I am not used to anymore. I try not to disrespect or avoid them,” said Suzi.

Shreosi Roy who works with Kolkata-based non-profit Sappho for Equality, complains of severe mental health issues. “Everything seems so meaningless. Post lockdown, it will be difficult for many to come out as queer because of immense insecurity and uncertainty, especially for queer women,” Roy said.

“We as queer persons should learn and have to be accustomed to stay alone. I’m practicing it, attending less online meetings. We must keep in mind the problems faced due to class, caste, gender identity by those who live outside cities,” Roy added.

“I am tense over the relief work I do for my community. They suffer from unbearable depression, with many losing interest to even talk to their loved ones,” said activist Sumi Das who lives in North Bengal.

“I encourage them to stay connected through WhatsApp groups and voice messages. Families create pressure on them to either arrange money or relief, as they are very poor,” said Das.

Sayan Bhattacharya, a PhD Candidate and fellow at the University of Minnesota, in the United States, is currently in his hometown Kolkata, because of her mother’s health for the past few months.

Sayan feels helplines for mental health support are useful, but reach smaller queer groups due to inaccessibility.

“In most cases, families don’t accept queer gender and sexual identity. Even if they do, like in my case, my mother does not talk about it at all. It shows she is not comfortable with my identity,” Bhattacharya said.

“Living with that 24x7 is definitely tough,” she added. Not being able to join community relief work makes Bhattacharya frustrated at times. To cope, she sets a day’s goal and tries not to feel guilty if it is not met.

“What will happen to those who beg, do chhallas (begging / soliciting)? What will happen to the collectives, events and spaces that are so important for the marginalised identity?” asks Bhattacharya.

The indifference from the Union government and most state governments towards the queer community over medical facilities and relief during the pandemic makes them feel more helpless. A real fear is increasing stigmatisation as a community.

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