Kolkata/New Delhi: Beena* relies on sex work to supplement her paltry monthly income of Rs 7,000, which she earns from her engagement in a state government-funded project for a Kolkata-based NGO. But her income has been on the decline since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
She receives funds from her employment in instalments every six months, making it impossible for Beena to rely on them. She also picks up additional short-term projects offered by nonprofits. However, those projects do not translate into a steady income with which she can support her family of four.
A loving family and a longtime friend-turned partner supported Beena as she started her transition from a man into a trans woman. But the ripple effects of the pandemic on her transition into a trans woman are telling. For the past six months, she has been unable to afford hormone therapy and laser treatment.
"When the hormone therapy is on, we have to get tests done every three months. How can I afford all of this when I have no steady income? I am an emotional wreck now," said Beena.
"Though I share all details of my life with my parents, brother and partner, I have not been able to tell them about sex work being my secondary profession. Sometimes I feel that I am living a lie."
Recounting the violence that the trans community has been exposed to during online sex work, including non-payment from clients, threats of screen recording and making their videos viral, and the constant emotional stress of what awaits if the videos become public, Beena wonders who should be held accountable for the sorry state of affairs for the community.
"Thousands of trans persons are struggling to make ends meet due to lack of employment opportunities and are being forced to turn to sex work or online sex work. We are lagging behind today because of the government," she added.
According to the 2011 Census, around 4.8 million people identify themselves as transgender in India. Activists pointed out the data is not comprehensive, and people from the community continue to be pushed to the fringes due to a lack of livelihood opportunities.
Sahnawaz Azim, a Kolkata-based transgender activist, said though a lot of progress has been made over the years, the community has been on the fringes since the pandemic hit.
"It has taken years and years of advocacy and groundwork to reach where we have now. But till this day, violence in the domestic space, stigma, high drop-out rates from school, and poor literacy levels continue to push trans persons into traditional professions like dancing, begging and sex work. There is invisibilisation of the community when it comes to policy-making," said Azim.
Delhi-based LGBTQI activist Anjan Joshi pointed out that members of the trans community find it extremely difficult to survive in jobs that pay between Rs 10,000 - Rs 15,000.
"It is especially more difficult in the context of transgender persons because they have to opt for sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. In most cases, they are away from home as their families do not accept them, which means they have to pay rent and other bills."
"Currently, there are no specific policies for employment. There is no roadmap by the government when it comes to employing members of the transgender community. There is apathy and lack of inclusivity. A roadmap to mainstream transgender persons is not the same as giving welfare measures to a marginalised community," added Joshi.
It is difficult for trans persons to even access welfare measures, pointed out Simran Arora, consultant transgender, National Backward Classes Finance and Development Corporation (NBCFDC) under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
"Many transgender persons unable to connect with NGOs or community-based organisations do not get access to the welfare measures either. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the population. If we cannot implement the welfare measures effectively, the transgender persons will not have any safety net," said Arora.
With sex work and other traditional activities like begging coming almost to a halt during the pandemic, trans persons were battling severe emotional crises stemming from loss of livelihood opportunities. Online violence, a deep-rooted stigma that the community faces, and long periods of staying home, which is also not a safe space for many in the community, have added to their despair. Most of them rely on Facebook and WhatsApp to solicit customers.
"The pandemic was the final nail in the coffin," said Dola*, another trans woman in Kolkata.
Piu*, another trans woman in her 30s, who ekes out a living from dancing and online sex work, said she suffers frequent nervous breakdowns since the pandemic hit.
"People often do not pay after taking an online demonstration of the services. Transgender persons are always treated badly."
With many people operating their social media accounts anonymously and manifesting a certain kind of behaviour, transgender persons often get more harassed in the online space, said lawyer Karan Seth.
"There are digital harm and privacy issues that transgender persons often face."
He added there is an urgent need to create awareness at the grassroots level on the rights of transgender persons.
"There is an us vs them a culture which is pervasive."
*These names have been changed on request to protect identities.
The writer is an independent journalist.