Beyond courts and catchphrases: How LGBTQ networks help people in crisis

So far, hijra families and volunteer networks have provided shelter, care, and warmth for queer and trans people in need. But the rest of society needs to step up.
Beyond courts and catchphrases: How LGBTQ networks help people in crisis
Beyond courts and catchphrases: How LGBTQ networks help people in crisis
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Last year, Arundhati – a transgender woman from Kerala – decided to leave the unsupportive environment of her family home after many years of being shamed for being herself. Instead of allowing her this choice, her family filed an habeas corpus in the courts, claiming that the transgender community had kidnapped their ‘son’ against his will. She had already tried to talk to them about her gender identity and instead of being accepted, it resulted in her family forcefully admitting her into a mental hospital. In here, her brightly painted nails and long hair were cut off, and she was constantly injected with mysterious solutions over the next six weeks.

On returning home, she began to plot her escape again, and after four months, she finally managed to make her move. This time, her family filed a missing persons complaint. Arundhati appeared in court and pleaded her case, and she was finally granted freedom – but not before the humiliation and sham of a gender test. In achieving this victory, Arundhati credited the LGBTQ+ community around her that helped her navigate this torturous phase in her life. While most of these crisis cases that make it to the news cycle always place the LGBTQ+ person at the centre and approve or disapprove of the court’s judgement, they never take note of the various players behind the scenes that hand-hold this person through some very traumatic experiences.

Like Arundhati, scores of LGBTQ people in India face crises on an everyday basis. So who do they turn to for help and support? And are there enough safeguards in place to protect them from further violence?

“Since 2005, my personal number has been used as a helpline number,” says Rumi, and laughs out loud over a conversation with TNM at the Infantry Road offices of the Alternative Law Forum, “That year, I was working with a Bangalore-based LGBTQ rights organisation, and they had started a crisis intervention project that focussed on lesbians, bisexual women, and trans men. And soon, my cell number became the default contact for all of the crisis cases.”

“And it has pretty much stayed as such over the years,” confirms Sunil.

Rumi and Sunil are experienced LGBTQ activists. The duo has worked together for more than 15 years in crisis management and have been the first point of contact for numerous LGBTQ people from across the country. They’ve dealt with a range of cases – from lesbians escaping the pressures of marriage from their families, lesbian couples running from their heterosexual marriages in small towns, trans folks avoiding being outed, or being forced to live in their assigned genders, and so on.

In all of these years, they’ve faced the same set of hurdles, though they’ve figured out different ways of dealing with each of them.

“The trouble still remains our collectively flawed conceptualisation of the idea of protection, and the underlying notion that every female-assigned person cannot participate in addressing this idea,” Sunil says.

The challenges of crisis intervention

“Time and time again, we’ve been required to prove that the LGBTQ person is making a decision freely. We’ve been required to prove that they’re an adult. The police station in jurisdiction will demand that somebody sign an undertaking for the person,” Sunil says.

“Sometimes, they’ll add those doing the undertaking must get them married,” adds Rumi, “Most of these interactions are still motivated by morality, and keeping the traditional family unit together. And the police continue to perpetuate these expectations of female-assigned persons.”

The truth remains that police stations continues to be intimidation zones. “They aren’t human spaces. Criminal or complainant aren’t treated differently – irrespective of gender in this regard. They never seem to talk to you but rather shout down to you,” explains Sunil.

This patriarchal prickly personality of the police really determines who can access the police and therefore, the law. 

“How do marginalised people access the law and these police spaces with all this systemic violence? How do female-assigned persons receive their fundamental rights if they are seen as vessels of family honour and prestige?” asks Rumi.

“There’s a complete disregard for gender and sexuality in police stations. Instead, since we’re two trans men, we are constantly questioned about our clothing, we’re expected to dress according to their stereotypical understanding of gender,” says Rumi.

And while in all of our drawing rooms, some of us might be celebrating the liberal judgements from our courts regarding the status of sexual minorities and women, the ground realities haven’t shifted much. “We’re told that these are the times of the NALSA judgement and post-Section 377 but that hasn’t changed anything. It means, we are no longer hiding the sexuality identity of the person, or the gender status, but that’s all,” says Sunil.

“In fact, we’ve found that the system and institutions seem to be more sympathetic towards trans persons because of regressive views like ‘it isn’t their fault’, ‘not in their hands’ and such. But towards the homosexual subject, the outlook hasn’t changed, they are still seen as completely deviant, they are seen as making a choice, having perverted desires and turning against the family unit,” he adds.

Organising crisis and shelter work

Earlier this year, Rumi and Sunil – along with six others – started Raahi, an organisation that would mainly address crisis intervention work and community theatre. The organisation circulated a call for donations on various queer email lists – and a majority of the financial support, they said, would be channeled towards the setting up of an LGBTQ shelter, and mental health support systems for those in crisis.

“Though we formally started doing this kind of work between 2006 and 2010, we aren’t formally trained at all. Over these years, we’ve learned on the job. We’ve developed our own strategies of intervening with the family unit, the police station and the laws in ways that eventually benefits the LGBTQ person at the centre of the crisis,” Sunil explains.

“There’s a value to giving the name of an organisation rather than signing a document as my own name at the police station or in legal proceedings,” says Sunil.

They’ve found that coming under the umbrella of a formalised organisation has helped them negotiate and intercede from a safer space for LGBTQ persons against their family and the police.

In their years of working with different state agencies, Rumi and Sunil come to meet individuals, who might be understanding or even execute the law without a hint of morality, but the institutions by-and-large haven’t changed in their attitudes at all. “And remaining informal means sheltering these crisis cases in our own houses, which is not a good plan as it is dangerous,” their call for donation states.

And consolidating under the head of an organisation will help find money for their goals without endangering their own lives and freedoms.

Another motivation of the Raahi shelter is also the provision of round-the-clock mental health support systems. “We’ve realised that crisis cases need immediate access to counselling during these emergencies, and that remains a major gap. We aren’t discounting our own ‘peer counselling’ skills in dealing with these traumatic situations. But, we understand that this engagement requires a different kind of energy, which we aren’t always equipped to provide at these times since we are stretched too thin already,” explains Rumi, “In these urgent times, we can’t follow appointment procedures and therefore, a full-time, on-site mental health support services are the need of the hour.”

How existing institutions can help

Institution-backed shelters might seem to be the solution for LGBTQI+ activists working on the ground. In fact, it might mean that shelters for women who have experienced domestic violence and sexual abuse might need to make room for LGBTQ persons and their traumatic experiences for now.

The Chennai-based International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) has been one such organisation, which has stepped up. While they have been working mainly with cis straight women’s crisis cases for more than 19 years, over the past couple of years on the request of Orinam – a Chennai-based LGBTQ support group – they’ve begun to accommodate and advocate for queer women as well.

“In crisis cases involving LGBTQ people, even the little institutional support gained for the women’s cases is missing,” says Swetha Shankar, director of Client Services at PCVC, in a conversation over the phone with TNM, “So it falls upon us to understand that the risks are different in these cases.”

“There is no understanding of gender and sexuality and everyone still looks at it as a taboo. And keeping the family unit together is still the priority of law enforcement agencies,” she adds.

But while women’s shelters might be willing to take on LGBTQ clients, they will have to make some internal changes to equip themselves. “We also need to sensitise our own staff in order to provide a sensitive support system for the LGBTQ person,” Swetha says.

Swetha breaks down the various stakeholders who form the ecosystem around a crisis: shelter, counselling and mental health support, legal support, and law enforcement, along with the person experiencing trauma at centre, must work together for the benefit and safety of the LGBTQ person.

“There are no quick solutions,” she points out, “The protectionist attitude of institutions with regard to women and their sexuality is common. But safety doesn’t mean stopping someone from being free. We constantly introspect our processes and make sure that the person is part of every decision regarding them.”

“We sit down with them and try to understand from them the possible reactions of their families because they would know best. And we co-develop the strategies of dealing with various possibilities. We assure them of support through any circumstance that they might face in this process,” she adds.

PCVC does have certain safety protocols in place till the risk period passes, however. “Cell-phones are switched off and the person is encouraged to use the landline to make contact with anyone,” she says.

It seems that these shelters and LGBTQ activists use experience to work these crisis cases as the middlemen; they deal with the family, police and the legal system on behalf of the LGBTQ person. And while getting the person who has experienced violence out of the grip of this nexus might be the initial aim of these kinds of organisations and individuals, providing them with a sensitive support system and getting them integrated into society is the other.

“While mindful of our periodic risk management assessment, we help the person either continue their education, or access vocational training, or get them a job. Everything is tailored to provide individual-based support, so we try and locate jobs for them through our roster of potential employers. We might have to scope out new employment avenues for LGBTQ persons, or work towards sensitising these spaces,” she explains, “We understand the huge responsibility that their well-being is.”

‘What is a hijra family system if not a shelter?’

But like other minority communities in this country, the LGBTQ community has also found ways of taking care of their own in times of need. There are alternative structures of care outside of the NGO offerings – however, they run on the time and emotional labour of volunteers, who are themselves vulnerable.

Gee Imaan Semmalar – a writer and activist – points to already existing support systems that LGBTQ persons experiencing systemic violence have sought out, and sees them as providing other kinds of counsel, comfort, and care. “I know of guys (trans men) in Kerala, who act as stand-bys for other guys (trans men) who have run away from home. There is a support system within the community, even if we understand the trans male community as a recent coming together, and in many ways, it is still forming,” he says.

“There’s a LISTSERV running since 2000, so we’ve got an archive of 19 years of trans men talking to each other. There are stories – like, someone posted about another trans man being kept under house arrest; we picked it up, we found someone from that same place, got them legal representation, and got them out of that situation. At times, the group has raised money for tickets to get them out, others have offered their homes as halfway shelters, dealt with real estate agents and found them housing, diving into our networks to find them jobs. These are just some of the things this community has done for itself,” he explains.

“While NGOs and other institutions might see these situations as crisis intervention, these informal spaces allow for these interventions to be seen as simply ethics of care and giving. And I’ve seen similar modes of caring for one’s own replicated in many tightly knit communities,” he adds.

However, these extensions by the LGBTQ community aren’t completely sustainable. They might not have the similar pressures of fundraising like organisations do, but systemic and societal biases against sexual minorities means that it is difficult for individuals to constantly contribute or care.

“If I look at my own situation, I wouldn’t be able to foot someone else’s bills because it is difficult for me to foot my own, because I’m not employed myself,” Gee says, “And without access to employment, these independent, informal community networks will fall.”

“But something like the hijra community will always survive because they have their own parallel monetary system. They’ve got a way of having the money trickle down to everyone from their endeavours such as begging or sex work. They’ve got a system of fining for slights and petty crimes committed within the community, and this money feeds back into the community to sustain itself,” he explains.

“A hijra doesn’t need foreign funding to adopt a chela,” he says and laughs. “But what is a hijra family system if not a shelter – historically and right now,” he argues on a more serious note. “How do we replicate those models of care and community? How do we broaden our understanding of this idea of community? How do we account for its constantly changing nature? Will NGO-isation affect this community mode of engaging with these situations? That’s my real anxiety,” he asserts.

Gee does see situations where the NGO-isation of these community efforts does help, though. “I was recently dealing with a couple from Thiruvananthapuram, I had helped them get away from their city, housed them myself and then moved them around because the police were tracking them. In such situations, having an institutionalised space might help the already vulnerable LGBTQ person avoid dealing with the agencies of the state,” he says.

“If I was playing devil’s advocate, I would say that at these times, like going to a court and such, these institutionalised spaces might be a good thing,” he adds, “Though, we have independently linked up with more progressive legal services and created a national network that can respond to these situations too. Legal and medical resources are the most shared information within trans networks.”

“So, can it be done independently and informally. Yes, of course, it being done – but the question always remains, for how long? And here’s perhaps, the gap that institutions can plug,” he adds.

Independent networks

In an attempt to handle the volume of crisis cases with LGBTQ persons at the centre of them, “which can be overwhelming and emotionally draining for an individual,” says Gee, it might need more than independent, informal networks and institutions working together to handle the flow. It might need for both of them to learn strategies from each other to truly affect change.

“The hijra family system has been imagined and continues to work as a caregiving, warm space. But, it would be naive to imagine that it isn’t free of abuse and violence as well,” says Rumi.

Individuals within the community, might not want to always take on this burden, might not be able enough to shoulder someone else at times, and it might need for “allies” to step up as well.

“Society should be helping us do the unshackling since they are responsible for these binds in the first place,” Rumi points out. “Cis straight people aren’t as vulnerable in the sight of the police or the legal system as we are; they should step forward and offer up their homes as halfway homes for our crisis cases. They should begin to share the responsibility of taking care of these cases as well,” he says.

Sunil even calls them out to provide financial support. “We need our institutions to be funded, so that they can be run by the community, who understand the needs the most,” he says.

“The problem remains that visibility and sensitivity exists at the level of the newspapers and television channels, and hasn’t changed attitudes. And the pleasure and pain of informal spaces are that they are run on friendship and faith,” he warns.

Joshua Muyiwa is a Bangalore-based poet and writer.

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