A ‘choice’ between abject poverty & domestic violence for many LGBTQI+ persons in Kerala

There’s a dire need for mental health support, for shelters, for systems of support — and there’s a lot that the state and the society needs to do.
Community living is a solution from violence for LGBTQI+ persons. Picture by arrangement.
Community living is a solution from violence for LGBTQI+ persons. Picture by arrangement.
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Jithu has been feeling emotionally and physically unsafe in his own home for several months now. He’s been suicidal, and his cousin Aswin, has been his only solace during this difficult period. “Jithu hasn’t come out to his family about his sexual orientation yet,” Aswin tells TNM “Nevertheless, the family suspects it and has been harassing him. His brother calls him ‘onpathu’,” Aswin adds, referring to a derogatory term used for trans and queer people in Malayalam. The emotional abuse from Jithu’s family members has been a part of the 22-year-old gay man’s life, but the COVID-19 induced lockdown aggravated it, as the entire family was forced to be inside their house in Kerala’s Malappuram almost all the time. He was locked up in his room and was restricted from talking to his friends. His brother’s verbal abuse often ended in physical fights, Aswin explains.

As a non-binary person who is out to the world, Aswin (they/them) is usually Jithu’s refuge when he’s feeling down. But the lockdown choked their movement, and Jithu wasn’t able to visit Aswin when he wanted to. “He will require a lot of time to recover from the long-term consequences, the emotional trauma and the disturbance he has gone through in these two lockdowns. He is kind of ok now and we are thinking of finding him a job away from home,” they add.

This is not just Jithu’s story. A large number of LGBTQI+ persons in Kerala, who were forced to return home due to the pandemic, are facing severe domestic violence and abuse. Without access to their chosen families, and without proper systems of support, these people are facing mental health issues and are unable to deal with the violence.

How the lockdown worsened domestic violence

Since 2015, Kerala has been praised by many for its queer inclusive movements and its state transgender policy. While the LGBTQI+ community has received huge acceptance in the public sphere, home is still a place of conflict and violence for those who already experience deep systemic inequality. Family members are often the main agents of domestic violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and other people with marginalised gender and sexuality identities.

According to Queerythm, an organisation for LGBTQI+ people, a large percentage of the community members living in Kerala who returned to their families in 2020 are still living with them, suffering domestic violence, due to the intermittent lockdowns and new economic realities. In 2020, they received 60 calls on their helpline seeking support, and many others reached out to them via social media. 2021 is no different. The domestic violence has had a profound impact on the mental health of many intersectional LGBTQI+ people as most of them were already living in poverty, experiencing poor mental health, difficulties in accessing healthcare, the risk of domestic violence and homelessness, and discrimination and  unemployment.

“The number of calls is not reflective of the scale of abuse happening at homes in Kerala, as many more have been personally taking help from activists and other community members. We constantly receive messages on our personal accounts as well, for suicide prevention, emotional support, and rescue,” says Prijith PK, founder of Queerythm, “Apart from the verbal and physical abuse, the emotional pressure they face from the family is huge.”

Familial pressures, queerphobia and lack of gender awareness have led to loss of lives as well in Kerala during the lockdowns in the past two years. A 23-year-old trans woman from Pathanamthitta was beaten to death on February 25, 2021 by her 28-year-old brother, who disapproved of her gender. In the initial months of lockdown 2020, a 21-year-old student from Kanjangad, Anjana Haridas, died by suicide in Goa. A week before her demise, in a Facebook video, she had revealed that she was taken by her family to multiple de-addiction centres over three months against her will to ‘cure’ her sexual orientation after coming out as bisexual to her family.

But despite the violence, the financial and employment reality of LGBTQI+ persons has meant that they are forced to live with unaccepting or abusive family members. The increased emotional and physical violence at parental homes have triggered many to think of self-harm.

A ‘choice’ between poverty and violence

On a sunny afternoon, after five days of staying at her home in Attingal, Gowri started walking towards Thiruvananthapuram. A trans woman who performs as part of a dance troupe during festivals across Kerala and Karnataka, Gowri walked on an empty stomach in the scorching heat for nearly 34 km. She couldn't stand the verbal and physical abuse from her family any longer. “I knew I would kill myself if I stayed there further,” she says, “We had constant fights and this troubled me. My sibling were ashamed of me, and wanted me to give in writing that I wasn’t related to them if I chose to live the way I want to.”

Owing to financial difficulties which she has been facing since the Kerala floods due to the decrease in the number of festivals being celebrated, Gowri had to go back to her nine-member family that lives in a small one bedroom house  when the lockdown began. “I’m not myself at home and they keep forcing me to get married. I am very attached to my mother, but they haven’t yet accepted me as I am. Hence, I still go in front of them in my identity assigned by them. I know if I had been there for another day, I would have died,” Gowri says. “I didn’t have a plan for what to do in Thiruvananthapuram, but I survived.”

Gowri now lives in a house at Kumarapuram with the support of her trans women roommates. “I perform Devi during my dance shows and I am appreciated for it. But once I am out of the costume, my identity is a question for society,” she says.

Worldwide, nations have reported an increase in instances of domestic violence under lockdowns, with even the United Nations having called for urgent action.  The National Commission for Women received 23,722 complaints of crimes committed against women in 2020, the highest in the last six years. As the number of complaints aren’t segregated based on gender identity and sexual orientation, the figures could also include queer women and transgender persons. According to LGBTQI+ persons, family members consistently police them and silence them from their identities. Most of the time, they hesitate to reach out to government run helplines as abuse from families is not considered as domestic violence.

The need for shelter homes

Activists, gender advocates and members of LGBTQI+ groups demand solutions for the rise in the number of domestic violence at parental homes. They suggest a few methods that they have been practicing and are executed in various other parts of the country, to reduce violence against gender and sexuality minorities.

At Queerala, when they receive calls about conversion therapy, they first collect the location of the hospital and the details of attending doctors. “We have a network of queer friendly mental health professionals who help us. Through them, we inform their parents and the doctors who are treating them, that we got to know that conversion therapy is happening and there will be repercussions,” says Rajashree R, board member of Queerala. 

“Since, we do not have enough resources and finances, we cannot afford to bring people facing violence and abuse out of their homes, if things are manageable. So, we give them counselling and emotional support,” Rajashree adds. 

Aswin asserts that there is a dire need for shelter homes across Kerala not only for adults but also for minors. “When I came out legally as gender non-binary during my teens, the government had no space to shelter me,” they say, “Usually, children like me used to run away from home. After two weeks of discussions, I was moved to a shelter home in Ernakulam. I was forced to stay at home for those two weeks. This shouldn’t happen to anyone else.”

“We need shelter homes managed by queer rights organisations or run by queer sensitive people. The community living system that currently exists among trans women works to a large extent. When lesbian women or bisexual women are sheltered in shelter homes for heterosexual women, there will be internal moral clashes as many aren’t aware of these identities. So, it is very important for us to sensitise and train them beforehand,” Aswin says. 

Echoing Aswin’s views, Reshmi GP, an LGBTQI+ psychiatric counsellor, observes that safe places for those aged under 18 years are highly necessary as many people discover their gender in their early teens. “Currently, there are no safe places for these children. When they realise their sexuality, most of them are in a situation where they have to leave to places like children’s homes and are forced to live among ‘girl and boy’ children. They have huge compatibility issues there which will create more damage to their mental health,” Reshmi says.

“Also, during the counselling sessions, as we do not have many gender aware counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists, the thought that they aren’t ‘normal’ aggravates,” she says adding that more number of queer shelter homes are the need of the hour. “Apart from this, we need to give consistent gender awareness training at the grassroot level for a few years and the result will be seen in the society gradually,” she adds.

Just opening shelter homes will not solve these issues, adds Ahana Mekhal, programme coordinator of Sahayathrika, an organisation catering to lesbian/bisexual women and transgender persons of Kerala. “Taking corrective actions and sensitising family, police and mental health professionals would be a great contribution in preventing domestic violence at parental homes. I think parents should be accountable for the abuse and sent for counselling. Also, if they aren’t ready to accept the child, the children should at least be given financial support. Many find cutting off economic support would bring their children back,” she says.

Writer and activist Gargi Harithakam asserts that it is also important to make the law LGBTQI+ inclusive and recognise domestic violence based on gender and sexuality as a separate offense. “It is important to sensitise various stakeholders within the protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 about the issues faced by gender minorities at their parental homes,” she says. 

As an ideal model for LGBTIQ+ community to live a peaceful life within gender binary society, Prijith PK cites the example of a dairy farm project run by transgender persons in Thoothukudi. In 2019, Thoothukudi district administration inaugurated the first-of-its-kind integrated residential-cum-livelihood centre specially to support transgender persons at Manthithoppu. The two-acre land is a housing colony for about 85 trans persons. It comes with a dairy farm also run by them and is run by trans activist Grace Banu with the support of the District Collector. 

Community living, building a dream society

A few transgender persons in Kerala have been living as a community in Kochi which according to them gives them solace and a secure feeling. Transgender activist, actor and aspiring filmmaker Sheethal Shyam says that they recreate the idea of family that society holds onto through love and care instead of blood relations. “It is highly empowering for people belonging to gender minorities, as a majority of the members here are those who have been facing discrimination in the society and inside families, ever since they understood that they are different from the social construct. Community living becomes a support system for us and it helps us recover from trauma. I cannot imagine what I would have done when I was infected by the novel coronavirus during the lockdown if I was alone. I was already low emotionally due to a personal crisis. I survived those 30 days in isolation only because I was with Renju Renjimar and others. The same is true for many others who would have otherwise been into deep poverty and loneliness,” she says.

When LGBTIQ+ members decide to live together with like-minded people, it is very difficult for them to find rented houses sans phobia. 

Gargi and friends are now preparing to kickstart a space in Kozhikode for marginalised, disabled, vulnerable individuals and religious minorities. “The idea behind the space is the strong realisation we gained over the years that only such spaces can heal people who have been suffering in different ways. This is like a buffer zone where they can stay temporarily by creatively exploring themselves. We want a few spaces in Kerala where there is no exploitation of vulnerable communities. Our space will be informal, with zero hierarchy. There will be exchanges of thoughts and democratic handlings,” she says.

Even officials including doctors, teachers, government officials and police aren’t aware about the other genders apart from cis men and women, says Syama S Prabha, the first transgender state project officer of the Kerala government’s transgender cell, constituted as part of the Directorate of Social Justice. “As an immediate measure by the state, we need to expand the District Legal Services Authority functioning in every district in Kerala, which can work to create a society more acceptable for not only those who identify as transgender, but also those who are masculine or feminine in a more traditional sense. The government should offer services of psychologists and counsellors who are gender aware. We also need at least two police stations in each district which are LGBTQI+ friendly. These are insisted in the Transgender Act 2019, unfortunately they are yet to be implement in Kerala.” she says.

Anjana George is an independent journalist, gender advocate, film critic and theatre enthusiast from the pristine valleys of Wayanad, Kerala. She has worked in various media including The Times of India, Deccan Chronicle and Radio Sarang. Her areas of interest are culture, gender, cinema, art, civic issues and lifestyle.

This story was reported under the National Foundation of India (NFI) Fellowship for independent journalists.

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