This article attempts to look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a wave of anti-queer violence as members of the community got cut off from valuable support and group solidarity while being quarantined in abusive households. With more and more people turning to social media for any semblance of an interaction with the outer world, anti-queer violence manifested online too, state sanctioned and otherwise, in cases of police brutality and police negligence along with nationalist violence. Established structures have completely failed to address escalations in anti-queer violence during the pandemic.
The writer got in touch with a few members of the queer community in Kolkata who shared their experiences. Sabuj is a gay person studying in an elite Kolkata college. Following an online altercation with trolls who had bullied him for his sexuality, calling him a “chakka”, for instance, Sabuj was subjected to nearly a month-long marathon of queer bashing that drained him mentally. It only seemed to stop when some senior sexuality rights activists intervened in the matter.
No sooner had these trolls backtracked, a classmate of Sabuj surfaced online to again designate him a “chakka” and an “outlier package”. Vocally feminist, Sabuj protested and managed to form an allyship with some women in his class who too had been abused by the same person. But as is being witnessed with several educational institutions, neither did Sabuj’s college have a cluse about what is going on, neither did they take a strong stand against the perpetrator. Sabuj’s mental health worsened as a case and he recounted how he was contemplating suicide as a way out. That, is the extend of the impact of the anti-queer violence that many of us in the ‘mainstream’ overlook or only choose to interpret as just some harmless banter.
According to an analysis of data by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the LGBTQ+ community is more likely to be targets of hate crimes in America. Even though India decriminalised section 377 in 2018, there are no concrete policies that protect the queer community and their interests. As a result of this, the incidents of queerphobia and anti-queer violence continue to take place on and off the Internet.
The increased intensity of online anti-queer violence is demonstrated by the CarryMinati issue where the YouTuber’s queerphobic fanbase attacked queer peoplein droves online when they pointed out their idol’s transphobia. The absence of accountability online has only exacerbated the situation.
Speaking to the writer, queer rights activist Panchali Kar sums up the problem: “It is us who have shelved our agenda. However, it does not help that the fascists are mongering hatred like never before…”. Panchali’s point is made in reference to the experience of Bidu, a trans man, who recounted to the writer how he was subjected to anti-queer violence by a bunch of goons for a social media post he made.
On the night of 5 August, 2020, at Madarihat in Alipurduar, student and trans man Bidu was attacked by hooligans for making anti-BJP posts on social media. Bidu attends university in Kolkata and is among the students who have had to go back home during the pandemic. Local hooligans attacked him in his home, beat him brutally while calling him a “hijra”, derided him for not menstruating, and threatened to make him demonstrate the act of urinating. Bidu reports the existence of an ecosystem of gossip around him in his neighbourhood. Even though Bidu registered an FIR with the local police station, a place like Kolkata, where Bidu has a more entrenched support system would have been safer than his own hometown.
The failure of state mechanisms and the collapse of activist protest has pushed queers further to the margins and made them extremely dependent on NGO networks. On 20 July S*, a 23-year-old queer person was arrested by the Bidhannagar Police from Rajarhat, near Kolkata, after he complained to them about plain-clothed policemen attacking him on the road. According to news reports, he was detained overnight in Narayanpur police station where the police subjected him to physical abuse, attempted to fabricate evidence against him and even threatened to murder him. Though the matter was soon raised by an NGO, no physical protests could take place due to the pandemic conditions. Hence, the lockdown has only furthered the impunity of the so-called law enforcement officials who, like in this case, are often the perpetrators of anti-queer violence.
With the pandemic being seen as a conducive condition by state systems to orchestrate arrests of activists across India, a similar situation has transpired when it comes to their now lack of cooperation with NGOs. Members of Sappho for Equality, a Kolkata-based LBT rights organisation, shared one such experience with the writer. They received an appeal for support from a queer couple in East Midnapore’s Haldia. One partner in the couple was allegedly being held against her will and subjected to domestic violence. Sappho contacted police headquarters in Kolkata, which put them in touch with East Midnapore’s police control room, which in turn pointed them to the local police station. On reaching the local police station, the protection officer informed the representatives of Sappho for Equality that they were outsiders who had come to her locality without prior intimation during the pandemic and therefore, the police would conduct a separate investigation and not in association with Sappho.
When Sappho went to the area where the alleged anti-queer violence was taking place, locals intruded, fearing how “city-based activists” could spread COVID-19 in their comparatively unaffected locality. The pandemic was, therefore, weaponised to exhibit unwillingness to co-operate with social justice mechanisms.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a hotbed for human rights violations and queer people, who have been at the receiving end of atrocities even in a non-COVID-19 world, are definitely not an exception. Especially considering how many, with employment and educational institutions massively impacted, have had to return to households where they are in turn, subjected to domestic abuse and other forms of anti-queer violence. When “safety” is defined normatively in terms of just catching SARS-CoV-2, it, as is evident, excludes queer lived experiences of brutality and anti-queer violence. They know that the promise of safety that accompanies the idea of “home” has long been betrayed for them. And as the pandemic rages on, their physical and medical safety becomes collateral damage in a state system occupied with “waging war” against the virus.
Featured Image Source: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India