The Covid-19 pandemic is raging, and as an anthropologist who is also a transgender woman, I have been frequently reflecting on the situation in which we trans people are currently finding ourselves. Whereas the pandemic is affecting us all, trans and cis, queer and straight, the transgender community is being hit especially hard.
Lockdown in South Africa and elsewhere has meant that queer meeting places such as bars and cafés have had to close their doors. The ban on social gatherings has put a stop to queer events and social gatherings. LGBTQ+ rights and support organisations have had to move their meetings online.
As universities have closed their doors, students all over the world have been sent home, supposedly, to their families to complete the term through online studies. This poses problems and potential risks for those trans people who are now forced to move back in with less accepting families or into less accepting communities.
Trans people, especially trans women of colour, are at high risk of harassment, violence and homicide. Covid-19 has provided little relief.
Several trans women have already been murdered during the pandemic. In early April, a woman was doused with petrol and burned alive in Indonesia. Between end of February and end of April, three women were murdered in Puerto Rico, one of whom was homeless and whose murder was recorded on video. The perpetrators in the Indonesian case were not charged with murder. This illustrates the lack of protection that trans people experience in many parts of the world, and shows why the loss of physical safe spaces is such a serious concern.
Safe spaces are spaces where people can feel protected from physical and verbal attacks, and where they can openly discuss topics related to their identity without having to fear reprisals. Those spaces are rarely if ever perfect. The University of Cape Town (where I carry out my doctoral studies) has been criticised for a lack of sensitivity to transgender needs and rights.
Yet, for many trans people these may be the only spaces to live in relative safety in an otherwise hostile social environment. We need to do all we can to contain Covid-19, but it is important that we do not lose sight of the serious safety issues faced by trans people across the world – which might in fact be made worse by coronavirus restrictions.
We should also be watchful that governments do not embark on discriminating policies against the transgender community under cover provided by the fact that most of the public attention is focused on Covid-19. Hungary’s far right government led by Viktor Orbán has done just that, and passed legislation to end the legal recognition of trans people in the middle of the state of emergency.
Another major problem that trans people are currently facing concerns medical transitioning. For many, medical transitioning is a vital step in the process of moving towards life as one’s own true self and to combat gender dysphoria, the stress experienced because of the discrepancy between the assigned gender and the experienced one.
Because of the pandemic, a lot of trans people have had to put their lives on hold in a very real sense. And just like Covid-19, gender dysphoria kills, as it leads many to suicide. Under lockdown, trans people all over the world have been having consultations and procedures postponed, some of them indefinitely. This has been the case in South Africa, where I live, as well as my home country Norway.
The postponements were a big talking point in transgender groups on social media for a while. Everyone I saw comment on the issue accepted it without fuss, understanding that they were helping free up hospital beds for Covid-19 patients and thus, in the end, helping save lives. In the South African public healthcare system, hormone replacement therapy too has been put on hold.
As a scholar, I am also concerned about the impact that the pandemic may have on the participation of trans people – and of other minorities and marginalised groups – in academic life. Research output, research quality, and the flow of ideas through open and honest intellectual debate suffer in the current atmosphere, which for many LGBTQ+ scholars is characterised by precarity, uncertainty, and feelings of grief and anger.
Many of the issues currently facing transgender people and other LGBTQ+ communities are not new. We are a resilient bunch: we have always existed, and we will continue to be around for as long as human society will. Seeing the world from a queer and trans perspective makes me adopt a cyclical rather than a linear view of history, but also a view of history in which humans have the agency to influence the course of events and to effect positive change.
Our plight should not be understood in isolation. The current pandemic has exposed deep flaws and dangerous inequalities in social and political systems across the world, affecting many different communities.
In South Africa, the legacies of colonialism and apartheid have left large sections of the population disproportionately vulnerable to the spread of the virus, while simultaneously ensuring that high-quality healthcare remains a privilege for the moneyed few.
Changing this is a complicated matter, but coming from Norway, a country with a strong welfare state, I am convinced that all countries around the world need a universal, government-funded welfare system that fosters resilience by ensuring decent healthcare and living conditions for everyone.
Covid-19 is a serious threat to humanity, but even more so it is a threat to people who, in one way or another, are living on the margins. No matter what happens, we must not allow this pandemic to stifle the voices of people outside the mainstream.
Miriam Aurora Hammeren Pedersen is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Cape Town, working on identity and belonging among white English-speaking South Africans. Miriam is a proud trans woman and trans activist, and she writes monthly pieces for the Norwegian feminist blog Maddam.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.