Himani Prashad, a 21-year-old trans woman and makeup artist from New Delhi is a picture of grace. It’s hard to guess — by simply looking at her smiling, content face — the heartbreaking ordeal she had to endure only a few months back to get vaccinated. “My government ID card had my dead name,” she told VICE World News. “When I walked to the vaccination desk, they first looked at me from head to toe and said that the picture on my ID doesn’t match my appearance.”
Prashad was on estrogen-enhancement pills — mandatory before her scheduled gender reassignment surgery. Dressed in a yellow churidar, replete with ornate earrings and a light shade of lipstick, Prashad says she hasn’t felt more embarrassed than she did that day. “I don’t understand why they would get confused about something so obvious as my gender,” she said. “As trans people, we are never conflicted about who we are. The world always seems to play catch up, and at an excruciatingly slow pace.”
No one knows how bad the vaccine apartheid against India’s transgender community is, but signs point to a discouraging reality. The government recently said that it didn’t have any data on the number of vaccinated trans people above the age of 45. And, when India initially went into lockdown in 2020, the government announced that each transgender person would receive Rs 1,500 ($20) as direct transfer and ration supplies. Despite an estimated population of 4.8 million, only 5,711 transgender individuals received the bank transfer and about 1,229 received ration supplies. There are many reasons the community is being left behind. Some have to abandon their identity to even qualify for a jab and many face discrimination even when they do qualify.
In Tamil Nadu state in south India, it took a Public Interest Litigation filed in August 2021 by trans activist Grace Banu, for the Madras High Court to direct the state government to vaccinate all trans people within three months. The state government then told the court that it was planning to provide COVID-19 relief to transgender people, irrespective of their documents. In Prashad’s room, a miniature teddy bear smiles, while her makeup kit catches the sunlight. Wiping the dust off her makeup she hasn’t used in weeks, she talked about how difficult it is for a trans person to simply make up their mind to step into a vaccination centre. “My friend Kashish, also a trans woman, told me how the doctor who vaccinated her assumed she was a sex worker because she was trans,” she said. “He then asked for her mobile number and hourly rate.”
Chandani, a 68-year-old trans woman, who like many transgender Indians goes by one name, said that in her experience, the stigma came not necessarily from the doctors but the common people at the vaccination centre. “When we stood in the queue at this government school which was my area’s vaccination centre, I could see the people murmuring,” she said.
Within a few minutes, there was a unanimous chorus emanating from the crowd that trans people needed to be in a “separate queue” because they are “all sex workers infected with HIV”, she recalled. “It’s wishful thinking to hope that something as basic as a vaccination will be a smooth process,” Chandani told VICE World News. “I usually don’t let these things get to me. It was heartbreaking to see people breaking away from the queue and complaining to the staff that we needed to be vaccinated in a separate room.”Ashika Jain, a queer affirmative counselling psychologist and psychotherapist from Mumbai says that the distress and anxiety that builds up in trans people at the prospect of getting vaccinated can be quite crushing. “If the places are unwelcome, and if you have to do it twice, people will back out. The mental block is hard to scale. This is perhaps the reason why many trans people have backed out.”
Ultimately, Chandani and her trans friends had to be vaccinated in a separate vaccination drive organised exclusively for trans people by Garima Greh: Mitr Trust, an NGO which is funded and supported by the National AIDS Control Organisation and Delhi State AIDS Control Society. In the northeastern state of Assam, the transgender community had to convince the state government that they would not be accepted in the vaccination queues meant for all — a problem similar to the one Chandani faced. The Assam government finally relented and organized a separate vaccination drive for 40 transgenders in May 2021.
During the lockdown, Chandani’s income massively dwindled. A sex worker, Chandani also earns extra money by performing exorcism on people who visit her every Thursday at a nearby temple. “For people like us, taking the decision to get vaccinated is not an easy one,” Chandani said. “We fear that if we are bedridden for even two days due to the vaccine side effects, who will feed us? How will we compensate for the income lost on those two days? And when we brave everything and hope to get vaccinated, we face such superficial people.”Prashad, awaiting the date of her second dose, also expressed similar fears, while also clarifying that she doesn’t doubt the efficacy of vaccines at all. “There is a saying in our community — being trans means forever forgetting shame and fear. I’ll have to dress up in man’s clothing for the second dose too, even though I shouldn’t have to, I’ll still do it.”
The long walk to a vaccine centre, for trans people, is also something Deepika, a social activist and a sex worker who goes by one name, emphasised. When VICE World News spoke to her, she was tending to her ailing grandmother, partially paralysed for the last five years. “Every time a stranger comes to our house, she gets worried that they might harm me,” Deepika said.Deepika’s first encounter with transphobia at the vaccination center for her first dose came in the form of the doctor who kept looking at her document for almost ten minutes.
“It’s a look they all give — scanning you from head to toe as if you will steal their hearts,” she smiled. “But of course, that look is sinister and holds centuries-worth of hate.”Much like Prashad, Deepika too faced difficulties in getting herself acknowledged through the documents. Even though in her case, the pictures matched. “No matter how many times you face this, it never stops being embarrassing,” she said. “Even in hospitals, whenever they write my name, they add ‘male’ by default. How many men do you know named Deepika?” She believes that vaccines were never made for a particular gender and the implementation on the ground must also be such. “You can see how most of my time goes in tending my grandmother. The lockdown completely decimated us. Before my first dose, I would go out of my way to ask people to get vaccinated, distribute pamphlets and forward important messages. Facing these things on the ground can certainly be demoralizing.”
Anjali Rao, a 20-year-old makeup artist and therapist-in-training also went out of her way to access vaccines. “I've been on blood thinners since I was a child. My doctor told me to go ahead with it even though he warned that there would be some pain.”She preferred being interviewed at the Mitr Trust, the NGO because she is not comfortable sharing her experience at her house. “The moment I entered the vaccination center, the cop at the gate saw my ID and misgendered me. When I corrected his pronoun, he smirked and let me in. It was horrifying because, despite my doctor giving me the green light, I had horrible anxiety for weeks leading up to that day. And to be treated like this, nearly broke my spirit.”
Just like Chandani, Rao too saw the people in the queue murmuring that a trans person had dared to get vaccinated. Although, unlike Chandani’s case, they didn’t form a separate queue. “They saw me as an extraterrestrial creature. I didn’t say anything because my health mattered to me. My second dose is still pending and I hope I have enough courage to brave whatever happens then.”Considering the multilayered discrimination faced by trans people in India, individuals are now taking it upon themselves to ensure adequate vaccinations. Sia Sehgal, a 16-year-old student in Mumbai is working around the clock with the Maharashtra District AIDS Control Society (MACS), a local advocacy group, to purchase and administer vaccines for trans people.Prashad believes that she cannot let petty people and a broken, insensitive administration come in the way of her health. “I cannot afford to back down. My health is my responsibility. We can’t ask them to treat us like humans at a place where we’re all ironically queued up to protect our lives.”Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.