Fifty-year-old Sanjana Guru, a transgender woman and a resident of Pune, panhandles to make a living. She used to go out every day to beg at shops and would occasionally dance at weddings. In the last three years, she has had to reduce the number of times she goes out from every day to twice a week, hampered by severe pain in her hips. She has not danced at a wedding in five years.
Sanjana lives alone in a small room with minimal furniture in a Pune slum. When we met on a sunny afternoon in September last year, she walked slowly and with a limp. Her hip joints have degenerated, partly as a side-effect of the drugs she takes to manage her HIV infection.
Sanjana gets a regular income of Rs 3,000 every month for social work she does in her neighbourhood. This covers only part of her expenses—groceries, a gas cylinder and medicines. She has been putting off the hip replacement surgery she urgently needs. The surgery costs about Rs 1.75 lakh and would keep her in bed for about three months. She does not have that kind of money or time off her feet. Accessing affordable healthcare is a challenge for many trans persons, especially as their income sources dwindle with age. “I have just been depressed for the last three years thinking about this,” she said. “I need to walk and dance to earn.”
Sanjana’s birth family have not been in contact with her since she left home in Pune at the age of 23. She has had two relationships with cis-men but neither lasted. Sanjana has some trans friends in the slum who care for her but nobody close enough who could stay many nights by her side in a hospital. They are also hustling every day to earn their livelihood. As we were talking, her neighbour, an elderly woman, walked in. She asked Sanjana about her health, and they started chatting about their and others’ lives in the slum.
The pandemic made many transgender persons, especially older ones like Sanjana, even more vulnerable as curbs and lockdowns restricted their modes of income. A study published in 2021 stated that older transgender people were a “graying minority” at increased social and emotional risks, many of them facing the “dual burden” of age and gender.
I met a 55-year-old civil engineer in Hyderabad for whom growing old meant having less time to come out. She went by a male name with her family, including her wife and parents, and with the world at large. But with her trans friends whom she trusted with her gender identity as a trans woman, she adopted the name Julie Jennifer. She has given herself two more years to leave her marriage, after which she wants to spend more time with her trans friends. “I need to satisfy my womanhood for a few years at least,” Julie told me.
At home Julie hides in masculine clothes. “It is suffocating but I cannot ditch someone I have married,” Julie said. “That is the only thing holding me back so far. Otherwise I would have left a long time ago.” Julie hopes that her parents and family accept her as she is. She wants to have a relationship with her parents and spend time with them for as long as possible. While she yearns to set herself free, she wonders who will be with her as she gets older.
Julie recently bought an apartment in her wife’s name to insure her wife’s future. But she still has to figure out where to go when she moves out and later, when she is too old to live alone. She is not aware of any institutional support for older trans persons. The government’s shelter homes or Garima Greh for trans persons exclude those who beg, do sex work or are above 60 years, ruling out the most elderly and vulnerable.
Gender and sexuality researchers increasingly say that LGBTQIA+ persons experience aging somewhat differently compared to cis-heterosexual people. The lives of LGBTQIA+ people do not follow neatly charted graphs with conventional milestones of getting married, having children or becoming grandparents, said Chayanika Shah, a 64-year-old queer woman in Mumbai who studies and teaches gender and sexuality. “Our life spans are so different.”
Svati Shah, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said that this different life span impacts the support systems, responsibilities and concerns of queer people and even the age to which they get to live. “How many trans people do we know who did not even survive into their 30s because they took their lives?” asked Svati. Up to 31% of transgender persons in India die by suicide, and 50% attempt it at least once before their twentieth birthday, according to a 2016 study. The study noted that bullying, rejection by family and friends, violence, harassment by intimate partners, and social discrimination are some of the reasons, which could drive suicidal behaviour among transgender persons.
Within the LGBTQIA+ community, the experience of this life span including support systems changes based on peoples’ caste, class and gender. “What happens to those of us who chose to be single, whose disability is non-negotiable, or those whose body never got nourishment?” asked Vqueeram Aditya Sahai, a gender non-conforming writer and researcher at Ambedkar University, Delhi.
A common lament in the queer circles, Chayanika said, was that since there were so few older queer women, their lives and concerns have remained less understood and unaddressed. Most researchers I interviewed agreed that while there was a broad consensus that the LGBTQIA+ people experience old age somewhat differently, both in relation to each other and to cis-heterosexual people, society and academia lacked a deep understanding of what that actually meant.
In the absence of traditional family support systems, some older LGBTQIA+ persons rely on chosen families, which may or may not include queer people. “My queer friends are my default support instead of family members, especially when I get sick and need urgent help,” said Pawan Dhall, a 54-year-old gay man who lives with his 90-year-old mother in Kolkata. Dhall is the founding trustee of Varta Trust, a non-profit organisation promoting dialogue on gender and sexuality in Kolkata.
During the pandemic, when Dhall fell sick, he called queer friends who found hospitals, arranged beds and oxygen cylinders, and got medicines. “It was really heartening,” he said. He believes that queers are most likely to show up for older queers. “They are also more likely to understand and empathise with our problems such as loss of a partner or loneliness, and relate to our stories,” he said. That is why Dhall is currently raising resources to build community support groups in Kolkata to care for the older members.
In 2017, gay activist Ashok Row Kavi and oncologist Prasad Dandekar started a support group called Seenagers. It pairs young gay volunteers with older gay men who need help with activities like doctor’s appointments or shopping or to accompany them to do fun things like watching a movie. The group has more than 100 members.
While LGBTQIA+ persons are setting up their own support systems, Maya also wants the government to step up. “I am a taxpayer. I have contributed my services. The state should take responsibility for me,” she said. At the moment, even this reasonable demand seems to be wishful. The queer-friendly old age home that Maya is in constant search of, she said, is “an imagination, a romantic idea.”
Vijayta Lalwani (she/they) is an independent journalist who reports on the impact of politics and polarisation on life and livelihoods. Her work has appeared at several Indian news outlets. She is currently a student at King’s College London trying to decipher questions on the nature of violence and inequality in India.
Ipshita Thakur (they/them) is an artist and illustrator interested in documenting queer and trans lived experiences, fantasies and joy within their work.
Nayantara Narayanan (she/her) is an independent journalist based in Bangalore. She has worked as reporter, editor and producer for newsrooms such as The Caravan, Scroll.in and CNBC-TV18. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
Malini Nair (she/her) is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.
Ankur Paliwal (he/they) is a queer journalist, and the founder and editor of queerbeat. He writes about science, inequity and the LGBTQIA+ persons for several Indian and international media outlets.