KOLKATA: One of the most important things that a treacherous 2020 robbed from us is touch. You can't touch your own face, let alone that of others, all because a vicious virus has taken over mankind.
The city of Kolkata, like the rest of the world, went into a complete four-month-long lockdown in March, severing our ties with the outside. Initially, everyone made fancy coffee and baked a cake, but as the weeks passed, a sense of loneliness crept slowly into our lives and made its way into our hearts, refusing to leave. More so for the LGBTQ community.
*Shivam has been living alone in his 1BHK rented flat in Kolkata this entire year and apprehension doesn't allow him to bring anyone home. His best bet to find touch is by cruising for sex.
"It is difficult for me to find partners since I am a bit of an introvert. I could have used dating apps, but I feel there is a lot of scare around the virus. Cruising is a lot easier. You know people are there for the same reason. I was introduced to the concept four years back and I find it convenient," said the 28-year-old IT employee.
During his second visit to *Popular street, Shivam met *Rahul and they have been dating for two months now. Sex is a part of our lives, asserts Rahul.
"I live with seven other family members. For me, bringing someone home is impossible. The constant pretence of being a heterosexual man is tiring and lonesome," he added. Rahul, who identifies as a homosexual man, is yet to come out before his family.
Despite the Supreme Court repealing section 377 (that criminalised homosexual relationships) in 2018, the Indian society, by and large, has not been welcoming of the verdict. The anxiety of social stigma has been a barrier for Rahul to assert his sexuality openly.
Prolonged societal-discrimination deeply-rooted in patriarchy has made access to public space for the LGBTQ community a nightmare. At a time when public areas were declared a no man's land, many tried to find solace in their homes. However, for the LGBTQ community, especially in the rural areas and Tier-II, Tier-III cities, the absence of a queer-friendly space made their lives a living hell.
"I don't think anyone understands me at home. My cis male friends are still new to the concept of homosexuality. They are all hyper-masculine men. And I am tired of pretending to be one of them," Rahul said.
"I could only gather the courage to tell one of my friends, who then took me to *Paradise Cinema for cruising. I was initially taken aback but then I looked up the internet for safer options. But for eight months, I was locked at home with my family. I was among people, yet lonely," added Rahul.
Cruising has been one of the sought-after, albeit hushed, options for queer persons to find touch. However, with the world being confined within four walls, loneliness rose among the community.
"Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one's being as laughing easily or having red hair," writes Olivia Laing in The Lonely City.
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam examines the effects of isolation that leads to a decreasing desire to create social capital, a concern that has accelerated since the 1970s in the West.
Loneliness has breached the realm of social anxiety and become a medical condition. Forced isolation only aggravates it.
In the West, much has been written about the correlation between the rise in depression among LGBT youths and substance abuse. In India, societal oppression has been a cause for the rise in suicides among sexual minorities.
"Touch is one of the universal languages of love. During these troubled times, it is natural for people to seek comfort. The dating apps are easier for cis-heterosexuals. Several dating apps in India, made exclusively for the LGBT community have not been easily accessible. Moreover, a lot of people can be confused with their sexuality or not don't want to come out of the closet yet. Cruising provides a sense of anonymity," explains Jyoti Das, a Bengaluru-based psychologist.
It was this that the abrupt Covid lockdown wrenched away for many.
We are all waiting for the pandemic to get over so that we can go back to meet our people, in our safe space, away from the piercing gaze of the so-called normal people, Rahul confesses.
*Names changed to protect identity