The (queer) year that was
From transgender political hopefuls to India’s first out and proud athlete, it’s been an eventful year for the LGBTQ+ communities since Section 377 was read down last September
If you’re a queer Indian, the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (a colonial-era law that criminalised consensual adult same sex relationships) on September 6, 2018, is a milestone you’re unlikely to forget. A big human rights win achieved on the back of decades of struggle by the community, the judgment has also effected some rapid transformations in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) landscape. Here’s what the past year has been like:
Ace sprinter Dutee Chand, 23, has had a good year — she won gold at the Indian Grand Prix V in August, a gold at the World University Games in July and, in May, she declared that she was in a same-sex relationship.
While the West has its fair share of LGBTQ+ sports icons, Chand is India’s first out sport star. Though Chand, who hails from a small Odisha village, faced backlash from family and neighbours, the LGBTQ+ community rallied around her. “I’m proud that by coming out, I have done something for those who are too scared to talk about their same sex relationships,” she said.
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019 was passed by the Lok Sabha last month after an arduous journey. It provides an anti-discrimination framework, a national council to create policies and lays down the process to obtain identity documents. It, however, does not provide reservation or employment guarantees and offers a shorter penalty for crimes against trans persons (compared to the penalty for crimes against women). If passed by the Rajya Sabha, it will be one of the few legislations in the world that protects trans persons.
While the trend began around 2013 with the Titan Fastrack advertisement, which showed two women stepping out of a pink closet, the 377 judgment last year was celebrated by a host of companies from Café Coffee Day to Durex. Since then, of course, the LGBTQ+ community finds itself regularly represented. Most recently, an ad for Ageon Life, an insurance company, showed a young girl tie a thread on the wrist of her “bro”, a transman, on Raksha Bandhan. Food aggregator app Zomato has added a feature identifying if a place is “LGBTQIA friendly”.
LGBTQ+ acceptance in the workplace has picked up pace. Bank of America Merrill Lynch extended medical insurance and emergency family care leave to include same sex partners and provided insurance cover to its transitioning employees in 2017. Mumbai-based experiential marketing firm NeoNiche offers a three-month long adoption leave irrespective of gender, marital status or sexual orientation.
The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group has begun to offer medical insurance for Gender Affirmation Surgery and covers same-sex partners of employees. It also offers paid leave for trans persons opting for the surgeries. “I have found myself, my identity, here,” said Mohul Sharma (21), Food and Beverage associate with The Lalit, New Delhi, who identifies as a transman.
LGBTQ+ characters have animated Indian cinema for decades, most notably since the ’90s. But in mainstream Bollywood, queer people have mostly been used for comic relief (Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in the 2003 hit Kal Ho Naa Ho) or as villains (Isha Koppikar in Girlfriend).
Though that started changing with movies such as Margarita With a Straw (2014), and Kapoor & Sons (2016), it was only in February that a full-blown, over-the-top film complete with songs, designer lehengas and tear-jerker dialogues came up with a lesbian love story, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga starring Sonam Kapoor. Next in line, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan with Ayushmann Khurrana, slated for a Valentine’s Day 2020 release.
Varanasi and Kolkata are separated by 700 kilometres but recently, the two cities found themselves connected by the stories of two same-sex couples who sought protection. The Calcutta high court granted police protection to two women after they faced intimidation from their families. In Varanasi, another same sex couple approached the police for protection after facing local ire for getting married in a temple. Both couples are safe.
For runaway couples, the lack of state-run shelter homes remains a big issue. Shakti Shalini, a shelter home for women survivors of violence in Delhi, now provides space to lesbian couples in distress and has also opened its doors to trans women.
For the first time, issues related to the LGBTQ+ communities made it to the manifestos of mainstream political parties like the Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in the recently held Lok Sabha elections. The Aam Aadmi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party named transgender candidates and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi picked trans activist Disha Shaikh as its spokesperson. The Congress appointed a trans woman as the national general secretary of its women’s wing, earlier this year.
Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based NGO held a programme for parents of queer persons in collaboration with Sweekar : The Rainbow Parents, a support group of parents of LGBTQ+ persons. Conducted between November 2018 and June 2019, the programme called Prabal, saw 30 parents ‘graduate’. Experts taught everything from the various gender identities to mental health, legal rights and self care.
In April 2019, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court upheld the marriage between a man and a trans woman, who approached the court after registration authorities refused to recognise the union, saying that a trans woman couldn’t be considered a bride under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. This was the first judgment in India where the right to marry under Article 21 of the Constitution was affirmed for transgender persons, noted the Bengaluru-based Centre for Law and Policy Research.
While big cities hog media focus, queer people and activists are steadily working in tier II and III cities, staging plays, spreading awareness and sensitising
Even pride marches are mushrooming in cities like Islampur in northern Bengal and Nagpur in Maharashtra.
They may not have nightclubs playing Lady Gaga but it is likely that the next generation of queer performers, artistes and trailblazers will come from these very places – remember, Dutee Chand hails from a tiny Odisha village.
“Growing up, I knew no one like myself. I lived in a small town and there were not many out community members, and all I knew about being queer was from the internet. But now ... 30-40 people are showing up for LGBTQ+ flashmob events, and our phones are inundated with messages from queer people who want to meet others. Things are changing, and small towns like ours are leading the change,” said Sidhant Kumar Behera, one of the organisers of Raipur’s first Pride to be held later this month.
Gay rights activists display a rainbow flag during an earlier Queer Pride March in Delhi. ( REUTERS )
Meet Five Of The Petitioners
Urvi, Postgraduate researcher, 22
Urvi, a trans woman who uses her chosen name instead of the birth name mentioned in the Section 377
petition, struggled through school in Andhra Pradesh, braving taunts from classmates. To ‘correct’ her, teachers would ensure that she would sit with the boys; Urvi would often be too afraid to step inside the boys’ hostel before everyone was asleep, for fear of harassment.
“After the judgment, I came out to my elder sister, who accepted me for who I am and we had a chat about my future,” said Urvi who is currently based in Germany. She said she finally senses a change in the way people think and credits the Section 377 verdict for it. “I have seen friends and relatives being welcoming towards LGBTQ+ people. The judgment boosted the confidence of many to come out of the closet.”
Sana, Activist, 28
Sana had filed a petition against 377 in 2016, along with trans women activists Akkai Padmashali and Uma. Sana says she is “filled with a lot of energy” a year after the Supreme Court read down the colonial-era law that criminalised consensual adult same sex desires.
“September 6 is the independence day for sexual minorities,” she said. Sana is no stranger to struggle. A decade ago, she dropped out of college due to discrimination and sexual harassment. In 2018, she graduated from St Joseph’s college in Bengaluru and has enrolled for a Masters in Journalism. “In the class, I am the only transgender person. Every day, there are challenges to overcome,” she said. However, her presence in the classroom itself is an extension of her activism, she said.
Gautam Yadav, Activist, 28
A Delhi-based programme officer with the Humsafar Trust, Yadav fell victim to extortion threats based on his sexual orientation in 2015.
A year after the Supreme Court verdict, in which he was a petitioner, Yadav finds that the judgment has brought about a change in the LGBTQ+ community. Earlier many people would be afraid to approach the police owing to the spectre of arrest under the British-era law. But now “people are coming out and sharing their stories of extortion and
robbery. Some are keen to go to the police,” he said.
Yadav has found that many queer couples have used the judgment to fight hostile families. On the other hand, “many families have
approached us for counselling on how to show acceptance of their gay son or lesbian daughter,” he said.
Akhilesh Godi, Engineer, 26
For Akhilesh Godi, the most visible impact of the Section 377 judgment has been in his workplace, where policies have been put in place for surrogacy and IVF and health
benefits to cover a same-sex partner. In one of his previous workplaces, the management was reluctant to expand conversations from gender to sexuality even though it was a multinational company and held diversity programmes, he said.
“The verdict has helped people become more receptive to change, but there is still a long way to go,” said Godi, one of the 20-odd students and alumna of the IITs who
petitioned the apex court last
year. “There are big gaps in sexual and gender-sexuality education in schools and colleges. Adoption
and surrogacy processes still discriminate against LGBTQ+ people,” he said.
Balachandran Ramaiah, Marketting strategist and entrepreneur, 58
A member of IIT Delhi’s 1982 batch, Ramaiah has spent close to three decades working as a strategist, entrepreneur and activist with Gay Bombay, one of India’s earliest queer support groups. In his long career, he views the Section 377 judgment as a watershed moment.
“The biggest impact of the verdict has been on the corporate sector. A large number of global and local companies across cities have taken up diversity and inclusion initiatives,” said Ramaiah.
Many companies have shown interest in recruiting LGBTQ+ candidates, and reached out to queer groups to coordinate outreach and
application, he said. He was also part of an LGBTQ+ job fair in Mumbai recently.
The battle against Section 377 - A Timeline
1994: AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan files petition against Section 377. Petition lies dormant
1998: Women’s groups hold protests when Shiv Sainiks force cinemas to stop screening Fire, a film that depicted a relationship between two women
2001: Naz Foundation India Trust files petition challenging the constitutionality of Section 377
2004: Delhi High Court dismisses the case
2006: Supreme Court directs Delhi High Court to hear the case; Voices Against 377, a coalition of rights groups intervenes; LGBTQ+ persons file affidavits
2009: Delhi High Court says Section 377 does not apply to consenting adults; astrologer Suresh Kumar Koushal, and 15 others challenge this order in SC; parents, academicians, mental health professionals intervene in favour of LGBTQ+ persons
2013: Supreme Court reinstates Section 377
2013: December 15, Global Day of Rage demonstrations organised in over 30 cities worldwide to protest reinstatement of Section 377
2014: Curative petitions listed; Supreme Court delivers National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) vs Union of India judgment recognising rights of transgender persons
2016: Curative petitions referred to Constitution Bench; two fresh petitions from LGBTQ+ persons, including Navtej Johar and Others vs Union of India, challenging Section 377, filed
2018: Navtej Johar petition assigned to Constitution Bench
April-May 2018: New petitions filed, including one by students of all Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai-based organisation Humsafar Trust and activist Arif Jafar who had been imprisoned under the section in 2001
July 2018: The Supreme Court hears the new clutch of petitions
September 6, 2018: A five-judge Constitution Bench reads down Section 377