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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

Dhamini Ratnam & Dhrubo Jyoti               

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: Out sports icon

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.

Soon, a law for transgender persons

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.

Activism sells

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”.

Corporates step up

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.

Bollywood doesn’t find it funny anymore

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.

A case for shelter

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.

A nod from political parties

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.

Sending dad to school

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.

Court upholds trans person’s marriage

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.

Small town swag

Queer people and activists are also steadily working in tier II and III cities, staging plays, spreading awareness and sensitising authorities. Even pride marches are mushrooming in cities like Islampur in northern Bengal and Nagpur in Maharashtra. “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. (HT Media)

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