In July 2017, when large parts of India were in anxiety in the hope of an average monsoon, the landmark judgment by the Supreme Court (SC) decriminalising gay sex came as a surprise to vast sections of the society. The delicately phrased introduction section of the judgment speaks of the importance of identity and how it is essential as a basic filament of living in a constitution. The last few years have seen the rise of jingoism in the society as a reaction to the totalitarian setup. In this contemporary sociopolitical climate in India, how challenging is it to identify oneself as a gay or a lesbian or a bisexual? We have seen what transgender identity has done to generations of trans people across the nation.
The growing emphasis on identity
Nature gives us all an identity; the first of it being gender. In an Indian context, you have layers added to it beginning from caste, creed, sub-caste, language spoken, social class- the list is endless. For centuries we have lived within a geographic domain that reflected our identity. The pattern is still prevalent is some conservative societies. Across India, there are colonies populated by Brahmins where outsiders are not allowed, and it is the same with certain tribal sects too. With the rise of industrialisation came large scale migration and the question of identity became more pronounced. A tribal colleague in an industrial town populated with professionals is still frowned upon as an Adivasi. Minorities socialise amongst themselves and the intermingling of populations across social milieu is still an alien idea. In this pretext, a person identifying himself as a queer corresponds to self-murder.
The Ground Truth
It took more than six decades after Independence to recognise transgender people as alternate sex. The application forms may have the box that says ‘other’ juxtaposed with boxes for female and male, but in a social set up we know that equality is far from true. Five years since the landmark judgment recognising transgender people as alternate sex and the community is still fighting for employment rights even within Government organisations (The Kochi Metro and few other enterprises being an exception).
A look at some everyday challenges trans people and queer men and women face in the society:
Employment: I bumped into Selvi* (a transwoman) seeking alms in a Chennai (a metropolitan city in South India) beach one breezy summer evening in 2018. She was employed in a kindergarten school, and she helped with gatekeeping. Selvi spent the evenings on the beach coaxing people to help her with ‘donations’ and the nights looking for sex work. She confessed she had to pay an entire months’ salary for a dingy 500 square feet space on a rooftop near the slums and was left with nothing to support her other needs. She shares the space with four of her friends (all transwomen), and none of them had a fixed income. On most days they starve for a square meal.
Several big names in the corporate world like Godrej, Infosys, Intuit, RBS and Barclays have policies that aim at LGBT inclusion. Some of them encourage networking and creation of a resource group within their organisation for the benefit of members of the LGBT community. We may have come a long way in making our workplaces more inclusive, but the ground story paints a different picture, a rather bleak one.
Maha*, a techie employed in India’s leading IT Services company knows whispers and giggles follow her all the way from her cafeteria to her work station. She has no choice but to make a living facing humiliation every single day as she had been outspoken on her sexual preference. Felicia* had made stories of a tormentous marriage and narrow escape from sexual abuse to dodge questions on her relationship status. She confesses that she forgets the lies she is forced to say, but does not see a way out of it as coming out of the closet would mean surviving a calamitous environment.
A 2018 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) highlights that 92% of trans people in India are not able to participate in economic activities. The same survey has some shocking revelations- less than half of the transgender population has access to higher education and a large percentage (62%) of those who do face abuse in their institutions. The same survey projects 32 billion US dollars as the loss in GDP India has to pay for homophobia and transphobia that is rooted deep.
Housing: Just like employment people under the LGBT umbrella face bias with housing. In urban spaces, where landlords hesitate to rent houses to unmarried couples, finding a decent space as a queer is a nightmare. Mohan, employed in an IT company in Bangalore, the technological hub of India recounts the hardships faced by some of his friends at their queer club. He agrees that queer men with no traits of feminism find accommodation easily, but those who exhibit feministic traits seldom find a decent place to stay. If they do, these men are constantly being watched. Mohan also says queer men do not have the freedom within the rented spaces. They have to almost whisper on calls and cannot have their friends over like everyone else. A small hint of suspicion can tamper their chances of finding accommodation ever again.
Organisations like GHAR (Gay Housing Assistance Resource) help members of the LGBT community find suitable accommodation in urban spaces. They even help to connect members with similar housing needs in a city or locality. A report published by the organisation in 2014 shows that there was a 30% increase in terms of enlisted members since its conception in 1998. In cities where there is no support to the members by NGOs or organisations, queer people settle for ill-kempt places for high prices.
A Reality Check
‘People employed in the corporate sector do not face backlashes as much as we do,’ explains Naresh* who works as a nurse in a Government run hospital in a large city. He recounts the hardships that he has faced since his graduation days and summarises, ‘I am always the oddball; the one required to pitch in only when all options fail. My feministic traits have garnered much fuss over the years’ He agrees that the conservative crowd that visit the State run institutions are always impolite and insensitive. He has learnt to deal with the profanity that is aimed at him at times. ‘Do I have a choice?’ he replies. He says there are tough moments every day, but the one incident that affected him the most happened at the delivery ward of the hospital. ‘This young woman was having a premature delivery’, he recounts. ‘Her relatives were around and we were really short of staff on that day. In between her contractions the woman told the attending doctor that she did not want me in the room. Her relatives gathered outside were already creating a buzz over this. They said I was a really bad omen especially at the critical hour of a complicated delivery.’
Ramya* is a stay-at-home designer who freelances. She stays with her parents in a gated community and conducts art and crafts classes for children living in the multi storeyed residence. She says without her parent’s knowledge the word (her sexual orientation) spread within her apartment building. ‘Overnight there was a huge drop in the number of students who attended my classes,’ she says. ‘A bunch of 6 to 7 year olds told me discreetly that they were asked to stay away from me. They were also told that my behavior is bad- that’s the word they used- bad.’
If urban spaces bring in extreme hardships to the members of the LGBT community, rural pockets are a whole different horror story. From planning secret honour killings to rapes sanctioned by members of the family, the journey is filled with fear. In a village, those who do not conform to the notions of the majority are ill-treated and even murdered. There are several stories of youth who are displaced in big cities penniless because of their sexual orientation.
What is the perception of the public when it comes to a same-sex relationship? The judgment has played a major role in altering the mindset of the conservative. Here is a quick look at what data shows. As per the statistics of a global survey project, the World Value Survey, dated 2014, 30% of Indian respondents backed homosexuality. In a more recent survey, dated 2018 conducted by Azim Premji University along with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, 28%% of those surveyed found nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, but a majority of about 46% were not open to the idea. A small percentage had no opinion.
Charles Taylor, the neo-age philosopher from Canada, says that individual evaluations are based on the perception of an institution at large. We distinguish right and wrong not by our own instincts but by the unsaid evaluation guidelines laid by the institutions. There are certain boundaries set to our freedom of expression. By trying to define our identity in terms of religion, sect, sexual orientation, we have abandoned our unified intellectual autonomy. It is still not too late to bring about a difference. If institutions that govern us and we as citizens can do our bit to erase the prevalence of homophobia amongst masses by means of awareness, we can expect a change in tide.
Behind the smiles in every Pride march, there are hidden tales of survival and unsaid agony and hardships. Only the creation of an egalitarian society can remove the tangles one by one. The SC Judgment in 2018 has set the ball rolling. The fight for LGBT rights in India has only begun.
*- name changed
Author’ Bio: A content editor by profession, Monisha finds solace in words. A borderline compulsive reader, she has been published by Womens Web and Juggernaut (writing platform). Despite being a graduate in Science, she pursued her love for written word. She blogs at behindthewoodendoor.wordpress.com
She is passionate about travelling and considers coffee the elixir of life.
http://www.lokniti.org/pol-pdf/KeyFindingsoftheReport.pdf http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/wvs.jsp http://www.lokniti.org/pol-pdf/KeyfindingsfromtheYouthStudy.pdf https://www.unfe.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/UN-Standards-of-Conduct.pdf