If one had to present in a nutshell, the predicament of the LGBTQ community in India, nothing would exemplify it better than the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. This bill was enacted in an attempt to prohibit discrimination against Trans-people in spheres of healthcare, education, employment and access to public and private establishments. But in a bid to empower the community, this Bill instead laid bare the longstanding institutional oppression and dehumanisation that they have been facing since colonial times.
Proof of sex reassignment surgery was mandated for a change of gender identity in documentation; a heinous invasion of privacy that would strip them of autonomy and open doors for harassment at the hands of officials. Punishment for sexual abuse against a transperson was set at a meagre two years in comparison to the seven years that the same offence would draw had it been against a cisgender woman. Absolutely zero provisions were implemented with respect to scholarships, reservations or alterations in school curriculums to try and ensure a safer and more inclusive future for the transgender community.
Making begging illegal, unfortunately one of the primary sources of income for the Trans community in India, was another massive blow that this Act inflicted. It severed them from their livelihoods and left them with nothing in terms of alternative affirmative action for their social security. Treating the supposed beneficiary of the Act as victims rather than empowered members of society just shone brighter light on the glaring internalised transphobia and homophobia that is intertwined in the country’s mentality and machinery.
A whole community thus found itself in a “Catch 22” situation where the line between protectors and predators seemed blurred.
“The school bullies started by teasing six-year-old Shemba for walking in a feminine way, and graduated to stone-throwing when the transgender girl - initially raised as a boy - started wearing girls’ uniform, aged 10. So Shemba dropped out of school altogether and abandoned her dream of becoming a lawyer, with begging or sex work now a more likely future”.
This incident too is from 2019, a whole year after the landmark judgement in the Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union of India, 2018 which saw section 377 be abolished.
This is the existential conflict that has engulfed the Indian LGBTQ community. Despite a multitude of judgements and policy decisions having been passed in their “favour”, societal inclusion still feels like a pipe dream.
This same survey conducted by UNESCO in Tamil Nadu found that out of 400+ LGBTQ students, more than half of them skipped classes to avoid bullying and a third of them dropped out of school altogether. Threats of rape, kicking, groping, and being locked inside a room along with different forms of psychological abuse were daily deterrents to them from receiving their education.
“Legal change also doesn’t mean things will change on ground overnight”, were the words of Venkatesan Chakrapani, Chairman of the Centre for Sexuality and Health Research and Policy.
This, in a nutshell, is the root of our current predicament.
The majority of India’s population still considers heterosexuality to be “normal” while any other sexual orientation and gender identity falls outside of that sphere and is thus “abnormal” and “unnatural”. This line of thinking has harboured an “us” against “them” mentality that is inherently divisive and seclusive. The LGBTQ community is viewed through a lens of suspicion where it is surmised based on no evidence that they are uncouth members of society. There is a clear hesitancy in approaching and treating them as just another human being and dignified citizen of society.
This mindset snowballs into oppressive behaviours ranging from micro-aggressions all the way to unabashed violence against the LGBTQ community which more often than not goes unchecked. Denial of access to housing and tenancy is a common phenomenon for gay couples. Often, they have to adorn a veil of “friendship” just so that they can attain a roof over their heads. Men with effeminate mannerisms and women with masculine traits are often turned away from educational and occupational opportunities. The World Bank estimates that homophobia costs India $31 billion a year in lower educational achievement, loss of labour productivity and the added costs of providing health care to LGBT people who are poor, stressed, suicidal or HIV-positive.
This alienation seeps into every LGBTQ couple’s attempt at establishing and maintaining a family structure. Adoption, at times the only option gay couples have for raising a child, is something that is out of reach. Gay marriage is not recognised in Indian law and live-in couples are not permitted to adopt, thus, by extension, same-sex couples are left empty-handed.
Most laws and rights that fall in the domain of family law in India, including those related to adoption, surrogacy, succession, guardianship and so on, are in some way or the other tied to marriage. Therefore, until Supriya Sule’s private bill that aims to legalise gay marriage is ratified and passed by the Parliament, this massive void shall remain.
Once you dig deeper, the water just gets murkier. Far away from gay pride parades, meet-ups and heated discussions on Twitter, families in rural India have their own ways of dealing with LGBT individuals. In some parts, secret honour killings are planned so that the only way for a young gay individual to survive is to run away under the cover of the night to some city, with no money or social support. In other parts, lesbian women are subjected to family-sanctioned corrective rapes, which are often perpetrated by their own family members.
Even in urban areas, corrective therapy is rife and makes for macabre viewing for those who might contemplate coming out to their peers and family members. Gay people are forcefully admitted to “psychiatric wards” that are specifically designed to “cure” a person of homosexuality. Psychotropic drugs, physical abuse, sexual abuse and mental torture are what follow as the institution tries to break down its inmates both physically and mentally.
Coming out is a daunting task in and of itself. One faces the prospect of being judged, mislabeled, rejected and put into a box. There is a very real threat where one can lose their job, loved ones, dignity and even life. Alas, the law of the land has moved ahead but the populace has very much not kept pace. The judiciary is the only pillar of the nation which has kept up its end of the bargain, the others, have either stood still or introduced further friction.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that LGBTQ support and acceptance are not at an all-time high. Support groups, helpline numbers and overall awareness and representation is higher than it has ever been. But we cannot pretend that this utopian bubble represents the ground reality; and the ground reality is that for the LGBTQ community, India’s closet is very much still full of skeletons.