As we gear up to celebrate Pride, we take a look at how much has really changed for the LGBT community in India, and in particular, Chennai, since homosexuality was decriminalised in 2009.
While the assumption is that the 2009 High Court ruling effectively decriminalised homosexuality in India, many do not realise that the verdict is being appealed against by no fewer than 15 groups. Since April this year, the Supreme Court began hearing petitions against the verdict. Only four groups have come forward in defence of the verdict and these include mental health professionals, academics and family members of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. Why is this important? It is important because the Supreme Court, being the highest level of judiciary in the country, has the power to overturn the 2009 ruling and declare it unconstitutional.
Here in Chennai, the Rainbow Coalition's number one plea this Pride is that the Supreme Court uphold the 2009 verdict in order to secure the rights of the LGBT community. However, lawyer Poongkhulali Balasubramanian thinks that too much emphasis is placed on the judiciary and not enough on the legislature. “If Parliament makes a constitutional amendment — yes, it may be harder to carry out — but it also means the change is more permanent”. She also thinks that the complete repeal of 377 is not feasible until more exhaustive laws which safeguard against the abuse of minors is in place. Currently, child abusers are also tried under 377.
Other than legalisation, several other issues still plague the community.
At a recent panel discussion on LGBT issues organised by the Chennai Rainbow Coalition, two incidents stood out. The first was that of Christy and Rukmani, a lesbian couple from Tondiarpet. The women had been classmates and had gotten married to men, but continued to see each other for over 10 years. When Christy's relatives found out about the relationship, they abused her and Rukmani in public. Not long after, the two women doused themselves in kerosene and set themselves on fire. In a scene straight out of the movies, police stated that the charred remains indicated the women hugged each other in their dying moments.
The second incident was that of a young lesbian couple from Chennai who sought help from Sangama, a human rights organisation specialising in the rights of sexual minorities.
Shiva Shankar, an advocate from Sangama who worked on the case, spoke of the two girls, one from Chennai and one from Vancouver, who planned to move to Canada without the knowledge of one girl's parents. When the father of the Chennai girl found out, he confiscated his daughter's passport. When contacted by the girls, Sangama stepped in to speak to the parents and even the police when they were called in by the parents. Eventually, the girl's father relented and released his daughter's passport, and the girl was able to move to Canada. While Shiva empathised with the girls' desire to be together, he emphasised that, by not informing their parents of their plans, their parents' reactions were understandable.
Counsellor Magdalene Jeyarathnam also points out that just as gay teens go through a process to accept their sexuality, their parents go through a similar process when coming to terms with their children's sexuality. They need time too.
Changing, but slow
Lawyer Poongkhulali could not emphasise the importance of coming out enough. When Sankiri, a transgender female lamented that transgenders faced problems with issues such as identity cards, Poongkhulali retorted that the bureaucracy proved a challenge for non-LGBT members as well, and that having one or two people come out and test the system would be a positive example for the rest of the community. Change is happening, albeit slowly.
For the better
While dealing with family reactions continues to be a major issue for the LGBT community, Chitra R., 27, thinks it's a positive thing. As a young lesbian from Chennai, she sometimes finds Chennai's traditional, conservative mentality stifling. When she came out to herself two years ago, she found a dearth in Chennai's lesbian community. Compared to the larger, more vibrant scene in neighbouring Bangalore, Chennai can seem pretty lonely. However, she doesn't think that the emphasis on family is overrated. She is planning to come out to her parents “in a respectful manner when the time is right”.
Despite the slow rate of change, Chitra is optimistic. She lists examples of women who quietly live together, quotes the growing numbers who join the LGBT meet-ups and waxes lyrical about the burgeoning activity online. Things are getting better she says, and that's something we can be proud of.
“LGBT members are still depicted in the media as stereotypically negative. But most of the LGBT community has taken advantage of the 2009 verdict to come out of the closet.”
Transgender Rose, currently an RJ with BIG FM
March for love
What: Chennai Rainbow March
When: Sunday, June 26
Where: Marina Beach
Why: To celebrate the right to love, regardless.
Edwina is a Bachelor in Social Science (Political Science, Sociology) from the Singapore Management University.