It drizzled throughout the day, bringing down June temperatures and promising a pleasant night for the first time in an extremely hot month in New Delhi. People arrived in ones and twos, in cycle rickshaws and taxis and climbed the stairs to a third floor apartment in old Delhi. Lights were dim in the living room and the atmosphere congenial. Gradually the dance floor filled up with cismen in long skirts and flowing hair, women with tattooed chests, transitioning bodies with stubbled chins and all the in-betweens in flowing dresses and sarees. A violin quivered from somewhere in the shadows, accompanied by the earthy beats of a djembe. The shimmies of a hip belt added to the magic of an evening which was quickly turning humid. But no one cared.
It was a night of freedom and forgetting for the non-normative crowd gathered there. Some were queer and identified with a category on the LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, etc) spectrum, others were allies. Some just wanted to get away from the binding demands of a long day and disappear into the crowd where one was free to imagine alternate realities.
In the introduction to their book Queer Nightlife (2021), Kemi Adeyemi, Kareem Khubchandani, and Ramon H. Rivera-Servera write that the night offers an alternative set of rules for the LGBTQIA+ community, whose desires, pleasures, bodies, and existences are invalidated in the propriety of daytime.
They caution: “But for all of the ways that queer nightlife spaces can provide refuge and play, they can also be sites of alienation that are circumscribed by normative modes of exclusion. Our account of entry protocols in Puerto Rico illustrates how the night, seemingly loose and free for purposes of leisure that complement the laborious day, is in fact deeply regulated by curfews, last calls, the closure of public transportation, the vigilance of door staff and the police alike, school hours, and the work bell. Who then comes out at night, capitalises on its flexibility and ambiguity, and risks the surveillance that penetrates darkness? What does it mean to live your life, or more specifically, to ‘get your life’ at night?”
The book is a compendium of essays on the nightlife of queer folx. The writers centre the labour of queer people who apprehend the risky medium of the night to explore, know, and stage their bodies, genders, and sexualities in the face of systemic and social negation.
In a country like India, spaces like the one described above at once become special and exclusive, given the way human bodies and desires continue to be regulated through a feudal and patriarchal lens, regardless of the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in 2018 by the Supreme Court.
Temporary, permanent or mobile spaces like the living room or a gay bar or a public park allow for varied expressions of love and passion, but also for the absence of sexuality (the A in LGBTQIA+ stands for asexual). These spaces enable a collision and/or dialogue between diverse identities of caste, class, religion, and nationality. They blur boundaries and create new complex identities. More than anything, they are spaces that allow for the reimagination of a heteronormative society, putting the actors in a direct confrontation with patriarchy.
LGBTQIA+ is a useful tool as it reflects the various identities on the rainbow, but the + is a reminder that no acronym can capture the distinct individuals whose bodies and lives defy categorisation and who, in reality, inhabit multiple universes simultaneously.
“What’s your pronoun?” has become a common question in progressive English spaces. A professor teaching feminist studies began her lecture in the classroom on the first day of her course with this question. She, as the teacher liked to be called, went around the room asking each student how they would like to be addressed for the rest of the year, whether as a he, she or they. Whether a classroom exercise like this would have been possible before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India is a moot question.
June is celebrated as Pride (professionalism, respect, integrity, diversity, excellence) Month across the world to spark conversations about gender and sexual minorities and make their concerns a part of public discourse. June was chosen to commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York, a rebellion that marked an important turning point in the freedom movement of the queer community. In India, the first public Pride march was held in 1999 in Kolkata with barely 15 participants. The march itself was called “Friendship Walk”. From 1999 to 2022, Pride parades were held in 20 cities and more across the country. But do more and more Pride marches signify that all is well with the queer community in India? The usurpation of Pride Month by rainbow capitalism might misrepresent to the larger public that finally the community has been liberated but it is a false perception.
As trans and Dalit rights activist Grace Banu sums it up, “Yes, we are celebrating Pride month, but what does it even mean for someone in rural India who doesn’t know what Pride is and has no safe space or privilege to practise it?”
Four years after the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalising same-sex relationships, has the physical, mental, emotional, and economic violence against the queer community been addressed or does it continue unabated? What happens when they exercise their full rights as equal citizens of the country and participate in pressing political matters of the day?
In early 2020, when the country erupted against the divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register for Citizens, the queer folx in many places decided to be a part of the movement. In Mumbai, protest slogans against CAA and NRC were raised at the Mumbai Queer Azadi March. The next day, the Mumbai Police registered a complaint against 51 persons for the slogans raised and the charges included sedition. After that, the police, politicians, the media, and several individuals, some from within the queer community, engaged in a vicious cycle of vilifying these young trans folx. They were targeted, misgendered, outed, and shamed on national media. Most media reports of the matter only cited the police case without speaking to the other side or members of trans-intersex-gender nonconforming communities (GNC) or used dead names (birth name of a transperson who has changed their name as part of their gender transition) and misgendered people.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, prominent trans rights activist, actress and representative of the Ujjain-based Kinnar Akhada, has sided with the ruling establishment against religious minorities. In 2018, when she supported the right-wing call for a Ram temple at Ayodhya, trans, GNCs, and intersex collectives condemned her stand.
In a statement, they said: “Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a dominant-caste brahmin trans woman, has been appealing to Hindutva ideology and justifying the existence of the caste system in India ever since she began aspiring for a political position within the current ruling party. Her position negates the politics of communal harmony that is espoused by Hijras and Kinnars, who have historically maintained a syncretic faith of belonging to both Hinduism and Islam. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s position idealises a mythical past of the Sanatan Dharam and supports the right-wing politics of communal hatred in the guise of ‘we were always accepted’. It should be noted that while Tripathi’s position ostensibly seeks harmony between the realms of faith and gender/sexuality, in actuality, it is aligned with Hindutva and derives explicit inspiration from Nazi ideology. Such a stance is likely to deepen existing hierarchies of transpersons in dangerous ways, especially alienating minority-religious and atheist, gender expressions and identities.”
Some people use this political rift within queer circles to portray the entire community as opportunistic. But transpeople differ with each other, just as straight people do. Just as cis heteronormative people have the choice to join whichever political party they want to, gay, lesbian, and transpeople also have the right to support who or what they believe in. The queer community is not a monolith, either in their identity and sexuality or in their politics. Each member in it leads precarious lives in the larger contexts of nationalism, anti-caste discourse, pandemic mitigation, and health crises. They have differences of opinion but come together on questions of rights and identity. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, since many of the trans folx did not have their preferred pronoun on their Aadhaar cards, they faced hurdles in getting vaccinated. While the option to mark oneself as transgendered on paper has been legally achieved, there is still a long way to go for children to not be thrown out of family homes, not be discriminated in schools, to have enough psychosocial support, to not die by suicide, for health care to be accessible, and for marriage to become a right. After the archaic Section 377 was removed, the problem of criminalisation was addressed to some extent but prejudice remains.
According to transperson and scientist Bittu, the repeal of Section 377 has had its limits. “377 was just one of several cases that police used to file upon trans and queer people. Routinely, police haul in young heterosexual couples who are in love, often across lines of caste, religion, and parental permission. There is no law in the books that criminalises young heterosexual couples from sitting together in a park but they are hauled in without any legal basis.
“The police in this country have widespread impunity, not just as implementers of the law but as upholders of socio-caste-patriarchal morality. This same thing must be understood when it comes to the harassment of queer and transpeople by the police. Police just haul people in without having to tell them I am hauling you in under Section 377.
“So the repeal of 377 has a limit in terms of how much it has changed that basic structure of police impunity. It has not. The only thing it has changed is the pitched battles we have fought when the police have harassed people, at the level of each police station. New forms of persecution of queer and trans communities have emerged. From the ways in which Pride is policed, to the ways in which people who connected the CAA for being Islamophobic to the ways in which it was transphobic. The fundamental ways in which sex workers and people who beg on the streets, whether they are cis or trans, are hounded by the police perpetuates a kind of caste patriarchy-based relegation of certain occupations to certain persons in the caste hierarchy spectrum, of which Dalit-Bahujan-working-class-trans-feminist persons are one set. The other side of that coin is to render them these stigmatised occupations and then persecute those who engage in them when they are socio-economically boycotted from being allowed in any other work space. The foundation stone of that persecution remains untouched by the repeal of 377.”
In a concurring but separate judgment, Justice Rohinton F. Nariman, one of the five judges on the Supreme Court bench that read down Section 377, had asked the Union government to provide periodic sensitisation and awareness training to all government employees including the police force. But that does not seem to have happened.
Dr G.K. Goswami, Additional Director General of Police and Ex-Chief of Anti-Terror Squad, Uttar Pradesh, believes that police officers are part of society and mirror the views prevalent in their social class. The first Indian police officer to be selected for the Flex Award under the Fulbright scholarship for studying the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organisation that exonerates wrongly convicted individuals, Goswami believes that the Supreme Court judgment is just the beginning of real change. Speaking to Frontline over the phone from the US, he said, “Sexual orientation is a personal affair. What one does within four walls of his room is nobody’s business, all other things considered. But for some reason, not just in India, but worldwide, homosexuality has been looked down upon. It was considered as witchcraft within females and it was not accepted amongst men either.
“If we look at the court’s stand on the matter, that too has been swinging like a pendulum. In the Naz Foundation case in 2009, the Delhi High Court held that treating consensual homosexual sex between adults as a crime is a violation of fundamental rights protected by India’s Constitution. Then in 2013, in Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation, the Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court order and reinstated Section 377. Finally, in 2018, in Navtej Johar and others vs Union of India, the Supreme Court decriminalised all consensual sex among adults, including homosexual sex. The courts are considered the most learned class in society. Now if they swing in their opinion so much, what of the rest of society?
“I believe that tradition takes centuries to form. The Supreme Court judgment has come; it will take some time for society to follow suit. Slowly people will accept. Since it has been decriminalised, the legal obstacle has been removed. People with this orientation can happily live in society, no criminal action will be taken against them. With time, people who used to be in the closet will slowly find courage to come out. As disclosures will go up, the strength of this community will increase. When a sizeable population is formed, the community will gain political clout. And where there is political clout, rights will be generated. You see, the legal system follows society. It is just a beginning to bring social change in the mindset of common people.
“Likewise, police is a part of society. If a cop has a certain archaic mindset, then it will remain at the level of his social taboo and non-acceptance. After all, a police personnel thinks the way society thinks. If the cop grew up in the city, he will have a certain mindset, but a cop from a village might make fun of a homosexual person. But he will not be able to raise his danda (stick) at the person nor initiate any criminal action. Change will come slowly. We cannot expect that just because the Supreme Court has said it, overnight the society will accept homosexuality. We need to teach these things in our schools and colleges. Only then real change will come.”
“I believe that tradition takes centuries to form. The Supreme Court judgment has come; it will take some time for society to follow suit. Slowly people will accept. Since it has been decriminalised, the legal obstacle has been removed. People with this orientation can happily live in society, no criminal action will be taken against them. With time, people who used to be in the closet will slowly find courage to come out.”G.K. GoswamiAdditional Director General of Police and Ex-Chief of Anti-Terror Squad, Uttar Pradesh
At the time of the Supreme Court verdict decriminalising homosexuality, several religious leaders across faith lines challenged the verdict. While Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam are ambiguous or at least acknowledge same-sex relations, most Christian priests are adamant that it is a one-way ticket to hell. It is this rigidity perhaps that has led to a spurt in sexual crimes by the priestly class and churches across the world, including in India. But leaders like Dr George Zachariah, Department of Theology and Ethics, Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Chennai, are trying to change the regressive mindsets. In a lecture titled “Church: A Rainbow Community of the Beloved and Equals” on the LGBTQIA+ collective Orinam’s blog, he says, “It is a historic moment for us, the Indian Church, to make a decision. We can either continue to remain as an inhospitable religious club—a hostile community as the rapists of Sodom in Genesis 19, committing violence against the sexual minorities, or we can become a just and inclusive rainbow community celebrating our God given diversities by welcoming those who are different from us into our midst to experience Christian fellowship in a deeper way.” Religion continues to be a major player in the social and spiritual lives of Indians and is an important bulwark to cross towards equality for all.
Social media as enabler
Despite these challenges, India has come a long way. Cracks have appeared in what was once deemed to be an impregnable wall. While mainstream media is trying to catch up with progressive attitudes to appropriately narrate stories of queer lives, social media is leaps and bounds ahead. Thanks to platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, several queer folx have shot into the limelight. In turn, they are using their popularity to draw attention to issues of gender and sexuality.
Some of the social media influencers who have become household names include Priyanka Paul aka artwhoring, who talks about grief, ADHD, art, neurodiversity, and Dalit rights. Karnataka’s first trans-woman doctor, Dr Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, who goes by the handle trintrin on Instagram, went through gender confirmation surgery and shares tidbits from her daily life that oscillate between the sets and the hospital. She has received praise and brickbats in equal measure on social media but continues to use her profiles to focus attention on gender, sexuality, queerphobia, bullying, mental health, and feminism. She addresses these issues with a mix of humour and sarcasm. When she is referred to as a man and a woman mid-examination, she laughs it off by saying, “Man? Woman? Who dis? If you don’t wrap a history-taking + examination up in 5 minutes on a busy OPD day, you’re quite screwed and so, I let it pass… like a kidney stone.”
Social media has also enabled athlete Dutee Chand to share her story on India Love Project on Instagram, a page founded by Priya Ramani, Samar Harlankar, and Niloufer Venkatraman, that documents love and marriage outside the “shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender”. Chand is perhaps the first openly gay athlete and shared her love story with partner Monalisa Das. She said: “Lots of people criticised us, many brought up all sorts of questions about my gender but then I went on a couple of shows (Kaun Banega Crorepati; Kapil Sharma) and people began accepting our relationship. The LGBTQIA+ community reached out and told me I wasn’t alone in this struggle. On Valentine’s Day this year, Odia magazine Kadambini put us on the cover and we got a lot of love from readers.”
Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju, the two lawyers who challenged Section 377 in court, also came out as a couple to a lot of public adulation. From the first openly gay erstwhile royal, Manvendra Singh Gohil, to the openly gay politician, Harish Iyer, who joined the Congress, Indians are slowly feeling confident enough to come out of the closet and claim their place in the sun. They are finding their voices whether straight people acknowledge them, accept them or not.
As the influencer Alok Vaid-Menon, in conversation with trans artist Laverne Cox, said, “When I’m talking about the distinction between existing and living, I am also talking about the distinction between what ought and what is. So many are living in the realm of ought and transpersons, we are living here, in is. And we’re saying gender diversity is what is. And it’s always been beautiful as Laverne teaches us. Trans IS beautiful. It’s not gonna be. It’s not was. It is.”