Transgender persons voice their struggles, question perceptions dished out by the government in marriage equality hearings in the Supreme Court.
“We are not criminals. Why are people so opposed to the idea of us living a comfortable life with our partner?”
Varun*, 44, a transgender man from a village in Gujarat’s Junagadh district had been estranged from his family for 20 years before coming out to them two years after his sex reassignment surgery in 2018.
“I tried explaining to my brother why I had not married yet,” said Varun, who had written a message to his brother in 2020 about how he could not confirm to the sex assigned to him at birth. The central government’s submission before the Supreme Court, stating that those seeking marriage equality for homosexual groups represent “urban elitist views”, makes Varun revisit the same conversation he took years to prepare for.
The centre’s argument was countered by chief justice DY Chandrachud, who had questioned the data behind the claim, and said the matter “may be more urban in its manifestations because more people in urban areas are coming out of the closet”. Several hearings later, the government has decided to form a panel to look into the “genuine concerns” of LGBT couples.
“Gender identity and sexual orientation are natural and not urban or rural. Most of the trans men in my friend circle are from rural areas. How can they label it as an urban phenomenon,” said Varun, whose birth name was Veena.
“It is a misconception that all this is derived from the western culture,” he said, citing the example of Shikhandi from Mahabharata, a transgender character who killed Bhishma in the epic written by Vyasa.
‘Need a safety net’: Struggles of an LGBT couple
“At present, my partner cannot be named as a nominee anywhere, be it insurance or house. But I need a safety net for myself and her,” said Varun, who was earlier the principal of a village school and now works as a government servant.
Varun is not alone in questioning the perception of homosexuality being dished out in the country’s top court.
“People don’t understand such relationships. I have been struggling as a lot of landlords refuse to let out their house to us or they ask us questions like ‘how do you get satisfaction out of this’,” said Rajesh*, 35, a native of a village in Gujarat’s Rajkot district, who has been struggling to find a rental house with his partner.
A member of Dhariwal community, in which marriages are fixed in early childhood, Rajesh had set out to work in the city to escape family pressures to get married as per their tradition of ‘ladki lo aur ladki do’, which advocates that a woman must be married into a family in which her brother has also been married to.
‘Dress like a woman’: Hostile work environment
“In rural areas, unemployment is already a huge problem and our gender orientation makes it even more problematic since people don’t accept us. I had once applied for the post of a professor. But when I went for the interview, I was told that ‘female teachers’ are expected to wear a saree.”
“At another interview for a field position in a government department in Rajkot, I was asked why I don’t dress up like a woman. At one point, the interviewer also asked ‘will you go around the village wearing a pant-shirt’,” recalled Rajesh, who has not opted for a sex change procedure.
Varun too had left behind his village and his job at a government school as he would often be called out for not dressing “like a woman”.
“Before I would come home for holidays, my mother would ask me to get at least 2-3 pairs of salwar suits so she won’t have to explain my choice of clothes to people,” said Varun, who didn’t like wearing feminine clothes since the age of eight.
He actively began asserting his identity through his dressing after his college graduation. However, it brought along more hostility towards him, especially at his workplace.
“At the school where I was the principal, people would stare at my dress, comment on my behaviour and short hair. Some parents also said that this would not have a good impact on their children,” Varun recalled.
Narrating one of the incidents, he said, an official who had come to the school on a routine visit mocked Varun’s choice of clothing and also his caste, saying that “just because you come from the jungle, doesn’t mean you can come to school wearing anything.” However, the Gujarat state government manual does not specify any dress code for school staffers.
Varun has still not changed his gender identity in his official documents fearing repercussions.
‘My business came to a standstill because of public boycott’
“I am a trans man and my pronoun is he” is how Nikunj, 27, introduces himself. He hails from Suwasra village in Mandsaur district, and is currently pursuing a fellowship in Indore.
“I had a business of spices and it was flourishing until people realised that I am a transgender person.”
Nikunj, who underwent a sex change procedure in 2021, noticed that following his surgery his sales dropped. On enquiring, he was told that the wholesalers “were upset about him being a kinnar (a local term for transgender)”.
“My entire business came to a standstill because of my gender identity,” said Nikunj, adding that “even though I have the machines intact, it is difficult to make even Rs 1,000 per month owing to this public boycott.”
Nikuj recalled that even his father opposed his physical transition, however, his mother supported him. “I must have been around 4-5 years old when I realised I’m drawn to clothes worn by boys and games played by them… My mother supported me after she watched an episode of the TV programme Satyamev Jayate which focused on homosexuality. It led to a huge transformation in her outlook.”
The sex change procedure involves surgical removal of breasts and uterus, followed by injection of testosterone in the body.
In the backdrop of the ongoing hearing on marriage equality petitions in the Supreme Court, Nikunj feels that “in villages where sex education is hardly imparted, at least the conversation around gender identity needs to begin.”
The rigidity of gender identities in villages and rural quarters make a stronger premise for same-sex marriage legislation.
‘Legal sanctity of relationship affords a bouquet of rights’
“In small towns there is no access to counselling, so after an individual comes out, families often go for ‘corrective measures’ owing to the belief that something is wrong,” said Aasif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak, a non-profit organisation that helps inter-caste and inter-religious couples told Newslaundry.
Iqbal said the problem for same-sex couples is multi-layered as at most places there aren’t any designated safe houses to accommodate them.
The provision of making arrangements in safe houses for runaway couples has been implemented in Haryana, Punjab, and even Delhi following an order by the Chandigarh High Court in March 2021. However, Iqbal said the facility is “working well only for heteronormative couples, who have been married”.
Meanwhile, same-sex and trans-couples are reportedly told by the police and the administration that they will provide protection to “only those who are married”. He alleges that the families of such couples also connive with the police to separate them.
Advocate and queer rights activist, Rohin Bhatt, who is a part of the legal team representing petitioners in the marriage equality hearings, said: "Legal sanctity of relationship affords a bouquet of rights. I myself have been advising couples who escape their families. FIRs are then filed for abduction. These people have no course then but to navigate violent police action and a taxing legal system to get the FIRs quashed."
Elaborating on the need for the legal sanctity of marriage for LGBT couples, Bhatt told Newslaundry: "A marriage certificate would make these issues relatively less messy because then, there is a document issued by the state ie, the marriage certificate, which shows that there is a presumption that the couple is in each other’s company on their own accord.”
Speaking to Newslaundry, one of the petitioners in the case, Chayanika Shah said, "I do not think the government is even seeing the security that the marriage certificate could possibly give as a benefit from a violent family and community. So, while they will look at other benefits vis-a-vis the state and may grant some, it will be our task to say that providing everything that allows us to live life with dignity is also part of what we are asking from the state."
Is the state of affairs any better in bigger cities?
For Sarthak*, 25, who identifies as a queer, and recently joined the legal department of a corporate firm in Udaipur, workplace isn’t any less hostile.
“One of my colleagues resorted to abusive language to address me over my sexual orientation,” Sarthak told Newslaundry, adding that he has requested the company to introduce an employee sensitisation program.
He said that his years spent at his hometown and another big city of Rajasthan, Jodhpur, weren’t smooth either. “People would take a dig at me for my ‘feminine’ way of walking and talking,” he said, adding that he came out to his family in 2019, however, they “still do not completely understand him”.
“I want to have a family of my own, and would like to have that right,” Sarthak said on the marriage equality hearings going on in the top court. “If you don’t give me that right, you are basically treating me as a second-class citizen.”
Who is supporting the government’s stance?
The government’s position on same-sex marriage has found support from several quarters of the society trying to uphold “traditional values”. For instance, the Bar Council of India, an association of lawyers from across the country, urged the Supreme Court on April 24 to let the parliament decide on marriage equality.
The apex lawyers’ body was of the opinion that “any indulgence by the top court will result in destabilising the social structure of the country.” It also cited 99.9% of the country’s population as those “opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage in India”.
In a strong rebuttal to this argument, over hundred students from 36 law campuses issued a statement, “Having cited no real authority, the BCI blatantly concocts statistics of ‘99.9%’ of Indians opposing same-sex marriage, to run the worn-out theory that queer persons constitute a ‘miniscule minority’. We condemn this hateful speech in the strongest terms.”
Ayan Garg of Cross Law School Queer Alliance told Newslaundry: "The resolution passed in the joint meeting of the Bar Council of India with its State Bar Council counterparts, was, in a word, infuriating. As law students and stakeholders in the profession, we found it unacceptable for this body to pass such unwarranted resolutions, and hold such a regressive stance on fundamental rights."
Another member of the queer alliance body, Anjney Mittal cited Sections 4, 7 and 15 of the Advocates Act, 1961 that “restricts the BCI's mandate and authority”, and said, “The evocation of an anxious majority marginalises LGBT individuals in the legal profession and unfairly subjects their fundamental rights to politics. We live in times where freedom is becoming as precious as rare. This makes it imperative for everybody, but especially future lawyers — given our oath to defend the Constitution — to speak up and stand on the right side of history.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.