New Delhi: One night in January 2015, Rovin Sharma left his house to buy water wearing trousers, a baggy sweater, heels and a bindi. It was normal attire for the bearded and lipsticked Sharma, who identifies as neither male nor female.
At 12:30 am, the streets around Kamla Nagar in north Delhi were deserted except for two men in a car at the end of the lane. When the men caught sight of Sharma, they got out and started running after the then 20-year-old. Sharma didn’t know why, but could guess after hearing the story of a gay student raped and killed at Delhi University years back.
“They wanted to assault me because I’m an easy catch,” Sharma said.
Sharma whipped off his heels and fled through the shadowy lanes, hiding behind cars while the men pursued him for nearly two kilometres. Bursting into an apartment building, Sharma pounded on doors and called for help, but no one answered. Sharma finally found a dark corner on the terrace hidden from the two men and stayed for four hours communicating with friends via WhatsApp until they arrived with the police.
Sharma said he didn’t explain the threat of same-sex assault to the police for fear of being charged under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex. The officers told Sharma to be more masculine and go to the gym.
Sharma, now a 22-year-old writer, recounted multiple instances of discrimination – from being bullied at work to propositioned on the street – since that night. As attacks against minorities escalate across the country, activists report intensifying discrimination, in some cases violent, against the queer community. The exact number of hate crimes is unknown because interviews revealed that incidents go unreported or police routinely refused to file complaints when a queer person was the victim, but a February 2017 report by the International Commission of Jurists shared the stories of 150 queer persons across the country who suffered abuse and rape.
Some activists parallel the climate of violence to the rise of the BJP-led government, accusing the Hindu far-right of demonising deviance.
“Only very specific groups are invited to join the Hindu rashtra. It’s the invitation to join the movement of homogenising everyone,” said Shiv D. Sharma, deputy manager at Ashoka University’s Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality. “If you look at the slogans, it’s [a kind] of Swachh Bharat – cleansing on the basis of religion, caste, and sexuality.”
Other activists blamed the BJP’s hyper-masculine militarism for fuelling homophobia.
“Any kind of toxic masculinity affects queer folks,” said journalist Dhrubo Jyoti. “Anybody who does not look or feel like that is forced to succumb to violence or to fake it.”
Sharma recounted the experience two months ago when ABVP members yelled homophobic slurs at Sharma and a gay friend on the street near Delhi University’s campus. When Sharma’s friend confronted the members, they beat him, slapped his face and kicked his genitals. When Sharma went to the police, the officer said they couldn’t take action to arrest suspects without court orders.
Anjali Gopalan, founder and director of NGO Naz Foundation, said she’s dealt with 30-odd cases of violence against queer persons in her work.
“They’re not comfortable coming to the police. They come to us,” Gopalan said. “The police were very cooperative when we were with them. But when they go alone, police don’t even file any complaints or try and get money out of them.”
Instead, queer persons are treated as criminals. In 2015, 1,160 people were arrested under section 377, according to the NCRB, although it’s unclear exactly how many arrests were related to gay sex.
The BJP has been repeatedly spoken out against queerness. Party president Rajnath Singh in 2013 said that the BJP ‘unambiguously’ supports section 377 and in mid-2016 spokesperson Bizay Sonkar Shastri called homosexuality an “unnatural” and “dangerous” “criminal act”.
A few BJP ministers have softened their stance. In late 2016, finance Arun Jaitley and environment minister Prakash Javadekar expressed support for decriminalising homosexuality. Last year, senior RSS ideologue Dattatreya Hosabale said he did not thin “homosexuality should be considered a criminal offence as long as it does not affect the lives of others in society.” Later he tweeted out a qualification to the statement: “Homosexuality is not a crime, but socially immoral act in our society. No need to punish, but to be treated as a psychological case.”
Against this backdrop, activists are suspicious of flip-flopping opinions from individual party members. While many don’t solely blame the government for discrimination, they credit their inflammatory statements for encouraging citizens to commit violence.
“Modi released them from the censors,” said Vikramaditya Sahai, also known as Vqueeram, a gender discrimination researcher at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
“More insidiously, it’s not only that the state will come after you, but your neighbour will come after you,” Jyoti explained, “These people [can] turn against you and lynch you”.
Doubly vulnerable in light of recent attacks are queer Muslims, targeted for both their religion and sexuality. Many activists are quick to point out that among the diverse queer community, minorities endure the most extreme abuse.
“One’s visibility as a queer Muslim can expose that person to different degrees of violence,” said Rafiul Rahman, who founded the Facebook group The Queer Muslim project. “Queer Muslims do face violence, but it isn’t always necessarily physical assault. It’s micro-aggressions, both within the queer community and within the Muslim community.”
For queer persons belonging to the Hindu majority, discrimination is often subtler, activists said. Ahead of Pune’s Pride Parade on June 11, Bindumadhav Khire, president of NGO Samapathik Trust and one of the event’s organisers, posted on Facebook that participants should avoid wearing flamboyant clothes. Critic Shiv D. Sharma said the move followed a pattern of suppression, as he’s watched politicians fall silent on the issue and diverse queer groups disappear on campuses in the past year.
But in spite of threats, many activists defy victimisation. Rahman, who started The Queer Muslim Project in April, said he’s been overwhelmed by the response from people interested in meet-ups without fear of the consequences.
Jyoti said he’s also been inspired by the courage of queer minorities. “I’m amazed by all of these impoverished queer folks who are lower caste and Muslims,” he said. “Their courage in speaking out about their lives and talking about where they came from in a country where repression is so high and the cost of speaking out can be one’s life.”
But Sharma doesn’t have hope for change. On July 16, he moved back home to Haryana, where the activist will only continue dressing as usual – saree, lipstick, bindi, heels and beard – inside the house.
Sharma viewed it as the less dangerous option than staying in the country’s capital, concluding: “Delhi has become more unsafe as a queer person.”