A number of petitions demanding same-sex marriage are lined up in Supreme Court to be heard by a bench of five judges on April 18. The Union government has already declared that the role of marriage is only to protect ‘relationship between a biological man and woman’. Thus, the fight for gay marriage is taking an interesting turn and also reminding us that it is difficult for such a concept to find space within the Indian, rather Hindu, family unit that is founded upon caste, heteronormative, cis and patriarchal privileges.
Questions like how two fathers or two mothers can be parents are hot topics in media houses and courtrooms. The plea of equal partnership in marriage is supposed to be a fundamental right for every individual. This plea is essential since queer-trans people face immense societal and familial violence – to say nothing of stigma – because of gender-sexual identity and love relationships.
The different ways in which people on the LGBTIQKHA+ spectrum live and love is often seen as a disruption and threat to the protected cis-heteronormative-patriarchal Indian family unit.
Entering the ‘sacred’ institution of marriage will not immediately end the violence against them, but it is probably going to be a step towards recognising the fundamental political right to full and equal citizenship for queer-trans individuals.
Taking the focus away from the politics of equal citizenship through ‘gay marriage’ this article tries to unravel the mundane and darker aspects of queer lives to give a glimpse of the societal stigma and ostracisation faced by queer-trans people. Violence in natal/assigned family is a stark reality. It is physical, intimate and emotional, leading often to the severing of ties with biological family and community. Sometimes this violence is not so overt, but can be verbal and emotional. It can even be expressed through silence.
Dispossession and homelessness are regular occurrences in queer-trans lives. Sometimes these take the form of negligence and ostracisation to a level where the queer-trans individual loses all control and agency.
Natal or assigned families being the site of violence and discrimination for most people, often individuals turn to friendships for material and emotional support. Those who are not fortunate enough to find friends or a queer community, live in utter isolation and loneliness.
While loneliness has become a very familiar phenomenon in contemporary neoliberal city lives, queer loneliness also involves a lot of material vulnerabilities and discrimination.
Leaving family at a young age, without adequate education, financial support, social resources, sets one up for a fight of surviving the everyday. For those connected to organisations and community, a network of support is created. But there are many with whom such a community is not able to connect with. There are also many for whom this network of support is not enough. We have thus lost many in the process. While governments and courts ponder over what rights to give, to whom and how much, it is time that we talk about disease, loneliness, depression and death in queer-trans lives.
On September 20, 2020, Sappho for Equality, a collective and organisation working with lesbian-bisexual-queer women and transpersons based in Kolkata received a phone call on its helpline, informing us that Anumitro an old associate of Sappho for Equality is extremely unwell, bed ridden and needs immediate help. As in most crisis situations, few from Sappho visited Anumitro at their house to see what can be done. Anumitro had run out of resources and food. The room was filled with packed and sealed boxes as if someone was about to leave. Anumitro lay in one corner of the bed with no strength to get up and talk. There was writing in Bangla, stating “I have not eaten since 25th August.” When asked as to why they had not informed anyone, they said that they had reached out to organisations and friends, but no one came for help.
Anumitro was in their mid 40s. They were a school teacher. They lost had lost their job before COVID and started giving private tuition classes. These stopped during the pandemic. When Sappho workers arrived, Anumitro was excited to see familiar faces. They talked incessantly. They hadn’t had interactions with people for a long time. I realised that Anumitro held the government, institutions and society responsible for their condition. They declared they are on a hunger strike against the discrimination and utter mismanagement of the government during the pandemic.
In their last few days Anumitro had only consumed sugar. As resources dwindled, Anumitro’s brother was contacted. Anumitro’s equations were not cordial with him and the brother professed surprise at his condition.
Sappho workers hospitalised Anumitro immediately but in a matter of few days, they passed away. The doctor reported that they had been in a state of malnourishment for many days. Their body resisted liquid food and internal organs failed. They went into a state of coma and finally collapsed.
The tragic death of Anumitro left us with some urgent questions. Who is responsible for this death? Is it the negligence of Anumitro’s family, their brother and sister-in-law? Is it negligence on our part, because we had lost touch with them? What about their friends? Who did Anumitro share their anxiety, grief, loneliness with? What role did the larger society play here – neighbours and organisations?
On the walls of his room, Anumitro had written that the government didn’t help them, and neither did organisations, and so he was going on a hunger strike. This strike was not in the public eye, so it was symbolic. It was a fight through illness and death and a statement against the very state and society which drove him to resourcelessness.
Anumitro’s death was a protest as they fought a system which had robbed them of everything, forcing them into loneliness and penury.
This was a system under which humiliation and ostracisation in workspaces, public spaces, at home, in the hands of family, friends and social circles is normalised.
Anumitro was conscious about structural violence and discrimination and rebelled against it. Their hunger strike was very much against the cis-hetero-patriarchal state and society.
Anumitro’s death corresponds to the innumerable deaths by suicide of lesbian, trans and gay people in recent history. Some made it to the newspapers, some remain unreported.
These are societal murders and they happen because there is no protection of the rights of queer-trans individuals. They happen because there are no social security measures in terms of health, education, housing, and livelihood. There is no equal citizenship for them, and no guarantee of civil and political rights through legal recognition by marriage or any civil-union laws. They happen because violence and negligence by natal/assigned families go unnoticed, because police and law machineries try to protect cis-hetero-patriarchal family norms. They happen because queer-trans individuals are still considered deviant citizens, whose different ways of living and loving are threats to the Brahminical-capitalist-patriarchal state and institutions.
Queer-trans deaths do not find space in collective memories either.
Family members are largely absent at mournings. Bodies are even disowned after death, as seen in the case of Swapna Mandal and Sucheta Mandal in Medinipur, West Bengal in 2011.
So how is marriage related to this entire cycle of violence, discrimination and ostracisation? Why are activists calling for it?
Well, it is probably the first step to recognising the political and civil rights of queer-trans people, and of making them equal citizens. It will guarantee some equal rights. But it will not solve the material and social dispossessions and discriminations in queer-trans lives. Further, the need to make it accessible to the working class, Muslim and Dalit queer-trans people is most essential. That can only happen through the change of certain provisions like scrapping the notice period in Special Marriage Act.
It is also necessary to think of rights beyond marriage, in terms of taking up measures against natal family violence and envisioning rights for those who do not want to marry or have remained single.
The petition by Rituparna Borah, Chayanika Shah, Minakshi Sanyal and Maya Sharma highlights how important it is to fight beyond the discourse of equal marriage rights and envision rights to property, healthcare, inheritance, custody in a manner that is not only limited to partnership between two individuals but extends to heterogeneous lived experiences of queer people in chosen families. Care does not always manifest between just two individuals.
[Editor’s note: The author represented Sappho for Equality along with Minakshi Sanyal and Koyel Ghosh in the core organising team of the “National Network for LBI Women and Trans Persons” a platform of several organisations and individuals who have worked on this petition.]
For Anumitro and for many others equal rights to marriage will not mean a better life unless there are fundamental changes brought in laws so that rights of single individuals are recognised in crucial fields, like the choice of friends or partner(s) for healthcare, custody of children and end of life decisions.
For Swapna and Sucheta and many others who have been victims of societal murders, there need to be social security measures that recognise the vulnerabilities of queer-trans lives.
We can challenge discrimination against queer-trans lives only when in-depth changes in laws and policies take place, along with equal marriage rights.
Right to marriage will not save lives like that of Anumitro’s. It will not bring people out of social isolation. Violence by one’s natal family, police, educational institutions, health centres and society at large cannot be combatted just with the recognition of same-sex marriage.
Poushali Basak is a queer feminist activist and researcher at TISS. Basak is associated with Sappho for Equality and Feminists in Resistance in Kolkata, and the Forum Against Oppression of Women in Bombay.