On Equal Access, Dignity for the Queer Community: An Interview With Sharif Rangnekar

The former journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist addresses the feeling within the community that real concerns have taken a backseat and resulted in skewed public policy formulation.

Following the scrapping of Section 377, the LGBTQIA+ movement in India has gathered momentum. Nevertheless, there has been a growing feeling within the community that real concerns have taken a backseat and resulted in skewed public policy formulation which overlooks the broader issues and interests of the community at large.

To get a clearer picture of things, we interviewed the Sharif D. Rangnekar, a former journalist, the author of Straight to Normal – My Life As Gay Man and festival director of the Rainbow Lit Fest. His iconoclastic views and straight-talking manner have earned him the distinction of being an outspoken member of the LGBTQIA+ community and a mouthpiece for the many issues they face. Here are some excerpts:

Image credit: Facebook/sharidrangnekar.

After homosexuality was decriminalised, has there been wider acceptance of the community in society? If not, how can people and society at large be sensitised? 

Unfortunately, the way the September 2018 verdict was reported, was, probably unknowingly, as something implying “freedom” and “love”. These two words pretty much became the buzzwords in all the reports and features, making many people believe that things were good. People didn’t (and still don’t) understand that the verdict has only allowed us to have sex without the fear of being hauled up as criminals.

Had the press, as well as Central and state governments, done what the verdict suggested – to sensitise society, including key government departments such as the police, we may have made some tangible progress. Such a measure would go a long way in helping with the integration of the community into society at large.

However, some things have indeed changed since the 2018 verdict. There have been more discussions on who we are, more press, cinema and even debates on whether kids in school should start learning about gender. These things are happening but are more big-city led and don’t as such indicate wider acceptance in society.

According to some unofficial estimates from key NGOs, there is a growth in depression cases, in individuals wishing to commit suicide and having committed suicide. There are also frequent hate crimes, bullying and blackmailing.

What are the next big hurdles for the LGBTQIA+ community that you foresee in the near future?  

The biggest hurdle is the lack of a plan or discussion on clear next steps. The absence of government support at both the state and Central level is a huge issue as we need systemic changes. For example, large sensitisation programmes and the urgent need to recognise our basic civil rights.

We need legislation focusing on anti-discrimination, healthcare access, adoption and so on.

Also read: Rainbow Lit Fest: A Much-Needed Celebration of Queer Artists

There are problems within the medical fraternity with doctors not being held accountable for crimes they commit by offering and advocating ‘conversion therapy’. Not all states allow for sex education, and this leads to challenges. There are no anti-bullying laws. And what about the ridiculous Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019? The list is huge and the hurdles are many.

With no political will, this leaves things entirely to us.

Do you think that gay marriage should be legalised? If yes, how does one achieve it in terms of wider societal acceptance? 

It should be legalised, but our main focus should be elsewhere. Let me explain.

We need to understand that being gay is not a choice. It just is. And many realise this pretty young but go through the worst times at schools, homes and other spaces in society. We create mental health issues that don’t always allow for love to foster easily between two people or even more. Kids who are bullied and have no support, who struggle to build a career more so due to discrimination, are hardly in a position for marriage as they have created defence mechanisms as they grew up with fear. So the main focus must be on building a foundation.

I am sure and aware that civil union or marriage will solve some issues for some couples, but we are talking about a privileged few who have other forms of security and are now wishing to secure themselves more. If we go this way, it will be yet another example of how the power structure works and how gaps are created and people are left behind. This is my fear.

Ultimately, marriage is a choice but being queer is not. I feel that having gone through the journey of life and hearing the horrific stories of many young LGBTQIA+ people, they surely need greater security at a young age and that comes from including us in many other laws which are more urgent than same-sex marriage.

One could critique the movement as being largely limited to the urban educated population. Is there a need to include people beyond this class so that the less privileged members of the community can also be heard? 

Yes, without question. The problem is not necessarily just about urban and rural or big town versus smaller towns. It’s also about class, religion and everything that is faulty in society and which divides us.

The power structures we live in influence everything, including the media where a ‘national’ press pushes home a specific narrative. And when reporting is predominantly in English and Hindi, it does drown out, say, a news report from Manipur and voices from that region. This happens all the time, even with natural disasters.

This makes it even more important for large cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore to see and hear diverse voices. It is hugely important to create national platforms that bring many different voices together.

Sitting in large cities, we often assume we know better and know the best way forward. Some of us try to replicate movements from the West, concluding that it is a workable template; pretty much ignoring what might be happening on the ground in different states and regions where the local language has no connection with English or even Hindi.

How has the LGBTQIA+ community in India evolved over the years in terms of tackling the challenges they face? Has there been any progress?

Definitely. Interestingly, one of the instrumental points of the movement was when the Supreme Court made us criminals once again in December 2013, reversing the 2009 Delhi high court decision by Justice A.P. Shah. More people had come out, and many had got used to a life without Section 377, so there was greater anger when this basic freedom was taken away. For once, even the press appeared unified against the reversal, adding a lot of power and support to the movement. This is when ‘No Going Back’ as a slogan was coined.

The past few years have seen more queer and gender based rights groups form, more theatre and spaces where people from the community are writing, holding discussions and even entering the ‘mainstream’ in a visible manner. This is huge.

I came out in 1999 when I was 30. Back then, we didn’t have queer/gender studies or literature. Now some universities are including this in their curriculum. Technology has also helped the community reach out to each other and express themselves, be it openly, or anonymously.

There are more Pride Marches happening across the country and the opening up of workplaces for the community. So in that sense, there has been a great evolution in terms of creating spaces, voices and identities that has led to a growing sense of self, a gutsy charm to stand up proudly.

As a result, so many gender related concepts/words have entered our discourse. We’re even using the pronoun “they” in a different manner today.

Is the patriarchal society that exists in India the main reason behind the non-acceptance of same-sex marriage, adoption and inheritance by the LGBTQIA+ community? 

The toxic levels of patriarchy that we witness today is the cause of many evils. Things are so deep rooted that even some of the positive changes we see in terms of women are coming with or after the approval of a man. Anything that challenges toxic masculinity is a problem for a patriarchal society, and we as a community do that.

Now, a younger generation of queer people don’t wish to be labelled, they want to define their gender themselves and not limit it to biology alone. The issue of gender itself being redefined is the greatest challenge that our society can face as it shakes things to the core. It is from there that all other notions of a family structure stem from, and this prescribed role of men and women upon which our current society is built.

People think that LGBTQIA+ people are not efficient enough or that they are unfit for certain kinds of jobs.What kind of discrimination is being faced at the workplace even after the scrapping of Section 377? 

This assumption comes from ignorance. The community doesn’t fear hard work, it fears and faces discrimination and hate.

At the same time, those who manage to enter modern workplaces don’t always feel safe enough and are censored versions of themselves. Vulnerability at the workplace does damage the morale and performance of a queer person. There is also evidence to back how a safe environment creates a productive company.

There is also the inherent problem of the absence of a level playing field when it comes to LGBTQIA+ people. Not everyone has had access to education or family support. That itself puts many at a disadvantage. Imagine if the community had equal access, dignity and an unbiased system of teachers, trainers and family.

Recently, creating open workplaces is becoming a part of corporate policy. There have been conferences and affirmative action in terms of policy, and even attempts to change the culture of organisations.

This push forward is reflected in FICCI’s task force on workplace inclusion led by Dr Jyotsna Suri, the ED, and the Lalit Hotels, set up last year. Earlier, Pride Circle had organised India’s first LGBT job fair – RISE – in Bangalore with some 400 job applicants. At RISE, held in Delhi this February, the number tripled to 1,200.

Is a 2% reservation in government jobs and the parliament for the queer community an essential requirement to push the reform process at the government level? 

It can be part of a solution as it helps in building representation in a system which is typically closed to the community. However it isn’t a long term solution. For reforms at the government level, we would require many players at work including parliamentarians and the media. It also requires political will and a 2% reservation will not and cannot carry that weight on its own.

I don’t see how reservation can work in the parliament as it comes down to the electoral process. So far, we haven’t seen any kind of reservation for women even though we have had women in key positions in government and the political spectrum. It is for political parties themselves to have some form of reservation that gives us a footing into the system.

It is from there that we can slowly build a voice for ourselves and hopefully become elected members. To be elected members, we also need a vote bank and a united queer community. At this point, a united LGBTQIA+ is out of the question given how polarised the community is.

Grishma Kumari is a budding journalist and recently graduated from IIMC, Delhi. Dr Parthasarathi is an associate professor at Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi, whose areas of interests include media studies, LGBTQ issues and Physics. 

Featured image credit: Jose Plabo Garcia/Unsplash