Pride and Prejudice: The Desires of Indian Queer Women

Though queer women are not technically covered under Section 377, IPC, the effect of the law on them has been disastrous, to say the least.

This Pride Month was celebrated with gusto and vigour all over the world, including the tenth Chennai Pride March which was held on Sunday, June 24. However, as we conclude this month today, we still face grim reminders of the huge amount of work that needs to be done on queer rights in India. On June 11, 2018, India Today reported that a lesbian couple had committed suicide in Ahmedabad, Gujarat by jumping in front of the Sabarmati water front (itself a grotesque example of ‘New India’).

Admittedly, what was more haunting than the news item was this ‘obituary’ written by the Ahmedabad-based queer activist, Shamini Kothari, who runs the only safe space for the queer community in the city. Her poignant words – “In this rainbow filtered, instagram-worthy and Kitty Su filled Pride Month, what are the lives that are still struggling to find the words to say I love you, or to eat, to live or survive” – shook me to the core and jolted me out of my queer-happy siesta of thoughts like ‘things getting better for us queers soon’ and ‘Happy Pride!’

As Kothari states, the phenomenon of lesbian suicides is not new, but what is new (and alarming) is the increasing frequency with incidents reported almost every year. Worldwide too, studies suggest that almost 30% of LGBTI persons have attempted suicide, or are at risk of suicide. Though accurate data scarcely exists in India, anecdotal evidence suggests that suicidal behaviour is quite high amongst LGBTI persons. Until recently, attempt to commit suicide was an offence in India, vide Section 309, Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’), but after the passage of the Mental Health Care Act, 2017, there exists a presumption of severe stress in case of attempt to commit suicide, and those who did attempt would not be tried and punished under law.

However, there is something peculiar about lesbian suicides in India, which is not prevalent in other countries. If you dig through the archives of organisations that have either documented or conducted fact-finding missions of these cases, you see an underlying common thread of difficult circumstances, non-acceptance within family, being forced into marriage or other such tremendous pressures, and overall, a visceral disdain towards same-sex desires amongst women. The merest expression of same-sex desire or want is often met with brutal family violence, including corrective rapes, discrimination, ostracisation and even death.

Though queer women are not technically covered under Section 377, IPC, the effect of the law on them has been disastrous, to say the least. Numerous cases of women being threatened with prosecution under Section 377 or being charged therein exist, as well as families threatening to file false cases against ‘errant daughters’. Instances of corrective rapes, often by own family members, have also surfaced. Despite suffering considerable domestic violence, including sexual abuse, there is little evidence to suggest that queer women are using the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act, 2005 against their natal families.

Women are also repeatedly subject to conversion therapy, in order to ostensibly ‘change’ one’s sexual orientation, wherein they are forced to undergo psychotherapy, forcibly administered drugs or given electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). The appeal proceedings against Section 377 in 2010-2013 included a testimony from a queer woman detailing such actions. The new mental health care Act disallows conversion therapy, since it provides for determining mental illness in accordance with nationally or internationally accepted medical standards (including the WHO which had declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1990, and just days back also declassified gender identity disorder.

Discrimination against queer women is entrenched in state institutions, right from our schools to our offices. We have all witnessed gender non-conforming women being bullied as ‘butch’ or ‘lesbo’ by students, and even teachers. In July 2017, a woman was reportedly sacked from her private sector job, because she had allegedly married her girlfriend. In March 2018, ten girls from a Kolkata school were forced to write that they did not engage in same-sex acts of intimacy by their school authorities.

Owing to the lack of a general anti-discrimination law in India, queer women live in constant fear of being terminated from employment, being refused recruitment, or thrown out of colleges, upon disclosure of their sexual orientation. Though the Supreme Court in its landmark judgment on right to privacy categorically held that no person could be discriminated against on the ground of sexual orientation, it remains to be seen how this actually impacts LGBTI persons on the ground, and whether they approach courts.

In all this din, where is the opportunity to talk about desire, heart breaks, failed relationships, unrequited love etc? How do we express desires, which are intangible, fleeting, and yet so real, and yes, scarring? In the last decade or so, the ‘gay dating’ scene has exploded, with dating websites and applications like Planet Romeo, Grindr and even Tinder (which is orientation neutral) in India, but what remains unchanged is the absence of any such fora for queer women (barring a few Facebook groups). The fact that almost no such spaces exist for queer women in India speaks volumes about how these women are perceived in this country – devoid of desire.

Though all LGBTI persons are oppressed by the heterosexist patriarchal society, the closet for queer women is much more claustrophobic and strangulating. Imagine growing up as a ‘misfit’, not having either the words or the language to describe oneself, but having raging hormones for another girl in your class. Not being able to talk about one’s crush, when the entire class is going on and on about Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (I know pathetic examples), and just rotting inside with confusion about one’s identity and feelings. Yet feeling ecstatic, when managing to catch a glimpse of her. And then to navigate one’s life, resists pressure to marry, finding support – whether amongst friends, colleagues or even family – and finally living on one’s own terms, knowing that the consequences for doing that could be eviction, getting fired, and most importantly, finding yourself without any support. Multiple helplines have reported many calls from women all over India who merely want to talk to another queer woman or to meet her.

It is in this context that one has to locate what Kothari writes, that there are countless women, who are enchained by their class/caste/gender/religious barriers, and cannot express their desires for their same sex partner, or let their desire to be with each other outrank their hugely constrained circumstances, thereby leaving them with no choice, but to do a ‘suicide pact’.

As the queer community gears up for the upcoming hearings in the Section 377 case in the Supreme Court, queer women’s issues have to be on the agenda. They cannot be an afterthought. The attempt should be to reach out to as many queer lives as possible, set up as many queer spaces as possible, talk as much about queer desires as possible, and not just on Facebook or Instagram, but in physical spaces, with bodies, desires and lust intermingled with each other. Till that happens, we shall mourn every life lost, every hope extinguished, and every desire suppressed.

Amritananda Chakravorty is a practicing advocate based in New Delhi. She tweets @amritananda_c

Featured image credit: Reuters