New-Found Freedom: How Does It Feel To Live In Post-377 India?

On 6th September 2018, India’s apex court read down Section 377 calling it unconstitutional and decriminalizing homosexuality. Even on the first anniversary of this landmark judgment, I wanted to express my thoughts. However, whenever I sat to write, I was faced with a dilemma: Should I talk about the “good things” about this new-found freedom? Or should I focus on what’s still left to be done?

What must I write that hasn’t already been expressed in personal narratives, coming-out stories or academic research? I remember writing “There’s a Long Battle Ahead, But What a Beautiful Start!” outlining the demands of the LGBTQIA+ movement, what freedom has been granted, and also concluded it with “The Way Forward.” Interestingly, I ended with Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement from the famous “Tryst With Destiny” speech delivered on 15th August 1947: “Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”

After a year (which will become two coming September; however, there’s a major humanitarian crisis unfolding each passing day as COVID-19 has grabbed the world by its balls), now, I think, the answer is: I don’t know. Is one year a “good enough” time to judge? Probably not. However, should we stop being critical like our Indian media has, achieving new landmarks of submission  to the government in power with every news debate? Absolutely not.

I thought not to generalize what I see and what I believe the movement is and has been, instead here’s what my freedom looks like.

When the Freedom Came

When the judgment came out on the promising evening of 6th September 2018, I was being interviewed for a job. I was on a video call, the interviewer from the other side firing questions at me. I was nervous, perplexed because the video wasn’t working. That very moment my sister sent me a WhatsApp message with the news of reading down of Section 377. Here, on my laptop, the video started working and the interviewer could see me smiling ear-to-ear, and must be thinking why I had moist eyes while I answered his questions. I was replying to hundreds of messages and the moment the interview was over, I began writing the above article that I mentioned. Why I wrote that piece? I couldn’t publicly say that I’m elated and didn’t go to CP where celebrations were grand. I needed to tell and remind myself that I’ll no longer be, at least legally, called “wrong.”

Today, I’m out to everyone; except my mother and grandmother (for reasons I wouldn’t like to share). My brother thinks that homosexuality can be treated. Thanks to Baba Ramdev, who, according to him, has a cure for everything. I do know, as a matter of fact, that my brother and my sister-in-law did go to watch Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan; however, I don’t know what it taught them.

What Now?

I sometimes wonder: What has changed? Nothing absolutely. Because I remember that I used to play ghar-ghar when I was young and I was called ladki, hijra and sometimes ghar ki bahu. The former two are still very much in use. Sometimes a ring that I wear becomes the topic of discussion: Why this? It’s girlish. Sometimes my physique: Your pelvis resembles that of a woman! I don’t know how to, and never wanted to even, drive a two-wheeler vehicle: Now even girls are riding bikes. What makes you lag behind even girls?

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The ring that attracts stares. (Picture courtesy: Author)

There will be many like me who can’t be who they are or are paying a heavy price, by taking all the mental torture, by being who they are. No freedom here. I feel chained by abusive heteronormative societal behavior every day.   

In Office

I’m glad that my organization has an employee resource group (ERG) that celebrates pride, organizes awareness drives and takes necessary actions to make our office environment a respectable workplace.

But not all offices have such culture; and I can say that because at my first organization, an engineering firm, derogatory comments and discussions about homosexuals were common. In another firm, I was asked to conceal my identity from a section of office as they’re not “that open.” (A namesake friend shared his experience: I was in this board meeting, and one of the directors refused to shake hands with me. I was shocked to learn about this. Do even now people think it’s a disease? No wonder others have been practicing social distancing since forever with the marginalized communities in India.)

However, these are concerns for those who are out. Those that are not out yet reason that coming out jeopardizes their professional success, and I believe them for I know how structural bias works. But what about those whose mere appearance is intolerable for many in the corporate world? For them, even entering a corporate space, making the cut is still a big deal. Think transgenders, how many of them are in your office? And given the extremely humiliating 2019 Transgender Bill things have gone for a toss. The abusive structure is more powerful now than it’s back then. Now anyone can question your identity, and you’ve no say to declare who you are.

No wonder LGBTQIA+ individuals have to think a lot before they can wear what they want to or express themselves the way they want. Let alone major concerns like gender-neutral toilet or special healthcare benefits for transgender community, one always questions even basic personal conduct: Is this stole okay? Can I wear a nail paint, will they judge me: a male wearing it? What is their to celebrate then?

We should certainly be happy for what has been done. We’ve traversed a remarkable journey, but a lot needs to be done to move forward. And here is the list of things that should be done — we all are responsible to educate people about the community, the struggles and the need for an equal, a better world. A world without judgments, ready to embrace anyone with believes, conducts and personalities different from our own — our language, our culture, our country.

And all this can’t happen until and unless we have:

  • Self-identification of people. For god’s sake let’s tell you who we’re. Let my trans* folks tell you they’re and don’t put them into humiliating tests against their desire.
  • Disruptive communication that drives change (in schools, homes, and offices) that helps people know what this alphabetic soup LGBTQIA+ means, what they want and how they should (or not) be treated.
  • Fundamental rights as an employee. To enter a nondiscriminatory workplace, to access a restroom free from stares, to share feelings with our team and manager without getting judged, to have same-sex partner insurance. In short to be who we are even in our offices.
  • An open and accepting society. Right to express ourselves, marry whom we want or chose not to marry. Freedom to adopt children, be registered as same-sex couples, changes in divorce laws, etc. That’s the goal which we should have while we celebrate this first anniversary of freedom.

I think it’s doable, isn’t it? What’s worth a life that will lose out against hatred? Let’s make love win again. Let’s hope we celebrate a different India when we observe our second year of freedom.

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Saurabh is working as a writer in a research and advisory IT consultancy firm. He frequently writes about gender and sexuality, and book reviews on an array of platforms.
Saurabh Sharma

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