At 6:30 pm, on Raipur’s Marine drive, the LGBT community collected to celebrate the apex court’s verdict. A group of not more than 20, waving the rainbow flag, cut a cake, and shouted the words “freedom” and “Inquilab Zindabad.” As they hugged, and a same-sex couple kissed, some pedestrians stopped and stared. But on Thursday, it didn’t matter.
About 200 m away was a police patrol car that routinely patrols the neighbourhood each day. A member of the celebration pointed to it and said: “Today I am free, because that car, that sign of the Chhattisgarh Police does not scare me. Today I can stare at it proudly, and not walk past with my eyes lowered. Today, I am not a criminal.”
That sentiment was echoed earlier in the day when the verdict came, when a group of 10 people sat in front of the TV at a government Social Welfare Department hostel, watching channels cut to images of groups of fifty, hundred, even 500 people waving rainbow flags in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, making their voices heard. As they glanced around the room, each knew that in Raipur, they were only ten. Their sense of belonging had been hard fought, in fierce battles in both the private and public space. And then at 11.30 am, came the verdict.
“At 11.15, I was a criminal. At 11: 30, I’m free. It’s been a long time coming,” said Vidya Rajput, one of the most prominent transgender rights activists in Chhattisgarh. “There is a long way to go. But today, maybe even people in small towns and states will wake up and realise that we too are people, and we deserve to live and love.”
Like Indranee Kalita. She is patient while spelling out her surname. “It’s K-A-L-I, like the goddess, with T-A following it,” she says. She knows that most non-Assamese are unfamiliar with this surname. “I don’t think my name will ever appear in print again,” laughs Kalita. Maybe, the 25-year-old queer activist from Tezpur is right.
Away from the media blitzkrieg outside the Supreme Court, few are aware of how Kalita, and a few enthusiastic activists, started a queer movement in Tezpur in the past two years. “We hope that the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 makes things easier for us. We had to literally beg door-to-door to make people attend our first event last year,” says Kalita.
More than 1000 km away, in UP’s Gorakhpur, a similar gathering welcomed what is being hailed as “the most progressive judgment in ages”.
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Queer activists Tanzeel and Virendra Raj organised a gathering for the queer community of a town where no queer person wants to be seen with them publicly. “In a place like Gorakhpur, persecution is not about harassment. It’s also about deep-rooted self-hatred. I hope that changes now with this verdict,” says Virendra Raj.
For close to three years now, Tanzeel has been trying to open a counselling centre for queer people in Gorakhpur, but has been unsuccessful. “Whenever I approach any authority, they very politely say that there are no queer people in the town. Then where did I come from? I hope the mindset will change now.
At Islampur in West Bengal’s North Dinajpur district, 30-year-old Joyita Mondol, India’s first transgender judge who is with the Lok Adalat, summed it all up — the joy and the fear of the unknown that lies ahead.
“We are all happy and celebrating. But we have a long way to go. At the grassroots, in villages, community members do not know about Section 377. The police need to be sensitised. Now we have to speed up our struggle for equal rights in the true sense — social acceptance, education and jobs,” said Mondol.
For Sumi Das, who runs Maitreyi Sanjog in the villages of Coochbehar and other districts of north Bengal, the verdict “will empower people to work more” for the marginalised LGBTQ community in rural areas. “In villages, the situation is bad. The social pressure is too much and our community members hide. This will help us reach out,” said Das,
In faraway Thodupuzha near the Idukki-Ernakulam border in Kerala, transgender activist Jomol is embracing the verdict with a hint of trepidation. “Things have changed in the recent times. People from the trans community are coming out and embracing their identity. But in the past six months, there were two cases of harassment by the police. In one of the cases, I had to intervene to rescue the victim. I hope this verdict changes that,” says Jomol.
In Jamshedpur, transgender activist Ramji Nanda is quietly defiant — now more so. “Bhai sahab nahin, behen,” she is quick to correct. “By Class 12, I dropped out. How long can you survive in an environment where you are constantly referred to as ladki, chakka and still have the guts to go ahead with studies?” she asks.
With her father, an employee with Tata Steel, passing away in 2003 and her mother unemployed, the only way out for Nanda, who had to take care of her three sisters, was seek alms on trains for nearly 10 years.
Today, working with NGOs, Nanda is undergoing training with Tata’s Urban Services division to obtain formal employment. She says the court’s verdict is to be welcomed in “every which way.” But she knows the journey ahead isn’t easy.
“People react to us as if we were diseased…I have witnessed rape around me, I have endured it and when we complain, they say we got raped because we are like this.” Admitting there are days she feels like ending her life, Ramji recalls asking her mother, “Kiski galti hai? (Who is to blame?”)
Today, the court has given her an answer.
(with ENS, Kolkata, Ranchi, Thiruvananthapuram)