For Sanket Bharadwaj, an advertising professional and activist for the LGBTQI community, coming to terms with his queer identity did not come easy. While growing up in Rourkela, he always felt that there was something wrong with him. “For a long time, I felt it was just a phase as I was facing a lot of trouble due to my behavioural changes which I didn’t understand”, said Bharadwaj while talking to indianexpress.com. It was only when he shifted to Bhubaneswar, that he found mental health foundations for the LGBTQI community.
“Urban India is still more liberal compared to what I saw in my hometown. In a small town like Rourkela, there are no gay spaces like the metro cities. There is no one with whom we can share our problems or who can understand us. With the help of social media, we used to find like-minded people. However, when I moved to Bhubaneswar things started changing for the better as I had my own space. I felt it is a better place for the third gender”.
The Supreme Court on September 6, 2018, passed a landmark judgment of decriminalising part of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1861. The verdict finally gave a ray of hope for the queer community of having a better life. To live in a more tolerant, culturally diverse and inclusive town or city and not be viewed as criminals.
According to Ruble Chowdhury who came out to his friends and a few family members at the age of 20, “It took me around more than 5 years to accept and know myself, but the wait was worth the acceptance and love. Apart from my friends from school, college and university, my teachers, my cousins and a few family members know about my identity. I’m yet to come out to my parents because, for me, their acceptance is bigger than the entire nation’s legal acceptance”. Like Ruble and Sanket, Tanisha spoke to us about what it’s like to live in small-town India, as a member of the LGBTQI community.
“The thing about being a member of the LGBTQI member in a small town is that it’s still not discussed openly. So, I basically spent my whole life in Jamshedpur pretending to be straight rather than coming to terms with who I was. I was scared of people finding out, although I did mention to one classmate of mine, who laughed and eventually we stopped talking”, says Tanisha.
Financial independence is also a big issue. Sunil Mehra, one of the petitioners against Section 377 did not pursue a career in the civil service because he feared his sexuality will be mocked. “The biggest hurdle is, first of all, employment. The news about the Aligarh University professor passing away who was kicked out for being gay was disturbing too. Getting employment itself is a huge hurdle, after which there is the discrimination in many workplaces. Also, the process of coming out depending on the profession. Like Mehra, many would choose to not come out, simply to keep their jobs”, says Tanisha.
According to Bharadwaj, “Movies like Aligarh acts like an eye opener for the authority to treat the sexuality of their employees”. The lack of acceptance is also because of a knowledge gap and less awareness of the LGBTQ+ community, says Abhilash Patra, a Public Health professional from Berhampur. “Fear will still exist because of several reasons which will change in a very slow process. The fight has just begun, and we need to work on helping people understand that the LGBTQI community needs their social surroundings and support to improve“.
While the LGBTQI community and others celebrate the landmark judgment of decriminalising part of Section 377, the daily life for queer members living in small towns, is still fraught with insecurities and instability. Financial independence and the constant struggle to find acceptance are everyday realities.