Not all heroes wear capes. This one wears running shoes, and her heart on her sleeve. The fastest woman in India, Dutee Chand, has declared that she is in love with another woman, becoming the first Indian sportsperson to come out as queer. The Supreme Court’s landmark judgment last year expanded the constitutional promise of equality by decriminalising homosexuality in India. Nevertheless, for innumerable LGBTQI people, it remains difficult to step out of the anonymous darkness of the closet. For women who identify as queer, the consequences are even grimmer. But true to her spunk, Dutee Chand has bravely sprinted off, blazing a trail for others to follow.
Chand’s journey from impoverished circumstances in a village in Odisha to becoming a silver medallist at the Asian Games is not the typical dream run that sports throws up. It threw up disturbing, existential questions about her gender — owing to the “abnormal” levels of naturally occurring testosterone in her body — that could have devastated any other athlete. She chose to fight, approaching the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to challenge the hyperandrogenism guidelines which ban women athletes with elevated levels of the hormone from competing in track and field events. For her, at stake was the autonomy to assert her identity (as a woman) and defend her credentials (as a world-class athlete). She won.
Radical change can only be incremental, something which the long history of the queer rights movement in India will attest. But all revolutions need their icons, who can turn theoretical arguments into something stirring, made of flesh and blood — who could forget American boxer Muhammad Ali in the ring, making his body a lightning rod for the black rights movement? Even if far less flamboyant, Chand’s dogged determination to not let sporting rules define who she was has held out transformative hope for the LGBTQI community. But that’s not all — she is also an icon for the entire sporting fraternity in India, where popular sports remains an overwhelming macho performance. Will she inspire a more honest conversation about sexuality in locker-rooms? Could she inspire young men to step out of toxic masculinity — and, perhaps, even out of the closet? For now, it is enough to listen to a woman in love, who believes that “everyone should have the freedom to love”, that no one has the right to judge her for committing to another woman. There is joy in this declaration, a sense of wonder at finding a “soulmate”. Most importantly, here is Dutee Chand, who once ran like the wind on the banks of a river, showing us how breezily revolutions can become real, how easy it is to speak of “the love that cannot be named”.