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This Pride Month, Justice Anand Venkatesh of Madras High Court has issued a set of LGBT friendly guidelines to ensure safety of the community from harassment by police and family.
A plea was filed by a lesbian couple whose families opposed their relationship, and were being harassed by the families, as well as the police.
Justice Venkatesh, in a spirit of allyship, engaged with the petitioners to better understand the community and ensure that his judgement is rooted in social justice.
After the lesbian couple (neither of whom were minors) left their families and moved to Chennai together, their families filed a missing persons complaints with the police, who routinely harassed them and the organisation committed to helping them. The petitioners filed a plea seeking protection from police harassment.
Despite the historical overturning of Section 377 in 2018, trans and queer people even now find themselves at the receiving end of discrimination and violence. Institutions like the judiciary or the police, too, have contributed towards this, which makes it worse, as the discrimination becomes almost systematic.
In such a culture where individuals are mistreated on the basis of their sexuality and gender, the series of Madras High court’s queer friendly observations and instructions are a welcome step towards a more inclusive and safe future for the community.
The Court in the case of S. Sushama and another vs. Commissioner of police and others, acknowledged how the lack of awareness about same-sex relationships put queer people in harm’s way. It called for the Parliament to make laws to protect the lives and dignity of queer folx and relationships. The court issued the 8-point guidelines for the interim period.
The guidelines mentioned that
In addition, similar suggestions were made for the law and order department and health departments. It prohibited conversion therapies and instructed strict retribution, including revocation of licenses, for those engaged in such malpractices.
How does this judgement recognise the various forms of violence against queer identities?
This judgement covered a wide range of hurdles for the community, from police harassment to lack of awareness. It even touched upon the evil of conversion therapy.
The history of police violence and discrimination against queer individuals is a long and harrowing account. A study in 2016 found that the police are the biggest perpetrators of violence against India’s transgender community.
The court’s acknowledgement of police harassment of the lesbian couple of this case is the result of a long struggle of queer assertion groups to hold the police accountable.
In addition to the law enforcement authorities, other places where the queer children and youth find themselves subject to bullying, harassment and violence are educational institutions. The school becomes a place where they face intense trauma and far-reaching mental health consequences.
The sensitisation programmes and inclusive syllabi suggested by the Madras High court can reduce discrimination and create safe spaces. Especially the suggestion to hold parent-teacher meetings, if that could happen in the presence of sensitised counsellors, could help parents understand their children and empathise with them.
Due to lack of such safe-spaces and the stigma attached to queer identities, illegal conversion therapies are allowed to thrive. Last year, a 21-year-old student died by suicide, bringing focus on the inhumanities of conversion therapy to ‘cure’ queer people.
From quack doctors to religious ‘babas’, an industry has grown around torturing queer people. It can involve anything from illegal shock therapies to exorcism and even ‘corrective rape’. It is deplorable and criminal, often leaving healthy people with irreparable damages to their mental health.
The court’s order to revoke the licenses of those involved in such illegal activities might not end the practice of conversion therapy overnight, but is a step in the right direction. Any doctor who thinks they can ‘cure’ homosexality or trans identities, should lose their license before they put someone’s life in danger.
The Madras High court judgement brought into focus various elements that stand in the way of equality. It could initiate a dialogue among the well-meaning sections of the society to work for queer liberation. As Justice Venkatesh hopes, “if my endeavour inspires, informs and changes a small collective of persons in understanding and accepting the LGBTQIA+ community, I would have achieved in delivering justice in its true spirit against dicrimination and towards inclusivity”.
The guidelines, the judgement and the sentiments expressed by Justice Venkatesh are laudable. As a community, the queer people have received so little respect and acknowledgement from the society that the bare minimum seems a lot. But that is not enough.
When Section 377 was written down, alongside the celebrations, a lot of queer people came out of their closets. As a queer person from a metropolitan city, I saw friends coming out to their parents who refused to accept their child’s identities. Then what about Dalit trans girls from rural areas?
Homophobia and transphobia exists in the social space, in addition to the institutional backing it has.
A judgement isn’t enough if the awareness programmes aren’t carried out extensively, if the MSJE does not follow the court’s directions, if conversion therapies aren’t criminalised immediately. Violence against trans women are as ever on the rise, the phenomenon of lesbian (/sapphic women) suicides continue unabated, gay men and trans men are bullied, violated and assualted routinely.
We, as a society, are making baby steps and then patting ourselves on our back for it. A lot more has to be done, and it has to be done without any delay. We, the members of the community, are fighting everyday in our lives. It is high time more allies like Justice Venkatesh commit to the cause of equality. Our constitution promises us equality and dignity, and we demand it.
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An undergraduate student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Describes herself as an intersectional
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