The awareness about different sexual and gender identities has increased over the years, thanks to the efforts of queer individuals and allies, but the LGBTQIA community is still grappling for equality.
June is celebrated as Pride Month around the world. It started in the US to mark the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan and eventually spread across the globe. The awareness about different sexual and gender identities has increased over the years, thanks to the efforts of queer individuals and allies, but the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, (questioning), intersex, asexual, and (agender)) community is still grappling for equality.
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Pride: Consciousness of one's own dignity
“Pride to me is representation, getting the stories out there. Generating awareness, yes, but also celebrating how far we have come,” says Kittu Pannu.
Kittu Pannu is a teacher in New York. Born and raised in New Orleans, Pannu came out as gay to his parents in 2013. “They told me ‘We’ll love you no matter what’ but they didn’t really understand or fully accept it. Our relationship was strained for about a year.”
Seeing how his mother's friends continued showering him with love, Pannu said his mother realised that her fears of him being mistreated and not accepted by society, in general, started to calm, and she realised that it was healthier to just accept him for who he is. Acknowledging the importance of his family’s support, Pannu said, “I’m very blessed in that sense because that’s not the case with most people”
He however added that it takes time. “People of the community need to have patience and understanding. It may not work out the way you want it to, but just because that’s the case, it does not mean it’s not worth sharing who you are.”
Sriram Koppikar moved to the US 20 years ago to escape the abuse he faced back home for his identity. After a fresh start, he explored his sexuality, and started coming out to trusted friends. Five years ago, he came out to his family, who had already figured it out and readily accepted it. “Today I am an openly gay man living happily on my own terms.”
Queer society - India vs the US
A general perception is that the Western world, especially most parts of the US, is more accepting of different gender and sexual identities than India. While it can’t be said that the people and law are perfect when it comes to providing equal rights to queer individuals, civil society in the US is more open to discussions around the fundamental rights of the community than in India. “It is definitely better in the US than back home, I can tell you that,” Koppikar said.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in the United States, makes employment and workplace discrimination against any employee of the LGBTQIA community a punishable offence. While a similar counterpart is present for transgenders in India, it is not implemented as strictly as in the US.
Koppikar said, “It is hard to tell if those who are accepting or 'seem' to be accepting of LGBTQ+ folks are as a result of the strict laws or if they genuinely feel so from within. I honestly don’t care as long as they are respectful.” He added that he’s sceptical because some of those who bullied him in India are living as proud allies in the US. “Not once have they had the courage to apologise to me for pushing me to the brink of suicide.”
Pannu, however, said that even though the US prohibits such employment discrimination, employers find some way or the other to discriminate against queer employees. “There have been professional opportunities that I’ve lost out on because of my sexuality,” he added.
Both Pannu and Koppikar underlined the importance for LGBTQIA individuals in the US to live in states that predominantly vote Democrats and stay in bigger cities.
Pannu visited India in 2017 and again in 2022. Talking about the changes, he said, “There’s been a pretty big shift in terms of openness. In Chandigarh, I was able to meet and dance with other LGBT people in what was perceived to be a ‘straight’ club. Things were relaxed, and people were a lot more accepting than I was expecting them to be. I was able to have drinks, smile, maybe flirt a little, basically everything I would do at a nightclub in New York.”
He, however, added, “I don’t know if that’s true for all kinds of cities in India.”
Utkarsh Kumar, an advocate and partner at a Delhi-based law firm Versatilis Partners, said that the debate in India on the community and their rights has been restricted to a niche section of civil society.
According to him, though there is a growing debate on the rights of LGBTQIA individuals in the Indian civil society, the same is still years behind the levels reached in the West. “This is more attributed to the cultural taboo around sex and sexuality in India. The debate is, though, picking momentum,” Kumar said.
Koppikar said, “I like the fact that LGBTQ+ folks have that sense of power here in the US, which we often don't seem to have back in India.” Talking about acceptance among the Indian community in the US, Pannu narrated a heartwarming incident when an acquaintance asked him about his marriage plans. “This relative asked me if I had a girlfriend. When I told her that I only date guys, instead of stopping the conversation, she went on to ask if I had a boyfriend and when should they start planning the wedding.”
Is there a change?
One of the five judges, part of the constitution bench that read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 2018, Justice Indu Malhotra had said, "History owes an apology... for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they suffered through the centuries".
But, Delhi-based accessory designer Akassh K Aggarwal, questioned what was rectified that was wrong in the history? “Did we get our rights then and there, why were they left out? Why were maternal/paternal rights left out? Why was the right to get married left?”
Aggarwal further said, “This idea of the coming generation being more empathetic and more accepting is a misconception. I see homophobia and discrimination like never before.”
Koppikar and Pannu, however, had a different view. “My nephew and nieces back in India are very supportive, just like the rest of my family. I have personally not met or heard of younger generation folks engaging in any kind of bigotry towards LGBTQ+ people,” Koppikar said.
Pannu concurred, “These are just 50-60 Indian kids I’m talking about, but in terms of my interactions with kids from my family in India, I’ve never faced any hatred.” He believes that it depends on the conversation a child sees in the household. “If children are told that differences between people are okay and that you should be accepting and loving of all people regardless of what their religion, sexuality, or race is, you're raising children who are then going to put that energy into the world.”
About the younger generation in the US, Pannu said that as a teacher, he has seen that unlike before, students pick on each other for their behaviours and characteristics rather than their identities.
However, Pannu highlights that while he has observed a positive change, there are still a lot of pockets, in the US where bigotry and hatred still lie. He recounted how he was called a ‘faggot’, a demeaning term used for gay men. “This would have happened a lot more if I was in the southern part,” he added.
Both men avouched that most Americans and Indian-Americans are genuinely more accepting of differences in people.
The way ahead
“Perception can change through you and me. Us coming out and saying who we are and other people being allies and talking about us. It is the courtship of having allies around the community; going together and taking forward the cause,” said Aggarwal. “The idea of me coming out and saying I’m gay is - I’m normal and it’s okay to be a queer”.
Talking about the importance of parental support, Aggarwal said, he doesn’t need people to love him as who he is, he rather needs them to love their child for who he/she/they are or can be. “So, the introspection is would you let this be a part of your own home, or would you pick out your own child for being queer,” Aggarwal said.
There are a lot of things to be done, according to Koppikar. He believes that greater awareness of sexuality and sexual identity is required. Pannu said that what the community is trying to do, and should continue to do is to make sure that the rights are kept. “It’s one thing to fight for it and another thing to maintain it. What's important is to remember to not just fight for the rights, but to fight to maintain them,” Pannu said.
Talking about the involvement of courts in securing rights for the community in India, Utkarsh Kumar points out that while the judiciary can right the legal wrongs, it is not a forum for correction of social wrongs. “The onus lies on the parliament and state assemblies. Courts have however urged the parliament to debate and discuss laws enabling the exercise of fundamental rights of the community and access to maternal and paternal rights. The abovementioned lack of public debates and consensus over the issue fails to provide the required incentive needed for political parties and lawmakers to formulate such provisions for LGBTQ+ communities.”
“While the judiciary has passed a number of judgements enabling the access to rights of LGBTQ+ communities, the lawmakers still need to develop a willpower to put them into motion,” Kumar added.
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First Published: Jun 28, 2022 7:53 AM IST