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Comfort In Anonymity

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For socially and economically disadvantaged queers in conservative Chennai, the quest for personal freedom and dignity does not end with the judgment on Section 377

BEHIND A PLATFORM ON the Beach-Tambaram line of the Chennai Suburban Railway, a long dark corridor bears witness to private longings. It reeks of urine and self-recrimination and ends abruptly at the wall of a flyover. “The flyover is like a fortress, or a guardian deity,” says Rakshita, 30. “It hides us from the world so that we don’t have to hide our true selves—even from ourselves.” Occasionally, an office-goer or two will take this shortcut out of the station, but as soon as the glow of a torch dies out, silhouettes immediately relax, the conversation resumes, and giggles pierce the darkness. This liminal space is one of many ‘hotspots’ in Chennai where queer men seek each other out in the evenings, casting off their masks. Hang around and you will hear snatches of a strange language, like a song set in an unfamiliar key—a godi or a thadi is a policeman, a cowdy is a rowdy who wouldn’t hesitate to use you and then steal your valuables, ‘gatekeepers’ are the local gang of high school boys who come to mooch a fag and in return, help kothis by raising alarm in case of trouble. “We do not come here seeking sex alone. We forge and value meaningful connections with people who understand us. This is the only place where we can nurture our preferred gender roles. I am a kothi, a man who likes to be with a dominant male partner and I do not have to hide my feminine streak here,” says Rakshita, a housekeeping staffer at an office in Guindy who lives in Shenoy Nagar and frequents this hotspot several times a week. A balding stranger—a panthi, as the penetrator in a male-male sexual encounter is called—walks past, propositioning to Rakshita, who, in dark trousers and a moustache, turns him down, saying, “There will be others, but let me first get this right. Anal sex is legal now? Does that mean the godi who just came charging at us, dispersing us like a flock of cattle, won’t bother us anymore?”

The answer is a regrettable no. For queers from socially marginalised and economically disadvantaged classes in conservative urban centres and in mofussil India, the landmark September 6th judgment of the five-judge Supreme Court Bench that struck down provisions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, thereby decriminalising consensual same-sex acts, does not herald a bright new dawn. Local constables will not stop rapping them on the knuckles for alleged solicitation or public indecency. They will still live smothered lives, carrying the yoke of familial obligation and seeming to conform to socio- cultural mores. The rogues in their own ‘community’—as queers are referred to in LGBTQ parlance—will not stop holding up a convex mirror, amplifying their fears with rape and blackmail. They will continue to be judged delinquents on so many fronts that they cannot imagine ever feeling safe from the law. “Because we cannot lead dignified lives as MSMs [men who have sex with men], we hide our real identity from family and society, but we cannot escape the indignity of seeking partners in public spaces and doing it behind the bushes. The rich can go to a hotel, we risk everything by being here,” says Keerti, 20, a colleague of Rakshita’s, a slight, handsome man who speaks only when spoken to. “If you catch us doing it in a public place, I agree we are at fault. But I have been beaten up by cops for just walking along the platform.”

Unnatural sex, a much-misunderstood term that can apply to same-sex intercourse as well as heterosexual oral and anal acts, has long been a cross that the LGBTQ community has had to bear alone. “The judgment is a symbolic victory for the community,” says V Karthick alias Kamakshi, an outreach worker with Sahodaran, a community- based organisation in Chennai that has been working for two decades on providing support and awareness to the LGBTQ community. The 25-year-old, who came out to his family two months ago after surviving months of shaming and battling suicidal thoughts, says he felt empowered enough this morning to wear a chunky silver pendant over his t-shirt. “Heterosexuals will also benefit from the judgment, although they won’t celebrate it,” he says. The Supreme Court bench noted that ‘Section 377 of the IPC fails to take into account that consensual sexual acts between adults in private space are neither harmful nor contagious to the society’. It further added: ‘On the contrary, Section 377 trenches a discordant note in respect of the liberty of persons belonging to the LGBT community by subjecting them to societal pariah and dereliction. Needless to say, the Section also interferes with consensual acts of competent adults in private space. Sexual acts cannot be viewed from the lens of social morality or that of traditional precepts wherein sexual acts were considered only for the purpose of procreation.’

“I come from a Muslim family and had to run away from a Jamaat that tried to turn me. I am dead to them. Only my mother calls me occasionally” - Shivani, 21

The lens of social morality is not easy to avoid in a city like Chennai. “Nothing escapes notice: the pitch of your voice, an ear stud, your gait. Whether I am in a sari shop with my mother or at Sangeetha Restaurant sharing a coffee with a friend, I have to be alert all the time and I talk very little so I that I do not betray my sexuality,” says Keerti, who recently agreed to an arranged marriage at his parents’ insistence. “Family is just as important to me as this side of my life. Whether I am a criminal or not in the eyes of the law, they will never understand what I feel. They brought me up with advice like ‘don’t look a girl in the eye before marrying her’,” Keerti says. “If they ever catch me with a man, imagine how perverse it would seem to them. There is no such thing as freedom, only a personal hell that we escape for a few hours in the evening.” In the mornings, Rakshita works as a priest at a neighbourhood temple. “It is my public face. My relatives respect my piety and so they cannot openly accuse me of being queer although they are aware that I am different,” says Rakshita. “While some families may accept queer children by treating their sexuality as a disability, MSMs in Chennai, and in small towns in Tamil Nadu, would rather dress as regular men and lead double lives. Besides, you have no idea how hard it is to get a sari blouse stitched for a man’s body,” he says, with a smirk.

“Shopkeepers, tailors, waiters, peons, anyone in the service industry will look down upon those who fall outside gender binaries,” says Selvi, a 34-year-old transsexual physiotherapist, slipping off her doctor’s coat in a pantry-turned- coat room she has claimed as her own, shunning men’s and women’s retiring rooms. After four years as a contractual worker—although a practising physiotherapist, her official post was that of a data entry operator and she was paid Rs 8,000 a month—at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital opposite Chennai Central railway station, she was regularised as a permanent employee only last year. “Some senior doctors don’t like my success. But I am used to this sort of ostracism,” says Selvi. There is a sculpted dignity to her face, the bindi and the nosepin as womanly as the rest of her. She has a fan following among nurses, patients, students and housekeeping staff. “I come here to feel respected. I have earned it.” After seeing 152 patients, Selvi signs off at 2pm and hops on the local train to Chetpet, but not before joking to the TT that like other transsexuals, she didn’t buy a ticket. Home these days is a government shelter abutting Chetpet railway station, where people who swam away from the mainstream take refuge—for months, even years. The windows shudder and the shelter heaves each time a train takes off from Chetpet station, an unseen, raucous ghost. A man-woman with close- cropped hair changes out of a sari into trousers in one corner of a hall. A young transwoman and her putative partner walk in shyly, hand in hand. Someone breaks into a dance. Others crowd around, clapping. An older woman in a nightgown sashays about like a louche pirate. A lone wolf, in an understated georgette sari, her hair in a thick bun and a lunch basket clutched under her arm, is the picture of grace.

“Two days after the judgment was passed, someone tugged at my arm on the train and demanded to have sex with me because the court had decriminalised it” - Karthick, 25

Most inmates are chronic vacillators, and crave company and attention. Selvi, who likens herself to a “lotus rising tall from the dirt”, says they are confused about their own identity, and do not understand what the scrapping of provisions under Section 377 could entail. “I am a transsexual who has undergone vaginoplasty, hormone therapy, breast augmentation and laser hair reduction. I have lived as a woman for years now. But there are people from various colours of the spectrum who have one foot in each gender. Most of them are unlettered. Nothing is about to change in their lives. They will continue to do sex work or seek multiple partners, and put themselves in risky situations,” says Selvi, whose afternoons are spent counselling inmates to find interests or occupations beyond sex and sexuality. Selvi comes from a tiny village in Tirunelveli district and remembers in harrowing detail the ignominy of growing up an effeminate, god-fearing boy—wanting as well as resisting the advances of her first lover, a helper at the Siva temple; her mother striking her with a spoon on the green- painted steps of their house, leaving her wondering where she had gone wrong; reconciling morality and her identity although society taught otherwise. “The only way out of that life was an education,” she says.

Empowered LGBTs like Selvi, who had staged protests against the government demanding jobs for transsexuals, can now add another feather to their caps—that of respectability in the eyes of the law. The judgment makes life a little more bearable for educated or employed LGBTQs who constitute the elite layer that takes out pride marches, participates in advocacy and is aware of their hard-won rights. According to the National Bureau of Crime Records, 4,690 cases were registered between 2014 and 2016 under Section 377. Among the accused are those booked for consensual gay sex, and if they haven’t already filed a petition in court, they can now hope for charges against them to be dropped.

“Shopkeepers, tailors, waiters, anyone in the service industry will look down upon those who fall outside gender binaries” - Selvi, 34

“As of now, a stable career is as hard to find as a stable partner,” says 33-year-old Sadhana, who waits to board a train after doing business with shopkeepers at the Paris bus stand. “I front them an advance in the morning and they return the money and pay a commission at closing,” says Sadhana, who holds an MSc Microbiology degree and has applied for an MPhil. “Trans persons and queers are only seen as sex symbols. We are not taken seriously at workplaces,” she says. According to the report Creating Inclusive Workplaces for LGBT Employees in India by Google, IBM, Goldman Sachs and Community Business published last year, the LGBTQ community accounts for no more than 5-10 per cent of corporate India’s workforce. Around 80 per cent of these employees, the report adds, face discrimination and are subjected to homophobic comments, actions and threats at some point in their careers. Earlier this year, the Madras High Court directed the state government to enable transgenders to get jobs in government services. The state government already sponsors gender reassignment surgeries for trans people but the procedures performed in Chennai leave a lot to be desired, says 37-year-old Priyanka of Royapettah who attained ‘nirvana’—as the surgery is known—over 10 years ago. “Now I am into sex work to save up for a proper procedure in Thailand.” Priyanka was still in her teens when she fled home to seek comfort in anonymity. Now, she occasionally visits her family—her aunt and five sisters—but always under a burqa. “I am hidden away if a visitor comes, as if I have no right to exist,” she says.

“We are an undeniable part of the new world order,” says Bhanupriya, 54, a veteran transgender activist. “You cannot keep the LGBT community hidden away in a closet, but you are not yet ready to embrace them. I may speak good English but if I am a dark-skinned male in a woman’s clothing walking into a supermarket, they will assume that I have come to beg.” The Supreme Court verdict is “just a stamp”, says Bhanupriya, father to three children, who spends three days a week with his family in Perambur and the remaining days as a free transwoman living alone in Tambaram. What if the two worlds were to accidentally collide? “How I wish they do. My children are in college and they cannot yet make sense of my life, but one day, I will tell them. And perhaps cite the Supreme Court verdict in my defence,” he says.

From getting a tailor to measure them for a blouse to going to church or buying mallipoo (jasmine), no task is too easy for an LGBT person in Chennai, says Shivani, a 21-year-old at the shelter who is on her way to Marina beach to seek customers. Her whole life has been a strangled rebellion—against an orthodox Muslim family and their Jamaat (assembly), against gurus who exploited her and men who left her tattered—and now this is the only way forward, she says. By night, the shimmering sands turn into so many dark sanctuaries— gay men have their own chatty corner, older kothis occupy yet another nook. Trans persons seem to walk free without fear, casting glances every which way. Chennai’s beaches, railway stations and bus stops are perhaps the most accommodating of non-normative looks and behaviour, but they only afford a false sense of safety that could come crashing down in a moment, says Karthick. “I don’t think the judgment adds to my sense of security. Just two days after it was passed, someone tugged at my arm on the train and demanded to have sex with me because the court had decriminalised it!”

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