On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code holding that it was unconstitutional “in so far as it criminalises consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex”. This landmark judgement was a result of decades of struggle through petitions and protests by queer rights activists and organisations.
It was a moment of triumph for India’s queer community. The judgement was not only a symbol of social progress but also a turning point of decolonisation from the draconian British-era laws. However, while the queer community in big cities held celebrations, those living on the margins were cautiously optimistic. For most, rainbow flags and pride celebrations are a distant yearning.
In India, the representation of queer voices in the media, academia, community work, and politics is disproportionately made up of largely of upper-caste, upper-class, mainland citizens who can afford to live comparatively comfortable lives as themselves.
Queer individuals on the margins are an after-thought within the movement or considered when they are used to score diversity points. The multifaceted discrimination faced by queer individuals grappling with other social oppressions is rarely discussed.
In Mizoram, queer Mizos face sexual orientation and gender-based discrimination, while in mainland India they grapple with prejudice based on race, religion, language and tribal identity, in addition to queerphobia.
How do queer Mizos who have migrated to other Indian cities in search of better opportunities and openness find safe spaces and deal with the challenges unique to them?
Remi*, who has known of her identity as a lesbian since childhood, left Aizawl to pursue higher studies in Bengaluru. When she was in junior college, racial slurs were common. She recalled a one instance where a professor subjected her to a tirade in Kannada that left her sobbing and lead her to leave the classroom.
At a Bengaluru church, she was asked by other congregants if Mizos “still practice witchcraft and eat wild animals”. Remi said she had to take a two-year gap during her studies at a university where she was the only Mizo student because she was harassed by her neighbours.
She was stalked by these neighbours who spread rumours about her on a messaging app. Experiencing such normalised caste- and race-based prejudice has been exhausting and detrimental to her mental health, she said.
Rina*, a professional photographer in Delhi, said he was called “Corona” during the pandemic by neighbourhood children. “These things don’t really faze me anymore,” he said.
He was repeatedly sexually harassed by a male employer at the first place he worked in Delhi and left the job soon after that. “I think I have faced more discrimination because of my Mizo identity rather than my identity as a gay man here because my gayness is not as visible as my race,” said Rina.
This rings true for queer individuals from other marginalised social groups in India. Hate crimes and racist slurs against people from the North East had surged following the outbreak of the Covid-19 in 2020.
As Rina’s account shows, though they face discrimination based on sexual orientation as well, their being identified with racial slurs or as tribals puts them especially at risk of being harassed.
In Mizoram where 87.16% of the population is Christian, religion is intertwined with Mizo identity. Church councils have historically influenced state policy. Many church members are also state legislators and local leaders.
Queer individuals are vilified and considered “sinners”. It is the institution of the church and not Christianity that most queer Mizos struggle to reconcile with.
Kimi*, who identifies as bisexual and is pursuing a master’s degree in Allahabad, said that her sexual orientation does not affect her relationship with god or her spirituality. Her parents, however, are deeply conservative and may never accept her if she was to come out to them.
She is not ashamed of her sexual orientation but struggles with the church’s opposition. “Sometimes, when I feel that my heart is heavy, I simply talk to God and tell him my problems and I feel less alone,” she said. “It is nice to think that there is a higher being listening to me”.
For the mainstream queer community, it might seem contradictory to call oneself queer and Christian. But many queer Mizos grew up with the church as an integral part of their lives.
Engaging in community activities often meant engaging with the church. Spirituality offers comfort and tranquility even if the institution rejects and alienates them.
Remi survived a suicide attempt in her early twenties as struggled with self-acceptance and with her faith. Congregants from her church in Mizoram reached out and helped her reconcile her faith with her queer identity.
She said she feels reassured after hearing an account from spiritual Christians and their visions of heaven as a place where there is no gender nor markers of human identity. Remi says she regularly goes to church without feeling guilt about her identity.
In the face of such challenges, queer Mizos find safe spaces among their chosen queer families who empathise with them. In many instances, these chosen families also happen to be from other marginalised social groups as they have shared experience of oppression.
For Kimi, Allahabad has been a challenging place to settle in as she has been subjected to exocticisation and sexualisation not only in the streets but also at her educational institution. She said that she also feels caught between the Hindu/Muslim binary.
According to her, the sexualisation she faces varies from the experience of local women or queer individuals because she she harassed and fetishised. However, she said her safe space is her room in a flat she shares with other Mizo women.
For Rina, a safe space is a person, someone he can trust and be himself with. He also finds it easier to bond with queer individuals from other North Eastern states because of a shared culture and common experiences.
But, he believes that ultimately any space can become a safe space if there are accommodating and compassionate persons.
Remi feels the safest when she is not subjected to misogyny from straight men or when she is surrounded by other queer individuals, irrespective of their background.
Having experienced harassment and targeted prejudice over her sexual identity from several straight men, Remi finds it a struggle to be in male-dominated surroundings.
There is a unique form of estrangement that queer Mizos face from society in Mizoram and outside the state. Queer Mizos in mainland India often struggle in having to choose between their queer identity and Mizo identity.
Bigger cities offer better opportunities and a sense of anonymity and freedom to express sexual and gender identities. At the same time, Mizo society being relatively collectivist rather than individualistic, makes it difficult for queer individuals to feel a sense of belonging. But in big cities, separated from family and friends, they still long for the community support they grew up surrounded by.
Queer Mizos in mainland India hope that change is possible, as seen with Section 377. But the reality is that changes experienced by a majority of the queer individuals in India do not always reach those living on the margins. For queer Mizo individuals, the identities they are assigned by mainstream Hindu caste hierarchy identities as tribals and “rice-bag converts” influence their outlook on what democracy means.
They may never see a pro-LGBTQI politician in Mizoram or proper representation in the state and in mainland India, but nevertheless, they dream.
Ruth Chawngthu is a postgraduate student in social design. She is passionate about creating art and writing about culture, sexuality, and marginalisation, particularly issues that are not highlighted by the mainstream Indian media.
*Names changed to protect identity.