The year was 2013. The Supreme Court had re-criminalised Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that declares “unnatural sex” a punishable offence. In its judgement, the Court justified its stance observing that the queer community comprised a “miniscule fraction” of the population.
These words stayed with Indrajeet Ghorpade. Three years later, as the Supreme Court was hearing a batch of pleas to strike down Section 377, Ghorpade felt that the legal jargon had to be made more accessible for members of the queer community. A Facebook page was born, “Yes, We Exist”, in response to the court’s previous remarks. “I wanted to assert that you may not see us because most of us were closeted since we were criminals in the eyes of the law, but that does not mean we are an insignificant, miniscule group,” Ghorpade told Scroll in an interview. “We exist and our rights matter, regardless of our numbers.”
In the years since, Section 377 was declared unconstitutional while the conversation on queer rights has made strides, and with it Yes, We Exist, which has become one of the most influential queer groups on social media. But in times where difficult conversations could easily be concealed by tokenism and a glossy rainbow coating, Yes, We Exist has sharpened its commitment to a just and queer politics. “We 100% believe in standing united with our community,” said Ghorpade. “When the so-called ‘queer leaders’ act in a manner that harms queer people, we stand united with our community.”
The commitment of Yes, We Exist is evident from the causes the group has taken up, such as harmful and queerphobic depictions in the media. But it has been a struggle. “With sufficient experience, I can say that the government does not care about queerphobia or the long-term ill-effects of stereotypical, inaccurate, fear-mongering, shame-inflicting representation of queer characters in the media, especially in movies,” said Ghorpade.
Further, despite the heightened coverage of matters such as marriage equality, Ghorpade notes that the mainstream media cares little to highlight issues that are of actual significance for the community. “A part of the responsibility is on us to bring attention to these matters, however it’s not easy,” he said.
In May, the Supreme Court reserved its verdict on a batch of pleas seeking marriage equality, or same-sex marriage rights. But as Ghorpade notes, weddings are fun and look great on social media, “but to make an anti-discriminations laws look pretty on social media, well, that’s a task”.
What was the purpose of setting up Yes We Exist?
I started ‘Yes, We Exist’ in 2018 when the Supreme Court was hearing multiple petitions seeking the reading down of Section 377 [Navtej Singh Johar and Others]. The purpose was to make our community understand what was happening in the Court using simple language and regular updates. Despite it being such an important case, mainstream news either did not report prominently and those who did, used a lot of legal jargon making it difficult for the masses to understand.
I initially planned to post from my personal account but I was not open about my sexuality then, so I created a Facebook Page named ‘Yes, We Exist’ in response to the Supreme Court’s earlier inaccurate remarks that the LGBTQIA+ community is a miniscule minority. I wanted to assert that you may not see us because most of us were closeted since we were criminals in the eyes of the law, but that does not mean we are an insignificant, miniscule group – we exist and our rights matter, regardless of our numbers.
Even though Yes, We Exist is one of the most followed queer Instagram handles, the platform is clearly very political – not just national politics but queer politics too. This is quite unique as you haven’t hesitated from ‘calling out’ certain ‘queer leaders’, questioning their acts and intent. Given that some believe there is a need for the community to appear together or united, how do you explain your approach?
We 100% believe in standing united with our community. Which is why, when Ashok Row Kavi, the founder of arguably India’s most funded queer NGO, Humsafar Trust, openly hurls casteist slurs at a Dalit queer person, calls lesbian women a ‘mafia gang’, or when Bindumadhav Khire of Samapathik Trust in Pune endangers the safety of a group of queer people by outing them to the police and labelling them as ‘potential troublemakers’ simply because he dislikes their progressive approach, or when organisers of Mumbai Pride assist the Mumbai Police in identifying a young non-binary student who is then slapped with false, politically motivated sedition charges, or when Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, occupies the Chairperson’s position on the National Council for Transgender Persons and instead of fulfilling her duties towards the community, focuses on portraying herself as a demigoddess, promotes transphobic cinema – when the so-called ‘queer leaders’ act in a manner that harms queer people, we stand united with our community.
Your platform has made appeals and even made submissions to various government entities on representation, language, queerphobia in the media including OTTs. What has your experience been?
Around three years ago, we complained to the Information and Broadcasting [or I&B] Ministry about TV9 Marathi, since it was promoting conversion therapy [an unscientific, ineffective practice that attempts to forcefully change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity]. The I&B Ministry dragged its feet for months and without granting us a hearing, had declared the show as ‘not violating’. For something so blatantly violating, we were forced to petition the Delhi High Court. Following a Court order, the Ministry granted us a hearing and the channel was finally asked to air an apology.
With sufficient experience, I can say that the government does not care about queerphobia or the long-term ill-effects of stereotypical, inaccurate, fear-mongering, shame-inflicting representation of queer characters in the media, especially in movies. Whereas we have seen repeatedly that the government is very quick, at times even proactive, if the issue is concerning representation of religious figures or Hindu kings and queens.
Similarly, other regulatory bodies such as the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasting & Digital Standards Authority, too, fail to take timely actions and fail to impose effective penalties, to curb queerphobia in newspapers or on TV news. In a recent hearing, in a case that we have filed against Aaj Tak, with NBDSA [News Broadcasting & Digital Standards Authority], the Chairperson, Retd Justice AK Sikri, made oral observations implying that ‘homophobia is just an opinion’. When learned people in powerful positions, despite their tremendous experience, hold such views about homophobia, our fight becomes much harder.
So far, we have only had a positive experience with the Advertising Standards Council of India, which has revised its policies to ban queerphobia and acts in a timely, sensitive and effective manner.
Yes, We Exist has also conducted a variety of surveys from time to time. The most recent is on the age of consensual sex, supposedly the only such survey with a queer eye on the subject. What are the key findings?
Earlier this year, in Bikaner, Rajasthan, a 17.5-years-old girl and her 20-year-old lesbian partner ran away from their parents’ homes to escape their homophobic families and live safe lives, together. They were eventually caught by the police and brought back and an FIR [first information report] was filed against the 20-year-old, even though the minor girl had released a video informing the public and the police that this was her own decision, without any manipulation or force from her partner or any other person. It is bizarre that if she was six months older, she would have had the right to leave her parent’s house and her partner wouldn’t have been in prison.
This case came to light because the couple published a video appealing for help and because BJP netas in Bikaner maliciously labelled this case as ‘love jihad’ as the minor is Hindu and the adult person is Muslim. But this is not the only case, several young queer people are forced to stay in violently abusive households, hide their relationships until they turn 18, because of the existing law.
The current law puts young people in a vulnerable state. Young queer people who are caught having sex often face physical violence, blackmail, sexual abuse, financial extortion and other harms. Moreover, young people are deprived of access to sex education, safe sex products, access to sexually transmitted diseases/sexually transmitted infections testing, and the right to act on their natural, harmless feelings.
But this does not stop young people from having sex. Very recently, over 1,400 people took part in our online survey, the findings of which said that more than 40% of them had had consensual sex before they turned 18. This number would’ve been much higher if consensual sex amongst minors was not criminalised. We found that 75% were of the view that the age of consent must be lowered, echoing the view expressed by the Chief Justice of India [DY Chandrachud] and by several other High Court judges, over the years. Unfortunately, the Central government has submitted in the Supreme Court that it has no plans to reduce the age of consent.
As a keen watcher of queer news and politics, do you see the media improving or regressing in terms of its reportage on the LGBTQIA+ community?
Lately there have been a lot more reports concerning our community. Most of them – largely digital – present the issues sensitively but only a few journalists put in the necessary effort to cover the topic in great depth.
Mainstream news corporations, both print and TV, however, are still reluctant to prominently highlight the real pressing issues that we face. For instance, you won’t find a single report in mainstream news on the recent illegal genital inspection and illegal arrests of trans women by the Railway Protection Force in Assam and by the Hyderabad Police in Hyderabad. In these two cases, a total of 28 trans women faced violation of their rights, guaranteed by NALSA [the Supreme Court verdict in the National Legal Service Authority case recognising and affirming the fundamental rights of trans people] and the Trans Act [ the Transgender Persons Protection of Rights Act], but the mainstream media was not interested to report about it. Meanwhile, over 30 articles were published this week on how Kareena Kapoor talks to her sons about LGBTQ+ people.
In many states, local media continues to be very queerphobic, for example, the Telugu news media continues to be a mouth-piece of the local police and often reports in a transphobic manner, further stigmatising our community. We also saw large corporations such as the India Today Group, use derogatory, inaccurate visuals to instil fear in the minds of the viewers against the community by associating us with abnormality, grooming, obscenity, and so on.
Do you think marriage equality should be the primary focus on the movement or is it anti-discrimination laws that fortify lives in a manner that both equality and equity is realised?
More than 10 top lawyers from the country argued in favour of marriage equality. While it’s fantastic that so many lawyers took interest in the case and made compelling arguments, I hope that they continue to show the same level of interest in other pressing matters such as reservations for trans people, anti-discrimination laws, anti-bullying regulations (currently there are none for school as far as I know), and so on. Currently, that interest seems to be absent, I may be wrong.
A part of the responsibility is on us to bring attention to these matters, however it’s not easy. Weddings are fun, weddings are emotional, weddings look great on Instagram. Whereas to make an anti-discriminations laws look pretty on social media, well, that’s a task!
Do you think the Supreme Court verdict on marriage equality has pushed the LGBTQ+ movement several steps back? What do you think are the next steps for the community?
The Supreme Court is kidding itself by trusting the Solicitor General’s assurance that the Parliament will form a Committee to grant rights to queer couples, especially when the Law Minister has himself hinted in an interview earlier that if the Supreme Court legalised gay marriages, the government would likely obstruct it.
My guess is that if the current government continues to be in power, it will not legalise LGBTQIA+ marriage at least for the next decade.
Going ahead, as a community, we must focus on building strong support networks across all districts in India so that our community, especially young queer people, trans people, who face violence from their own families have the necessary legal, financial and social support to survive in India. It should be the top priority. More people from our community should come forward to form this network so that the pressure on the existing NGOs, CBOs, activists, lawyers and social workers is shared and help is made available faster for those who need it urgently.
Sharif Rangnekar is the author of Straight to Normal and Queersapien. He is also the director of the Rainbow Literature Festival.
This article is part of the Queer & Inclusive series.