One recent morning, a minuscule minority of Indians sat glued to their phone screens waiting for men and women who sat in large seats to arrive at a judgement that would allow them the right to love and form relationships equal in the eyes of law, if not society.
The day began with a long reading of what it meant to be queer in India and how queerness has existed since time immemorial in South Asia. The lesson continued where queer people were informed how they were vulnerable and how for much part of their lives they remain a persecuted minority. They were also told what their lives could be or should be, if they were ever equal citizens before the law.
Queer people usually inhabit a life of trauma, dispossession, disenfranchisement and exclusion. Hence, we are patient listeners. We took the history lesson filled with platitudes about our own lives with a pinch of salt. We have realised long ago, in this world, that you have to let the heterosexuals bore you with self-evident truths before you reach a conclusion or understanding with them. So we hoped that at the end of the lecture would be a judgement that would make us equal citizens in love and law.
We were wrong.
Much sound and fury later, the court told us how very minuscule we truly are. It reminded us of our place in a patriarchal, heteronormative society where the chance for freedom was rare and to hope rarer still. It reiterated that to dream or seek equality or happiness was the privilege of a few. Not ours, not now at least.
Were we devastated? Not really. Disappointed? Certainly. This is not the first time that the courts have failed us and this will certainly not be the last. We know the institutions that fail us are a part of heteronormative society and we are aware of what they think of queerness and its manifestations.
It is well-recorded that there exists historical bias, structural and systematic oppression of queer individuals within this country. Even today, we remain at high risk of abuse, violence, diseases, homelessness and mental illness within our families and communities. This can be further aggravated when a queer person belongs to another marginalised group – a caste or religious minority. The Court had the chance to reduce this risk and make it possible for queer communities to find equity and the chance to imagine, and perhaps live, meaningful, dignified lives. It chose otherwise.
What will this do to our everyday lives? We will, of course, carry on. We have been resilient for far too long. We will fight again and not too long from now, justice will prevail. Until then, we will live vibrantly happy lives, we will soldier on even when they diminish our rights. They may choose to dehumanise us and bolster the conservative machinery that actively works against us. Institutions may fail us. We won’t fail ourselves.
We didn’t come to Court asking for committees and helplines. We came for our rights that have been denied to us. On a lighter note, perhaps if you deny us our fundamental rights, can you give us tax cuts too? After all, if we have fewer rights perhaps we should pay fewer taxes as well.
We will continue to laugh in the face of oppression as we did before. At a more fundamental level, our challenges will continue. Evidence shows that queer groups suffer poorer health outcomes than others. This we know well is both due to structural oppression and discrimination but also health disparities that affect these communities increasing our vulnerability to disease, and violence. This could have changed by degrees with a decision that respected our right to love and form unions. It could have given us hope to imagine less marginalised, more secure lives. It did not.
Even for the privileged, queer discrimination is rampant within social structures, law and the health system. This ranges from abuse, open discrimination to refusal to provide care, harassment, stigma and also pathologizing our identities and experiences. We become fearful of seeking support or care. We often force ourselves into crisis. All this could be moderated with the right to love and for supportive and secure unions freely in law.
So, what will this judgement do for us? It will allow us the bare minimum as human beings. If you cannot allow consenting individuals to form a union and pool together physical, mental and financial resources to achieve happiness, security and well-being, what category are those citizens? Probably, second class? Overall, queer people have and will continue to face bullying and abuse. We will continue to live with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and substance use. We will still fight on.
In the end, this judgement will be a reminder that a Court had a unique opportunity to help and strengthen India’s values of equity, justice and the right to life by granting civil unions if not marriage equality. These rights that could have been transformational in improving the lives of queer communities. Instead, it chose to side with patriarchy, with heterocentricism and oppression that are perpetuated on us every day.
All the talk about India’s long culture of accepting diversity and inclusion seems empty today. Because in the end, this winding judgement reminded us of a simple truth: be happy with what you get, else this country is no place for queer people.
Chapal Mehra is Director at The Rahaat Project and a Public Health specialist.