Gender discrimination

When will marriages and workplaces become queer-friendly?

A sensationalist news story about a ‘lesbian wedding’ throws the vulnerability of LGBTIQ people into sharp relief.

On July 5, friends on Facebook began to share a story whose headline was designed for outrage: “All Hell Breaks Loose As Two Women Wed In Koramangala”. The matter did not die down once the terrible headline had succeeded in making the piece go viral. Several news stories followed, both in print and on television. Scrolling through these, I came upon a news item which showed the “blurred” images of two women – their faces were hazy, but recognisable. I was worried about the repercussions.

Sure enough, another piece appeared soon after – one of the girls had been asked to resign from her workplace. Unsurprisingly, the two women denied being married or being in a relationship at all. What choice did they have? Both the sensationalist news exposé and its consequences raised the long pending about what qualifies a marriage and what constitutes workplace harassment for a queer-identifying person.

Ties that bind

Lesbian women face routinely face harassment and blackmail from the police and their family members on the pretext of Section 377, which criminalises non peno-vaginal sex. The law does not however, criminalise relationships. Same sex marriages do not have legal sanction, but no one can stop anyone from marrying someone of their sex in a symbolic or religious ceremony.

First Indian lesbian wedding in America. Photo credit: Transgender-Lesbo Legal Rights/Facebook
First Indian lesbian wedding in America. Photo credit: Transgender-Lesbo Legal Rights/Facebook

My views on same-sex marriages have also undergone change over the years. Once, I was critical of marriage in general and this applied to queer marriages too. I refused to attend my heterosexual friends’ weddings, I did not even congratulate them because even though I knew these women to be feminists in thought and action – I believed marriage at its very essence, is patriarchal.

But despite these misgivings, my feminist comrades and friends kept marrying men. I saw them giving in and wondered why – didn’t they know that marriage was the first institution that perpetuates patriarchy? It is through marriage that society establishes the notion of a “legitimate” heir, who will carry forward lineage and property. Marriage propagates compulsory heteronormativity, which states that a holy union between two people has the sanction to carry forward societal norms, under the benevolent, all-controlling gaze of the State.

This rigorous critique of marriage, once a staple of any feminist discourse, has somewhat abated in the last 15 years. Friends choose to marry on the pretext of family pressure, seek sanctions to have sex, to live together, forgetting that some of us cannot marry the person of our choice, and that their choice of marriage dis-privileges us.

So I began to come around. If heterosexual feminist friends were willing to disregard the problematic aspects of marriage and still get hitched, why not queer people too? Admittedly, this realisation is still somewhat uncomfortable for me. Marriage can never be a completely free choice until societal privileges remain attached to it. One’s spouse is the socially-sanctioned answer to all of the following questions: Who can I buy a house with? Who will be the default parent of my children? Who will be the nominee of my life insurance policies? Who will be the legal heir to my ancestral property?

Photo credit: Wedding vows/Facebook
Photo credit: Wedding vows/Facebook

For same-sex couples, these aspirations of economic benefits cannot be achieved because same sex unions are not recognised by the state. But still, the social benefit of respectability, the heteronormative idea of coupledom can be and are achieved through a marriage. A married couple is one that will look after each other in sickness and health, a couple who will be the emotional and physically dependent on each other, or so the fairy tale goes.

At work

Part of the problem is also how same sex unions are viewed and represented to the world. Time and again, people from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Questioning community have asked media houses to be sensitive while telling our stories. False information, unverified information and false legal information can cause tremendous upheaval in our lives. Bangalore Mirror’s article on July 5 changed the names of the women but the smaller details of their lives were mentioned, like their age, their occupation, their family background and their live-in-relationship status.

Media houses may not realise or care, but these are easy markers and people can easily trace those in the news. For queer individuals privacy is often the difference between life and death, between security and unemployment. Due to the stigma and discrimination still attached to being LGBTIQ, it is not easy for everyone the community to be out and proud about who they are. It’s not easy to talk about our families of choice because blood relatives and families by marriage are still considered more important. Therefore, to forcibly out someone is violence against the entire community.

Photo credit: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
Photo credit: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

For instance, following Bangalore Mirror’s report, this is how the company where one of the women worked decided to let her go: “The company people called me in the morning and asked me if I want to continue in the job or not,” she told the same newspaper. “They asked me to talk to my parents and get back. I told them I’ll talk to my lawyers and get back. When I called them back at 5.30 pm, they said Human Resources had decided that I should leave the company since they knew that it was me who was making rounds in the media from morning. This is totally unfair.”

A person’s gender identity or sexual orientation should not be a hindrance to their employment, but sadly, this is not how things work. Many work places have established sexual harassment and work place harassment cells in the past few years, several corporates now claim to be LGBTIQ friendly. A few reputed organisations have even organised sensitisation programmes on issues related to LGBTIQ identities.

But on the whole, discussions about discrimination and harassment at the workplace are limited to the sphere of sexual harassment, where male bosses sexually abuse and harass female colleagues. While this issue is incredibly important, it should not be forgotten that several members of the LGBTIQ community constantly face this form of harassment too, particularly when their gender identity and sexual orientations become known to the company.

As part of my work as an activist, I have encountered a pre-operated transgender man who was given a ladies handbag and a makeup kit for his birthday by his colleagues. A lesbian friend was offered sex by her male boss when he learnt that she was gay, a transgender woman who knew 13 foreign languages was denied employment in an MNC because she mentioned being trans in the form. Since many queer people are thrown out of families, their life is dependent on these jobs. Where is the space in the women’s movement or in the general discourse to talk about these issues?

Photo credit: PTI
Photo credit: PTI
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.