How queer couples have to fight to be together in India

This struggle persists even four years after the Supreme Court of India decriminalized same-sex relations 

Adhila Nasarin and Fathima Noora, who hail from the state of Kerala in South India, met five years ago during high school in Saudi Arabia. They started hanging out and realized they had a special connection. They had no idea what their love meant, as their families or social circles had never had any open conversation around sexual orientation. Since their families also connected socially, they spent a lot of time in each other’s company and figured it out together. A year into their relationship, their mothers and siblings found out about their relationship after reading their private chats. That led to various events and their eventual elopement and struggle to be with each other.

Their story is an example of how difficult it is for queer couples to be together, even four years after the Supreme Court of India’s decision on decriminalizing same-sex relationships and the recognition of trans rights by the Supreme Court in 2014 and the Indian Parliament in 2019. Though the familial and social pressures Nasarin and Noora were subjected to were extreme, they are not an isolated case.

First, “Our mothers told us that it was not possible. It was against religion. And if our fathers came to know about it, they would kill us,” says Nasarin. The two promised their families that they would not contact each other again, but they stayed in touch when they both moved back to Kerala with their families for their higher education. They were found talking many times at their homes, as they did not have any privacy, similar to many other women in India. According to the National Family Health Survey 2019–20, only 54 percent of Indian women between the age of 15 and 49 years have a mobile phone they themselves use. All of their activities, including on amobile phone, are often monitored by their families. Whenever that would happen, they would convince their families that each time was the last time.

When their fathers came to know about it last year, things got worse. Nasarin and Noora started facing violence in their homes. In May 2022, they eloped, found shelter at an NGO in Calicut and informed their families that they were together. Their families followed and convinced them that they just needed some time to understand their relationship and identity. So, the two went to stay at Nasarin’s family’s home, where they faced manipulation and brainwashing from their immediate families and relatives.

After about a week, Noora’s family dragged her out of the home while Nasarin’s father held her back and assaulted her. Both faced multiple injuries. Noora’s family took her to a counsellor who suggested conversion therapy. Nasarin posted about their ordeal on Facebook and filed a habeas corpus petition at the High Court of Kerala, as she was afraid that Noora’s family would forcibly take Noora to Saudi Arabia, where there was little legal protection for her rights, including her ability to see Nasarin.

 

Under Indian law, the writ of habeas corpus allows the petitioner to report unlawful detention and to request the court to pass an order for the detainee to be produced. In their case, the court directed the state police to bring Noora to court, where she expressed her wish to be with Nasarin.

Though Nasarin and Noora are now building their lives together as a couple, some other couples are forced to take extreme steps. Fearing separation, a lesbian couple in Tamil Nadu died by suicide in 2020. Another couple died the same way only a couple of years prior in the western state of Gujarat.

Families, through the state and the police, control their children’s lives—even when they are legal adults—and punish any deviance from cisheteronormativity. As such, many couples see no option but to flee their homes.

That is what Ram, a trans man, and his partner Siya, a bisexual cis woman, did. (These are pseudonyms to protect the privacy and safety of the couple.) The two met in school when they were teenagers in Noida, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, near New Delhi. They fell in love, but Ram, who was two years’ Siya’s senior, left the school before her. They reconnected at graduation, got back together and decided that they wanted to stay with each other. The two belong to communities where young women are usually married off before they reach the age of 20. Siya, who is now 20, came out to her family and told them she wanted to stay with Ram. But their families confined them to their homes, only allowing them to go out for their classes and exams. In 2020, Ram, who was 20 years old, was taken to psychiatrists and temple priests for “treatment” against his will. Families in India often take their queer children to quacks, priests and spiritual leaders to “cure” their gender identity or sexual orientation.

“We thought that we should leave and shift elsewhere. And if they want to understand and accept us, they will do so in a couple of years. If they do not want to understand, then we cannot do anything,” says Siya.

Ram started planning their elopement, securing a job for himself. He had not yet begun gender-affirming care, nor had he changed the gender on his identity documents. Through a queer rights activist whom he had approached for help, the two reached out to the Delhi Commission for Women and left their homes to stay at a women’s shelter.

After moving to the shelter on April 1, 2021, Ram and Siya filed statements with the New Delhi police saying that they were staying at the shelter home voluntarily and had left the families of their own accord. When a sub-inspector (a police force rank applicable extensively in South Asia) of the Uttar Pradesh police came calling, along with their families, they could not force them to leave. After a week’s stay at the shelter, the two left for Bangalore and started carving out their lives there. Several months after the move, they are now in touch with their families. Ram has visited his home twice, but his family still does not recognize his identity, despite even his physical transition.

“After my surgery, I have changed a lot physically. My voice has changed, and my looks have changed. They still say I am a girl, and they have not even started using the correct pronouns for me,” says Ram.

Challenges and options

Queer couples face myriad challenges as a result of dependence on their families, social attitudes, lack of sensitization and understanding of queerness in schools, colleges, medical institutions, police and other areas of public life. First, leaving home may not be an option available to many couples, especially those who are assigned female at birth, and for whom family is the only support system available. In many regions in India, family is one of the most integral parts of people’s lives. Many adults remain materially and emotionally dependent on their families, and follow the customs and strictures of their patriarchal households. Families too exert influence on their children’s decisions related to their education, employment, marriage and other milestones in life.

Maya Sharma, who works with the Vikalp Women’s Group on issues of queerness, labour and women’s rights in Gujarat, provides some context: “Many times, in India, all we have is social capital in the form of families. Not having this social capital or family with you can be harmful.”

Second, despite the legal recognition of rights, we do not see a lot changing in the society.

“The governments have not given much publicity to these judgments and the rights of queer people,” says Kaushik Basu, a practising lawyer at the Calcutta High Court. Families don’t understand these new rights or recognize non-cishet intimacies, and will take extreme steps to separate queer couples. When their adult child leaves home, a family might file complaints of abduction and even human trafficking against the partner. Like in the case of Noora and Nasarin, families sometimes convince their queer and trans children to come back and then illegally detain them in their homes.

Basu advises eloping couples to reach out, as soon as possible, to a queer NGO or shelter home, as well as a lawyer, to get the support they need. He also advises adult couples to send a letter stating their intention to leave the home of their own volition and attach copies of the documents they have proving their identity and age in a registered post to the local police station as a safety precaution.

Koyel Ghosh, the managing trustee of Kolkata-based queer advocacy organization Sappho for Equality, which provides a temporary residence for queer people, also suggests some dos and don’ts for such couples.

“If you have an Aadhaar or Voter card, definitely take it. Wherever you go for a job, you will require your ID proof. If you have mark sheets [from school or college], take them,” suggests Ghosh. Aadhaar is a unique identity number for Indian residents used as a proof of their identity and to use social services. They also advise against taking anything valuable from their family home, as families might claim theft, leading to charges by the police.

As someone who manages a shelter home, Ghosh says there have been situations when they’ve had to intervene with the police, who are often violent, and put shelter staff  in lock-up too. Such intimidation and violence by the families and police against activists and people managing such homes is not uncommon. In a recent case from July, the police forcibly picked up a trans man and assaulted members of a government-aided shelter home in New Delhi. Similarly, a woman was imprisoned in Punjab last month for supporting a trans man who had left his home of his own accord.

Finding acceptance amid systemic discrimination

In some cases, queer couples can find a kind of acceptance from their families through existing cultural and social notions. They may do so by adhering to the patriarchal norms or religious beliefs.

For example, Sharma knows of one situation where a family accepted a transmasculine person because they did not have any sons in the family, and they realized their offspring could now take care of the family land and profession. In another case, a transmasculine person found acceptance in their community as the villagers believed that they took on the role of a divine figure every full moon.

“People discover ways for themselves in magnificent ways. I think it is their power, as it is impossible to live a closeted life,” says Sharma.

But leaving the family and establishing a relationship can be just the beginning of a series of challenges to navigate. For instance, Sharma gives the example of a trans person from a shepherding community who was denied a job at a company due to caste discrimination. So, queer people continue to navigate the intersections of their gender and sexuality along with other systemic issues of caste, class and religion.

While the legal options may seem helpful for eloping couples, many do not even reach out to NGOs or have access to legal support. Gupta says he feels the pain of queer people taken away by their families, particularly those who remain beyond the reach of the resources that may be available.

And the law itself isn’t always helpful in promoting their rights. In a July case concerning a gay couple, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court closed a habeas corpus plea when one of the men told the court that he was not under illegal detention by his family. Kerala-based lawyer Aneesh KR, who represented Nasarin when she filed her petition to prevent Noora being held by her parents, says this is fairly common. It may happen due to family pressure or stress. “There are many cases where the detenu [detainee] came here, and the detenu said they did not want to go with the partner. We have to give due credit to Fathima Noora, who said [despite everything she faced] that she wanted to be with her partner,” says KR.

Even if the couples manage to be together and find acceptance in their families, they still do not enjoy the same civil rights as a cishet couple. Take the example of Ankur Bhatnagar and Deepak Sharma, who have been together for more than 12 years now. The duo live in Bangalore and work in VFX and gaming animation. Bhatnagar’s family took ten years to accept their relationship. For all intents and purposes, they feel empowered now and want to expand their family by adopting a child. But they cannot do so as a gay couple. If either of them choose to adopt as a single man, the Indian law still won’t allow them to adopt a girl child.

Similarly, they cannot nominate each other to make medical decisions.

“Recently, Deepak underwent surgery for kidney stones. The doctor had asked us to sign the document generally attested by the family for the medical responsibility [for power of attorney]. I could not do so,” says Bhatnagar.

Different courts in India are currently hearing petitions for the recognition of same-sex unions and the rights pertaining to it, like parenting and medical decision-making. But the government of India has stated its opposition to these petitions, saying they go against the country’s culture and societal values.

Legal changes are important, but they are not enough when they don’t lead to any real social change. It would require an overhaul of existing norms around gender and sexuality or otherwise, queer people have to keep on fighting the family, the medical clinic, the landlord, the police and other social structures to exist and enforce their basic human rights. Some practical measures would include the sensitization about queer lives and relationships in educational, medical, professional and legal institutions, which still remain grounds of oppression and discrimination. At the same time, the debates around the rights for cohabitation and marriage need to consider the problems with the cis-straight unions, where inter-caste and inter-faith couples are targeted and sometimes even killed by their families in India.

For now, their resilience, along with benefits derived from their social location, help some queer couples find a way to be together while facing persecution.

“Everyone needs to get the guts to stand up for themselves, talk for themselves and get what you want,” says Nasarin. “At the end of the day, you only have you.”

Anmol (they/them) is an independent journalist and writer from India. They report on gender and sexuality, health and wellness, and food and culture. Their work has appeared in the BMJ, Whetstone SA, Mint Lounge, and other national and international publications. They speak English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu.

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Politics, Power, Feature, Discrimination

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