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Marriage Equality Is Still A Pipe Dream For Most LGBTQ Indians

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Much has been said about marriage in India – its inherent sexisms, its possible feminism, and its various excesses. But not enough has been said about how this social-institution-unto-itself affects queer people.

This less talked about, yet complex terrain is navigated rather deftly by “Gaycation”, Viceland’s documentary series hosted by Hollywood actor Ellen Page and her best friend and art curator Ian Daniel. Proclaiming themselves as “a couple of gays“, they cover queer culture from different countries around the world.

In September last year, the “Gaycation” team paid a visit to India. Here, they saw how the duality of eastern spirituality and colonial history impacts queer lives. And throughout the episode the issue of marriage came up in interesting ways. On four separate occasions, Page and Daniel met with queer Indians in (or seeking) relationships, and from each of these took away four key observations:

Marriage Is An Obligation

An afternoon spent with queer rights activist Harish Iyer gave Page and Daniel a glimpse into the complicated relationship between marriage and queerness in India. In 2015, Iyer’s mom Padma, raised a lot of eyebrows with a same-sex matrimonial ad: “Seeking 25-40, Well Placed, Animal-Loving Vegetarian GROOM for my SON (36 5’11”) who works with an NGO. Caste No Bar (Though IYER preferred).”

LGBTQ rights activist Harish Iyer with his parents. Image Source: Viceland.

She was turned down by all major papers, but in the end Hindustan Times agreed to carry the ad. An important gesture, yes, though that’s all it could hope to be in a country where same-sex intercourse is illegal, and same-sex marriage is inconceivable for many.

But there was something else entirely that Page and Daniel reflected on as they left Iyer’s home – the fact that in India getting married was something you were expected to do, gay or not.

Regardless of his orientation, Iyer’s parents still wanted him to perform a duty cast on any Indian son – to settle down and start a family. And yes, while everyone should have the right to choose their partners, is marriage really the great leveller?

The Institution Of Marriage Is More Hostile To Queer Women

While Iyer’s is a story of acceptance, many queer Indians aren’t as fortunate. And, as the show reveals, when you’re queer and a woman in India, things get a little more difficult. More than once during the series, Page asks “where are the women?” And it’s no coincidence that the first lesbian couple she and Daniel meet happen to be in hiding.

For representation only. Image Source: Anouk/YouTube.

They came on camera with their faces covered, holding hands, in a nondescript room. Having fled from abusive and manipulative families, they’d been moved to a safehouse run by Umang, a Mumbai-based support group for lesbian, bisexual and trans women. The couple had their identification documents taken away, phones confiscated, being tailed by the police, just because their families don’t think their relationship is valid or appropriate.

To you and me, these two young women have done nothing wrong. But to Indian society at large, their love alone is a massive affront to the carefully constructed system of marriage. A lesbian union destroys the tradition of dowry, of sexual division of labour, of the control of female sexual pleasure, and of reproduction. And when same-sex love threatens the most basic of social institutions, it is punished.

Many Queer People Are Forced To Compromise

An equally upsetting story comes from another young woman that Page and Daniel meet. She too appears on screen with her face covered, and never gives her name. When asked why, she explains it’s because of her partner’s family. Like the vast majority of Indian parents, they would never understand the relationship, and would lash out.

Even here, the spectre of marriage looms tall and oppressive. Not only has this young woman been forced to keep her relationship a secret, she is constantly aware of the fact that with each passing day, it is moving towards an unnatural end.

Talking to Page and Daniel, she says, “I’m going to have to be there and organise her wedding [and] pretty much give her away to someone else.

And for no reason other than society’s stubborn insistence on heterosexual and often unjust patterns of living.

Despite Everything, There Is Hope

The last couple we saw on this episode of “Gaycation” is a young trans man named Rajjat, and his wife Lakshmi.

Rajjat and Lakshmi have faced the worst that their families could dish out. He recounts how he was drugged, chained and forced to undergo shock therapy, and Lakshmi speaks about being forbidden from seeing him, and how, after they ran away together, her family sent them out and out death threats.

Yet, the couple have stuck it out, and found a place far away from their home town, where they are making a life for themselves.

The country’s laws are marginally better when it comes to trans people. Rajjat being able to legally change his name and gender identity, and then getting to spend his life with woman he loves – this is perhaps one of a handful of instances where marriage and queerness have intersected in a positive way.

Image Source: Elias Pew/YouTube.

Even in the “Gaycation” episode, theirs is clearly the minority among all the stories. It’s worrying to think of this queer couple’s ‘happy ending’ as an anomaly, rather than the norm.

Queer people in relationships are deliberately denied the legal benefits that come with marriage, which is why the passing of marriage equality in the U.S. was such a huge deal, even here, halfway across the world.

Having said that, we do need to take a moment to think about whether marriage really is the penultimate goal for LGBTQ Indians. Will queerness only be legitimised by what has long been the reserve of heterosexuality?

Featured Image Source: Elias Pew/YouTube.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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