On July 2, 2009, the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality in India. Four years on, the impact of this historic ruling still resonates in the lives of LGBT Indians. Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance
‘I still cannot forget that moment. Though it happened some four years back, the memories stay with me. I tried every possible way, but it refuses to fade away. I live with it every moment of my life,’ said Shilpa in a soft voice.
I met Shilpa last week during a train journey to Jaipur. It was an early morning train, and mercifully there were not many passengers in my coach. I tried to catch some sleep, but as the train crossed into the Delhi cantonment station, I heard the loud voices of some hijras on board the train begging for money. As the three of them entered my compartment, one of them caught my attention: she stood at 5’2’’, had a petite frame and dressed in impeccable floral salwar suit. With an attractive smile and an elegant grace that preserved her dignity, she put forward her hennaed right hand to bless every passenger and beg.
The other two hijras of slightly shorter stature than the first stood behind her in complete silence but with same gesture – hands forward in expectation of at least a five-rupee coin. Many passengers ignored them, turning their heads away, cursing under their breath but loud enough for others to hear, ‘Oh God! What have I done today to see such cursed faces so early in the morning.’ All three of them pretended otherwise, but it clearly showed that they had internalized this humiliation and indifference.
As the one in the floral salwar approached me, I smiled and said, ‘Hi.’ She was perplexed at first, a bit hesitant as to how to return my greeting. Was it the first time that a stranger greeted her or even acknowledged her presence? Before she could respond, I gestured for her to sit next to me. Surprisingly, she sat without any reluctance. ‘This is going to be an interesting journey,’ I thought to myself. She silently signaled to the other two though her big kolhed eyes to continue begging in other compartments.
‘Hi, I am Rahul,’ I introduced myself in Hindi. Her smile broadened, ‘My name is Shilpa.’ Our conversation began but soon I realized it was she who took the lead, asking about my occupation, my trip to Jaipur, where I live in Delhi, where I’d stay in Jaipur. Then I asked about her life. She talked about how beautiful her childhood was and got excited as if unraveling some mystery. The other passengers looked on in disbelief, but I didn’t care. She described the delight of wearing her mother’s make-up, albeit secretly, and her desire to be an air hostess as they are so beautiful and always dress so nicely.
As she grew, she told me, she realized she could never achieve her dreams because she was born a male. In adolescence, her family scolded her for being feminine. She recalled one day in 8th class: ‘My teacher took attendance and when he called my name, he questioned derogatorily, “Are you like this since birth? So sissy, such a disgrace to your family.” Everyone in class laughed loudly. I stood there frozen. I did not know how to react. My eyes were in tears. No matter how hard I tried, I could not hide my feelings. One of the students commented, “Look he is crying like a girl…sorry, she is crying like a girl, or better still, it is crying like a girl.” After a while, the class resumed, but I did not speak to anyone. I could not concentrate.’
Shilpa continued, ‘There was no one I could share my pain of being “other”…or my joy. For my classmates that day was like any other, but it changed my life forever. Everything changed for me from that moment.’ Her eyes were moist, but this time she controlled her tears. After a few seconds, she carried on in the same soft voice, ‘I did not go home that day. I sat in a park. Ram Niwas Garden. In Jaipur. At around five in the evening, I noticed others like me, feminine just like me, wearing ladies’ clothes, jewelry, even lipstick. “So I am not alone,” I thought to myself.
‘I took courage and walked up to them. I stood in front of them. One of them noticed and smiled, “Who are you, beta?” I did not reply. Another continued, “Have you lost your way home?” Again I stood motionless just watching them in awe. The third one touched my cheeks and said to the others, “This boy is like us,” and then turned to me, ‘Am I right?” I smiled, nodding in agreement. They asked about my family, but I refused to say a word. They offered me tea and biscuits which I gladly took. Later they took me to their home, a dera where hijras live, a different world for me.
‘There were so many like me. They offered me female clothes. Though too big, I was happy to wear them. I danced the whole evening in that long skirt. I remember it clearly, a magenta ghaghara. Nobody called me names for wearing it. Everyone called me beautiful in that dress. I slept peacefully that evening, perhaps the best sleep ever. Next morning, the senior hijra whom everyone addressed as “guru” re-named me “Shilpa” and declared that from then on I was her daughter. I was so happy now to have an identity, one that resonates with my personality, my emotions and my desire to be a woman. From then I started my life as Shilpa and moved to Agra to live with my nani, the mother of my guru.‘
‘Did you ever try to reconnect with your family?’ I asked. ‘This is my family. I live with my family,’ came the answer. I corrected myself, ‘I mean your biological family.’ Unhappiness overcame her face, and she replied, ‘Yes, I tried to but through my neighbors. They told me that initially my family was a bit worried, but they neither searched for me nor filed a police report. Later they performed my last rituals and after that, my brother declared proudly that my family was finally free of the curse of “that feminine creature.” When I came to know all this, I was depressed and thought to end my life. My nani suggested that I do daily prayers, meditation, yoga but nothing helped. I still get nightmares. When I hear a group of people laughing, that memory of a fourteen-year-old being humiliated by his classmates and teachers returns.’
She stopped. I was quiet. She looked out of the window. After a few moments, she said that this was the first time she had ever shared her personal story with anyone. Then she added, ‘Believe it or not, I am grateful to my parents for performing my last rites. I never expected any dignity in my lifetime or in death.’
As she stood to leave, I quickly asked her if she remembered the date of the school incident. She turned back and said, ‘How can I ever forget that day. It was a day of my death and rebirth. It was July 2nd, 2009.’
July 2nd, 2009!
I gasped, remembering it as the same day of the Delhi High Court’s historic judgment on Section 377 of Indian Penal Code was read. It held that that the criminalization of homosexuality was unconstitutional, noting that:
If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be the underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of ‘inclusiveness’. This Court believes that the Indian Constitution reflects this value deeply ingrained in Indian society, nurtured over several generations. The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognizing a role in society for everyone. Those perceived by the majority as “deviants’ or ‘different’ are not on that score excluded or ostracized.
Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding, such persons can be assured of a life of dignity and non-discrimination. This was the ‘spirit behind the Resolution’ of which Nehru spoke so passionately. In our view, Indian Constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.
Shipla’s rebirth coincided with a transformation in Indian society itself. Just as Shipla’s story is not yet fully told, the 377 decision’s impact is still being written. Now even four years on, the transformation has only just begun.
The author of this post, Yadavendra Singh, is Senior Programme Officer: Capacity Building for Alliance India’s Pehchan Programme.
With support from the Global Fund, Pehchan builds the capacity of 200 community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and hijras in 17 states in India to be more effective partners in the government’s HIV prevention programme. By supporting the development of strong CBOs, Pehchan will address some of the capacity gaps that have often prevented CBOs from receiving government funding for much-needed HIV programming. Named Pehchan which in Hindi means ‘identity’, ‘recognition’ or ‘acknowledgement,’ this programme is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in consortium with Humsafar Trust, PNRO, SAATHII, Sangama, and SIAAP and will reach 453,750 MSM, transgenders and hijras by 2015. It is the Global Fund’s largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.