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India activists use Independence Day to reiterate call for equality

Government, private institutions continue to exclude transgender people

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(Photo by Rahul Sapra/Bigstock)

India on Aug. 15 celebrated 76 years of independence. 

This year’s Independence Day was very different. The Indian flag was everywhere; on cars, taxis, trucks, homes and government buildings. The country celebrated its true identity — Bharat, the Sanskrit name of India. 

Sanskrit, the world’s oldest language, is part of India’s cultural identity. But the country’s LGBTQ and intersex community is still searching for true inclusion in different government and private institutions. 

The Indian Supreme Court in 2018 struck down the colonial-era law that criminalized homosexuality. Four years later, on Aug. 15, Prime Minister Narenda Modi addressed the national from the Red Fort in Delhi, and talked about his vision for the country by 2047, but he did not specifically address the LGBTQ and intersex community.

The Indian government and private institutions do not allow people to choose gender-neutral or genderfluid identity markers. The use of appropriate pronouns for the LGBTQ and intersex community in public or private institutions is not very common either.

The Washington Blade sought comment from the Indian Post, the world’s most heavily used mail system, for comment on the issue, but it did not reply.

The Indian Post offers a variety of mail, insurance and banking services to its customers. While analyzing the saving account opening form, the Blade found that there are only three gender options: Male, female and other.

The Supreme Court in 2014 recognized transgender people as the third gender in a landmark ruling and ordered the government to provide welfare programs to the community.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” said the Supreme Court.

The available gender options force one to identify either with male, female, or other as trans even if they are not any of these. The Madras High Court in 2021 laid out an agenda of inclusion for the LGBTQ and intersex community, but the majority of government and private institutions are still far from following these rulings.

The Blade also contacted public sector banks as well as private ones like HDFC Bank; Central Board of Secondary Education; a national level education board; Axis Bank and the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, but received no response.

The Blade reached out to the Bank of Baroda, one of the country’s public sector banks. 

A person with the bank’s HR team hung up the phone when asked to comment. The bank has a branch in New York, but it did not respond to a request for comment.

Not everything, however, is as bad as it seems. 

Kerala, a state in southern India, in January 2021 decided to include “transgender” as the option in all government forms for a more inclusive approach. Following the Supreme Court judgment, the state established a district board for the trans community that can respond to trans-specific ID cards. 

Government and private institutions are failing to achieve complete gender inclusivity — including the use of proper pronouns — in spite of efforts to enact progressive policies for India’s trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and intersex communities.

Tamil Nadu, another state in southern India, on Aug. 20 published a document from its Social Welfare and Women Empowerment Department

The document included a glossary of terms to be used to address the LGBTQ and intersex community, and it came from the Madras High Court. The Tamil Nadu government mandates the use of terms from the glossary in all institutions, including the media, to address community members. It includes “thirunangai” (trans women,) “thirunambi” (trans men,) “pal puthumaiyar” (queer) and “oodupal” (intersex.)

Many high school students with whom the Blade spoke said the use of these terms would be a positive step towards inclusivity, but private schools and other institutions do not provide many options for those who want to select their gender.

The Blade in December 2021 reported the National Council of Educational Research and Training published a manual to make teachers and students more sensitive to LGBTQ and intersex issues. It was meant to create a more inclusive environment for trans students, but the organization withdrew the manual after conservative activists protested.

To make sense of how gender identity and sensitization about gender can affect students in schools, one must look back at February of this year, when a student of Delhi Public School, a premier private school, died by suicide by jumping off his residential building. His mother in a complaint she filed with the police alleged her teenaged son faced extreme harassment at school over his sexuality.

Changes in colleges and universities are also coming, but the pace is slow. 

The Blade in April reported that the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research became India’s first gender-neutral university. With this new policy, the university also included the gender-neutral prefix Mx.

The Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, a premier institution in India, and other central government-funded institutions have accepted and are supporting LGBTQ and intersex inclusion by allowing the formation of an LGBTQ and intersex club at the campus. But gender options other than male, female and other, are still not available on the institute’s entrance exam or during the admission process.

“We agree that despite various rulings and judgments passed by the Supreme Court, there is still a long way to go for having better inclusion in government institutions. Though from having ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the only two default options to choose from, there has been increasing inclusion of ‘genderfluid’, ‘others’, ‘prefer not to say,’ etc., as categories of identity in many, if not all, places,” said Khushi, a representative of Saathi, an LGBTQ and intersex support group and a club at the Indian Institute of Technology. “Yet to make this phenomenon or this change a habit or routine, there is a lot that needs to happen. Given the way Indian society is structured, this entire idea many a time falls on deaf ears.”

Khushi from Saathi (Photo courtesy of Khushi)

Saathi throughout the year organizes workshops, movie screenings and informal meetings for everyone, including straight people who want to understand the community.

“To bring about a change, the government bodies have to consistently use inclusive language across its portals. Being inclusive in the school/college admission process as well as a further commitment to a gender inclusive and friendly environment can go a long way,” said Khushi. “Apart from that government can support already existing academic level and independent organizations that uphold the LGBTQIA+ cause. Anti-harassment policies can be gender neutral. In case of universities there can be courses that run-in sex and gender identity. There can be compulsory nonbinary gender orientations. There are many other things that can be done but the point is that though slowly but surely some change is coming through.”

Instagram in 2021 announced the inclusion of the LGBTQ and intersex community by providing the option to add pronouns. But Meta’s picture-sharing app is still far from providing the Indian LGBTQ and intersex community with this feature. 

The Blade reached out to Meta for a comment on the issue, but the company, which faces accusations of failing to prevent the incitement of violence in neighboring Myanmar, did not respond to multiple requests.

While talking with the Blade, Kumaresh Ramesh, a former Saathi coordinator, said that even though the courts have decriminalized same-sex relationships and advanced the rights of people in the trans community, there is a lot of work left to be done to mainstream acceptance in the society. 

Ramesh graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology last year and is no longer part of Saathi. While expressing his opinion, he suggested some measures which can help normalization of other gender and pronoun use.

“While one can litigate in court for enforcing these changes, we should also work on organically making it commonplace. For instance, if we make it a point to state our preferred pronouns and encourage others to do so, the government will eventually have to follow suit. I would like to request professors and teachers across disciplines to also state their preferred pronouns while they introduce themselves. This could be a small but powerful step towards fostering acceptance,” said Ramesh.

“Although IIT Bombay is centrally-funded and the current central government has not come out in support of the LGBTQ community, the administration has been largely supportive of Saathi, especially in the more recent years as awareness about the community has gone up. Talking about the government, intent is the key. If the government wishes to further the acceptance of the community, the importance of diversity and inclusion should be taught to school students. Greater representation of the community in school curriculum will increase acceptance not just in the young generation but also their parents and grandparents.”

Neysara, the founder of Transgender India, an online portal that supports the trans community and creates awareness, said that preferred gender-neutral pronouns are important for the Indian trans community. She also said that to make preferred/gender-neutral pronouns one of the centerpieces of Indian trans discourse would be a prime example of blindly copy-pasting western trans discourse to India without any understanding of the cultural context.

“Forget the pronouns printed in a form, most trans people in the country are not even allowed to enter SBI (one of India’s largest public sector bank) or a post office,” said Neysara. “How will they even see this form? Such tokenistic moves of printing a word on a form is super easy, what’s more difficult is inclusion, reform and sensitization. That’s what we need in any office.”

Neysara, founder of Transgender India, an Indian trans rights group. (Photo courtesy of Neysara)

Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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Pakistani cinema and television highlights LGBTQ, intersex issues

Government sought to ban ‘Joyland’

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The Pakistani government sought to ban "Joyland" in the country. (Promotional poster for "Joyland")

There are several Pakistani movies and television shows that depict the lives of LGBTQ and intersex people in society.

Though some media outlets have become more inclusive, the representation of queer people on screen is still too rare. Pakistan has seen a rise in the production of LGBTQ and intersex movies and television shows that include dramas, documentaries and web series. Some of them are made in Pakistan, while others are produced abroad. Many of them have been released in Pakistan. The government banned some of them, but others have not only amused audiences but won international awards.

Here is a list of some of them. 

‘Joyland’

“Joyland” is a Pakistani film that made waves at the Cannes Film Festival. 

The film follows the story of a transgender woman named Biba, who is trying to make a living as a dancer in Lahore. She faces many challenges in her life, including discrimination and violence from those who do not accept her gender identity. She nevertheless persists, despite these difficulties, and ultimately finds love and acceptance from unexpected sources. This heartwarming film highlights the struggles and triumphs of the trans community in Pakistan and is sure to resonate with viewers around the world. “Joyland” is a powerful and timely film that highlights the struggles of trans people in Pakistan. It is also a celebration of hope and friendship, and an uplifting story about chasing your dreams against all odds.

In a conservative Pakistani family, the youngest son Haider (Ali Junejo) is expected to produce a baby boy with his wife. However, he joins an erotic dance theater and falls for the troupe’s director, a trans woman. This film tells the story of the sexual revolution in Pakistan and their struggle against traditional gender roles and expectations. 

“Joyland” is the first Pakistani film on the LGBTQ topic that premiered at Cannes Film Festival and received an overwhelming response. It won the prestigious Cannes “Queer Palm” award during its world premiere. The government had tried to ban the film, but it opened in the country last month. 

‘Poshida: Hidden LGBT Pakistan’

In the conservative, Muslim-dominated country of Pakistan, homosexuality is a taboo topic. However, there is a thriving LGBTQ and intersex community in Pakistan that is forced to live in secrecy. The documentary “Poshida: Hidden LGBT Pakistan” shines a light on this hidden community. 

It follows the lives of several LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis, who bravely share their stories. The documentary was released in 2015 in Pakistan and in the U.K. by director Faizan Fiaz. It was the first kind of movie on the “LGBTQ” topic. The film was screened at film festivals in Barcelona, Spain, and in the U.S. The word “poshida” means “hidden” in Urdu. The film is particularly timely given the current global discussion around LGBTQ and intersex rights. It examines the legacy of colonialism, class structures and the impact of the U.S. government’s gay rights advocacy in Pakistan. 

The documentary is about a serial killer from Lahore who kills trans people, women and gay men for entertainment purposes. Human rights abuses of trans men and women are also explored in the documentary. 

‘Churails’

Pakistani cinema has come a long way in recent years, tackling several taboo subjects and exploring new genres and stories. One of the most groundbreaking Pakistani films of recent years is “Churails.”

The film is the first Pakistani queer web series that revolves around four women. It is the first time that a lesbian relationship in any Pakistani film or web series is portrayed.

This film features a trans woman Baby Doll (Zara Khan), lesbian lovers Babli (Sameena Nazir) and Pinky (Bakhtawar Mazhar) and a gay husband. Four women who were students — one was a wedding planner, the third one was convicted of a crime and the fourth woman was a socialite set up a secret detective agency in Karachi. The aim was to launch a detective service for those women who were cheated by their husbands. 

A web series set in Karachi challenges the status quo and subverts the conventional narrative. The critically acclaimed web series has opened up a debate about Pakistan’s patriarchal society. The show doesn’t shy away from tough questions: Veils, deception and secrets. “Churails” is the story of four self-made women who come together to break certain stereotypes and challenge societal hypocrisy. 

“Churails” is the first Pakistani drama web series which was released in 2020 by ZEE5, an Indian on-demand video platform. The web series is directed and produced by Asim Abbasi. The film was not allowed to screen in Pakistani cinema or channels. The movie was only available on ZEE5. however, at the time of releasing the film the state bank of Pakistan ordered all the banks to block Pakistani consumers to purchase subscriptions to ZEE5. 

“Churails” won the “OTT Platform Show of the Year” at the British Asian Media Awards in February 2021. “Churails” is a feminist film in every sense of the word. 

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Japanese court rules same-sex marriage ban is constitutional

Ruling said lack of legal protections violate couples’ human rights

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(Bigstock photos)

A district court in the Tokyo Prefecture ruled on Wednesday that Japan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is legal. The court added that the absence of a legal system to protect same-sex families infringed upon their human rights.

In a statement to Reuters, Nobuhito Sawasaki, an attorney for the plaintiffs told the wire service, “This is actually a fairly positive ruling,” said Sawasaki who added, “While marriage remains between a man and a woman, and the ruling supported that, it also said that the current situation with no legal protections for same-sex families is not good, and suggested something must be done about it.”

This past June in Osaka Prefecture, the district court in that jurisdiction said that the country’s ban on same-sex marriage was not unconstitutional. The case had been filed by three same-sex couples — two male, one female — and is only the second legal challenge to have been filed in Japan. 

In March 2021, the Sapporo District Court issued its ruling the country’s constitution does not ban same-sex couples from legally marrying and ensures them a right to marry. Under current Japanese law, same-sex couples are banned from legally marrying, which means partners cannot inherit each other’s assets upon death and have no parental rights over the other’s child.

In the Sapporo case, Nikkei Asia reported three couples — also two male and one female — tried to register their marriages in 2019, but local officials turned them away.

The couples sued and the court ruled the government’s actions violated two provisions of the Japanese Constitution: Article 14 that ensures the right to equal treatment and Article 24, which does not expressly deny the right of marriage to same-sex couples.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said the issue needs to be carefully considered, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party has disclosed no plans to review the matter or propose legislation, though some senior party members favor reform.

An opinion poll by the Tokyo Prefecture late last year found some 70 percent of people were in favor of same-sex marriage.

Reuters reported that the Tokyo ruling promises to be influential as the capital has an outsized influence on the rest of Japan.

Gon Matsunaka, head of the activist group Marriage for All Japan told Reuters “This is hard to accept. Both heterosexual and same-sex couples should be able to benefit equally from the system of marriage, as everyone is equal under the law,” he said and added. “It (the ruling) clearly said that is not possible.” Yet the recognition that same-sex families lacked legal protections was “a big step” he noted.

Reuters reported that two more cases are pending in Japan, and activists and lawyers hope an accumulation of judicial decisions supporting same-sex marriage will eventually push lawmakers to change the system, even if this is unlikely soon.

“I hope there will be legislative debate about this,” said plaintiff Shizuka Oe. “We will keep making efforts.”

Tokyo court ruling upholds ban on same-sex marriage:

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New India Supreme Court chief justice seen as LGBTQ ally

D.Y. Chandrachud applauded activists during Aug. 31 speech

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Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud (Screenshot)

The struggle for equality in the world’s biggest democracy took a giant step forward in 2018 with the decriminalization of homosexuality, but the fight is not over.

Though homosexuality is now decriminalized in India, same-sex marriage is still not legalized. In other words, same-sex couples can love but cannot marry. The pain in the community is visible. Since same-sex marriage is not legally recognized, it affects a spectrum of rights available to heterosexual couples that include the transfer of property and access to medical facilities.

Several marriage equality cases have been filed in the Delhi High Court and in other courts across the country.

Two petitions filed by gay couples came to the India’s Supreme Court on Nov. 25 asking for recognition of same-sex marriage under the Special Marriage Act, 1954. A bench led by the new Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud issued a notice to the federal government and the attorney general and posted the matter for further hearing after four weeks.

Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), a public sector insurance company under India’s Finance Ministry, last month appeared to recognize a same-sex couple who lives in Kolkata. The arrival of the Supreme Court’s new chief justice is an additional ray of hope for the country’s LGBTQ and intersex community.

On many occasions, Chandrachud has signaled his support for the community. For instance, while speaking at the British High Commission in New Delhi, the Indian capital, on Aug. 31, Chandrachud said that decriminalization of homosexuality alone cannot achieve equality, and it must extend to “all spheres of life,” including home, workplace, and public places.

Chandrachud has been expressing his observations and opinions on the issue of LGBTQ rights in India, even when he was not the chief justice but a Supreme Court judge. Chandrachud, while speaking at the British High Commission event, which focused on the future of the country’s LGBTQ and intersex rights movement, said society owes a debt of gratitude to every individual who formed and continues to form a part of the struggle for equality.

“Perhaps, we need a little more than love,” highlighted Chandrachud at the New Delhi event while calling for structural change in society to let the LGBTQ community live a life of autonomy and dignity.

The Supreme Court in 2018 struck down the law decriminalizing homosexuality. Chandrachud was on the Supreme Court in 2018 when it decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults and recognized sexual autonomy as a basic right of individuals.

“While the decision in Navtej was momentous, we have a long way to go. The Beatles famously sang ‘All you need is love, love; Love is all you need.’ At the risk of ruffling the feathers of music aficionados everywhere, I take the liberty to disagree with them and say – perhaps, we need a little more than love,” highlighted Chandrachud. “At the heart of personal liberty lies the freedom to choose who we are, to love whom we will, and to live a life that is true to our most authentic selves, not only without the fear of persecution but in full-hearted joy and as equal citizens of this country.”

Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India was the historical judgment that struck down the criminalization of homosexuality in India.

“The accomplishment of this simple yet crucial task would breathe life into the decision in Navtej,” said Chandrachud. “It is not merely the black letter of the law that these changes must take place in, but in the heart and soul of every Indian. Heteronormativity — in every sense of the word — must give way to a plurality of thought and of existence.”

Chandrachud in August said that justice can quickly be undone if people do not continue with the right discourse to safeguard the interests of marginalized groups. Chandrachud also highlighted in the same event that the decriminalization of homosexuality is not sufficient for members of the LGBTQ community to realize their rights. He was referring to the withdrawal of an advertisement of Karva Chauth featuring same-sex couples.

Karva Chauth is the Indian festival celebrated by Hindus in northern India in which wives keep a day-long fast for their husbands and perform rituals for the long life and well-being of their husbands.

The advertisement showed female couples celebrating Karva Chauth, and faced backlash over the internet and immediately firm withdrew it. Meanwhile, the marriage equality case the Supreme Court heard on Nov. 25 and Chandrachud’s position as chief justice has brought renewed hope among LGBTQ and intersex activists and the broader community.

“It is heartening that D.Y Chandrachud was recently appointed as the Chief Justice of India. His opinions on abortion, privacy, women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple, adultery, and gay rights (to name a few) have been progressive and brought about much-needed change,” said Kanav Narayan Sahgal, communications manager at Nyaaya, Vidhi Center for Legal Policy. “With an uncooperative central government, and a largely conservative society, the ball is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.”

Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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