Q&A: "Every Work Form You Fill Asks Your Marital Status"
Ann Ninan interviews LESLEY ESTEVES, a queer activist
NEW DELHI, Jul 29 (IPS) - When the New Delhi High Court amended Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law which was used to criminalise consensual homosexual relationships, on Jul. 2, it was a "life-changing moment for me," says Lesley Esteves, a journalist and queer activist based in New Delhi.
For the first time, a constitutional authority spoke up "so forcefully for my community," she asserts.
The ruling applies to New Delhi, but it sets a precedent for the legal establishment across the country. Already, there are attempts being made by the religious right-wing and political parties to scuttle it.
IPS interviewed Esteves about being a queer woman, the judgement and heterosexuality in India.
IPS: The judgement on Article 377 is a victory for basic rights to privacy, non discrimination and liberty.
LESLEY ESTEVES: My community has lived under the shadow of criminalisation for 150 years. The only ‘crimes’ (we) committed were refusing to adhere to gender norms laid down by one section of our society - be it in dress, speech, behaviour or choice of sexual partner.
These norms were for long claimed to be sanctified by religion, the basis of their enforcement in law. These norms are nothing but prejudices, which ultimately aim to create unequal societies.
The writers of the Constitution of India hoped to prevent the prejudices of one set of the Indian people from oppressing another set of people, and they wrote the protections into law through the Fundamental Rights available to all Indians. The Delhi High Court upheld that spirit of inclusiveness and tolerance for diversity, by effectively agreeing that Section 377 could no longer be used as a tool of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
IPS: What would you say about patriarchy and being queer in India?
LE: A queer person is quite simply defined as any person who falls outside of, and foul of, the patriarchal notions of family and gender roles.
That's why we use the word 'queer', which is a much broader term than gay or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). This challenge marginalises not only gay and transgender people, but also single women, single men, straight couples who want to live together and not get married, straight people who reject unequal marriage laws, straight people who reject conventional gender roles, etc.
The way that conventional marriage operates, especially in the Indian context, seems to be more about resource preservation and applying privileges of citizenship to only one set of people, than about a relationship.
This is seen in how most faiths, law and government regulations recognise only one family system. Only a marriage involving one man with one woman can be sanctified and accorded protection from social or economic discrimination.
The queer struggle is to end this hegemony, and to enable equality for all kinds of consensual relationships, family structures and gender behaviours. It is a struggle closely reflected in the issues the women's movement also grapples with. Therefore, in metro cities like Delhi, Bombay, Lucknow and Calcutta, you notice partnerships between queer rights and women's rights groups.
IPS: Can you tell me a little about yourself.
LE: I have been open about my sexual identity since the age of 15, when my parents discovered I was gay. In the workplace, I wish I could have chosen otherwise, but I never wanted to be counted as heterosexual.
It’s not evident to most how much heterosexuality hegemonises the discourse in the workplace. Every work form you fill asks your marital status; every colleague you meet asks the same question.
And of course, some colleagues have access to facilities that I don’t. I can’t claim medical benefits for my partner under company schemes, the way they do for their spouses.
One of my very first jobs was that of a sales person for email in Bombay. Those were the days when email was a product to be sold! They asked me to leave after a couple of weeks because I refused to change the way I dress. They wanted me to dress ‘more like a woman’. My mother told me, let nobody ever tell you how you can and can’t dress. So I chose to quit instead.
IPS: Will the ruling open a small window even for queer women outside metro India, in less anonymous towns and smaller cities.
LE: Women from all social contexts and classes in India have been trying to carve out queer existences, whether in the village or by migrating towards the big cities where there are greater chances of community support.
In Delhi and Mumbai, often we have had to support couples escaping family pressure in interior Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana. We fully expect such cases to rise, now that the court has sent a message to queer Indians that the courts can and will uphold their rights. (END/2009)
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