Same-Sex Marriage: 'One barrier less to live a fuller life'
Fear, despair, joy and hope: what the ongoing marriage equality hearings mean to queer couples in India who live beyond the metro cities
The Indian Supreme Court has been hearing arguments in favour of, and against, legalising same-sex marriage in India. Lawyers arguing for the legalisation on behalf of the petitioners have referred to it as a hearing about marriage equality for all queer people rather than just same-sex marriage. This includes gender non-conforming, non-binary, gender fluid and gender queer people.
The government of India has opposed the appeals, filed by many same-sex couples and other queer people to legally have their unions recognised. One of the arguments presented in a court document by the government is that these appeals are ‘urban elitist views’.
Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud observed on 26 April that the elitism argument is “just prejudice and has no bearing on how the Court will decide the case”.
We spoke to four queer couples from non-metropolitan and rural parts of India, to find out if marriage equality is indeed an urban elitist desire, and what the verdict would mean to them.
Also Read: The curious case of Saurabh Kirpal
Suresh and Chhaya (names changed)
Suresh, 22, and Chhaya, 20, are a couple from Uttar Pradesh. Suresh is a trans man, and Chhaya is a cis woman.
Suresh and Chhaya’s relationship was outed to their families by Chhaya’s relatives.
“Once our families found out, we were both locked into our homes,” says Suresh. “Our families tried to find rishtas for us to be married off to. I was taken to a psychiatrist, where I said very clearly that I knew I was a trans man, and I knew this was not illegal or madness. My family told me to stop wearing boy’s clothes and start dressing more like a girl. I was only let out of the house to go give my college exams.”
Suresh, who was then sitting for his university exams, managed to escape on the last day. He skipped the exam, met up with Chhaya and went to Delhi, where they sought help from the Delhi Commission for Women. The Commission helped them to find temporary accommodation, and Suresh found a job with the help of the LGBTQIA+ organisation PeriFerry, which helps queer people find jobs with accepting companies.
A few days later, they left for a major city in the south of India, having booked tickets with the money Suresh had saved, and with the hope that Suresh’s job would support them. Suresh later referred Chhaya to the same company, and they are now settled in that city.
Housing was a big worry. At first, they lived in a girl’s hostel. With the help of a journalist, Suresh began his medical and legal transition. They then shifted into an apartment.
“The landlady asked for documents and I showed them my PAN card, which doesn’t have gender,” said Suresh. “After I got my documents updated, I can show my Aadhaar card which now says I’m a man.”
But there is no changing Suresh’s birth certificate, which assigned him as female, and as the marriage equality hearings go on, that is his biggest fear.
“All the marriage acts, even The Special Marriage Act, imply that marriage is between a man and a woman,” he says. “Chhaya and I plan to get married later this year or early next year. I have not undergone sex reassignment surgery. What if our families legally object to our marriage based on our birth certificate, which shows that we are of the same sex?”
Courts have previously upheld marriages of transgender women. Citing the judgement passed by the Supreme Court in the 2014 case of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) vs. Union of India, the Madras High Court ruled in 2019 that under the Hindu Marriage Act, trans women can be legally recognised as brides. More recently, trans men in relationships with trans women have applied to get their marriages solemnised under The Special Marriage Act.
But the government, in its arguments during the ongoing hearings, is specifying that the act of marriage takes place between a biological man and a biological woman.
Dutee Chand and Monalisa Dash
Olympian Dutee Chand is well known for being the first openly gay athlete from India. The 27-year-old sprinter has previously posted about her relationship with Monalisa Dash on her social media accounts, declaring ‘Love is love.’ She spoke to us from Bhubaneswar, where she said Monalisa is with her.
“Monalisa and I met in 2017 during the Khudurukuni Osha festival in our village of Chaka Gopalpur in Odisha,” she says. “Monalisa said that was my fan. We exchanged phone numbers and that is how we started talking.”
After they became close, they discussed living together “as husband and wife”, she says. “I asked her, what if you need a man around the house? She said she liked me a lot and didn’t care about all that!” says Chand.
In 2018, after the overturning of Section 377 and the effective decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in India, they made the joint decision to inform their parents that they’d like to live together. Initially, both families were confused about the decision, but after they met each other, Chand says they agreed to let the two of them do as they saw best for their lives.
“She has finished her studies and is at home, and I’d like to look after her,” says Chand. “I want to work so that she can take care of the home.”
And what does the marriage equality verdict mean to her and Monalisa?
“It matters a lot to us in terms of our lives together,” she says. “Marriage certificates make it easier to deal with documents at banks, to adopt children, deal with property and just have legal rights towards each other, in case anything happens to either of us. It would also make it easier for me to take her for competitions, on partner visas, and even something as simple as staying in a hotel room together without being questioned.”
Bhupen and Prantosh (names changed)
Dr. Bhupen, 35, met Dr. Prantosh, 26, when the latter was studying in Bhubaneswar. Prantosh is from the town of Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh, and is currently pursuing his MBBS, while Dr. Bhupen is from the town of Bokaro in Jharkhand and is a professor in a management studies institute in Odisha.
Bhupen says he became aware of being attracted to male stars in Bollywood from a young age. He never associated any shame with the feeling, until he hit puberty, “I distinctly remember an instance in class 6, when I laughed too loudly and a boy in my class called me chhakka,” he says.
“I felt like I was suffocating in India and all I wanted to do was run away, because I could not imagine a future for myself here,” adds Bhupen. “As a teenager, I would go to these big fat Indian weddings and come home and cry, knowing that this would never be an option for me, that I could never share my life with anyone. In college, all I could think was, if I have to live a full life, I have to get out of this country.”
His meeting with Prantosh changed his life. “I never thought I would meet someone with the same ideas and values as me,” he says. “We used to daydream about running away together.”
Prantosh’s parents caught him talking on the phone with Bhupen during the pandemic. “They brought up questions of the family losing respect in society,” he says. “They blamed my education for ‘turning me gay’ and at one point, my mother suggested corrective rape for me.”
Reading about the marriage equality hearing, Prantosh and Bhupen cried together.
“The judgement will remove one barrier for queer people to live a fuller life, if not all barriers,” adds Prantosh. “I also think it will help my parents accept me as I am.”
“I didn’t think I would see this in my lifetime,” says Bhupen. “Given that we’re both based in small-town India, for us we cannot think of marriage or even co-habiting. Life seemed very bleak when I thought it couldn’t be shared. At one point, I couldn’t even get out of bed in the mornings. Now, I can see hope.”
Vijin and Angel (names changed)
Vijin (32) is a cis gay man from Kanniyakumari district in Tamil Nadu. He was raised in a Christian family.
“I became aware that I’m attracted towards men in class 9,” he says. “But I first heard the term ‘gay’ in college, in a Tamil movie called Goa, which had two gay characters that my friends laughed at.”
Vijin could not accept his sexuality at first. For three years, he immersed himself in prayers, fasting and worshipping to try and convert himself into a heterosexual individual. He even asked his parents to find a woman for marriage—but it only made things worse.
“After three months of being married, I was still not able to love or have affection towards my partner,” he says. “I started visiting hospitals, [trying] ayurvedic treatment to cure ‘less manliness’. I lost a lot of money.”
When nothing worked, Vijin knew he was coming to the end of his endurance. He decided to opt for a job in a different city, with the idea that he would inform his wife, Angel, about his identity. Depending on her reaction, he thought he would either move away, or take his own life.
To his enormous surprise and relief, she understood.
“She tried to support me, and we decided to inform her father that we wanted to separate,” says Vijin. “But her father begged me to stay in the marriage and not talk about divorce.”
Vijin and Angel came to the conclusion that if they stayed on in India, neither of them would have a chance of happiness. So together, they planned to work towards leaving. “I tried for Canada and Germany, because I had learnt some German in a previous job,” says Vijin. “Then I got the chance to work in Germany.”
Vijin now works in the automotive industry in Munich, where he has met other queer people and, for the first time, has a community.
“Now I’m here, Angel will soon join me,” he says. “After that, I will help her to find another partner. I know it’s difficult to understand. But it’s our way of dealing with the cards we were dealt.”
For Vijin, the marriage equality verdict would mean a chance for future generations to avoid all this pain and despair.
“I hope it will create more awareness, especially in villages, that attraction towards the same sex is not a crime,” he says. “All my life I felt like I was possessed by a demon I could not get rid of. I always felt insecure and inferior to others, and that I could not live a life close to God. I don’t want anyone else to feel this way.”
RUSHATI MUKHERJEE is a journalist based in Kolkata