On a Friday night, Govind* came back from work to see that he had received four new messages, all from unknown numbers. Random men were sending him lewd texts, asking him for sex.
While he initially tried to ignore the messages, the situation became much more serious over the next few days. Someone had created a fake Facebook profile and disclosed his personal details, including his phone number. Govind was forced to deactivate his account and change his phone number, but even that didn’t help.
“He (stalker) couldn’t contact me for a while, but one day, I got an email saying he will disclose my sexuality at my workplace,” says Govind.
And as a gay man who hasn’t come out to his family yet, there was little Govind could do to protect himself.
Govind’s is not an isolated incident. LGBTQI+ persons frequently face harassment in their day to day lives, however, their cases go unreported. There is a lot of social stigma attached to the community, and there is little legal recourse available.
Since rape and sexual harassment laws in India are not gender neutral, men who face sexual violence cannot go to the police or to the courts as these institutions only recognise cis-women as victims. The only law under which male victims can approach the law is Section 377 - which criminalises ‘unnatural sex’, and has been used to target gay men for consensual sex.
Even if one was willing to give a complaint under 377, many are afraid of ridicule at the hands of police, and fear that they might not be taken seriously.
“Only around 5% of people who face violence actually come out and file a case, the rest prefer not to take any action fearing society and police harassment,” said Madhav, a member of the queer community in Hyderabad.
For Gargi*, things went downhill after her classmates found out that she was lesbian. “I was in the restroom of my college with my girlfriend. She was doing my makeup since we had to go for a movie with our other friends. We kissed and did not realise that somebody was in the washroom listening to our conversation,” recalls Gargi.
“The next day was a nightmare. A group of girls asked us to make out in front of them, and blackmailed us that if we didn’t, they would reveal it to everyone,” she says.
“We broke up after that. I became very lonely because I couldn’t share that incident with anybody, definitely not my mom. I stopped using the college washroom. I was scared that if they found me alone there, they might harass me again,” Gargi says.
Bittu, an LGBTQI+ activist says, “There is no law that can recognise our problems, so there is no question of justice. Every person belonging to the LGBTQI+ community has been a victim of harassment, but very few of them come out to complain. Just three cases were registered last year, but I personally know many people who have been sexually assaulted or harassed. More than 90% of transgender persons face harassment almost every day."
For Sadhna*, a trans woman who used to be a sex worker, harassment has been a part of her everyday life for the past 17 years.
“Initially, when someone passed a comment or abused me, I used to pick up a fight. But now I am used to it. I prefer to ignore, as I can’t always pick up fights. It happens daily, I can’t shut everybody’s mouth,” she says.
The harassment and abuse don’t just come from strangers. For a lot of people who are LGBTQI+, their families and friends are also their abusers.
Prateek*, a trans man, was verbally abused several times by his brother-in-law as he was transitioning. “He even threatened to kill me, and he used to humiliate me in front of everybody,” he says.
“Now my sister is staying with me in Hyderabad. She also had other issues in her marriage, but his attitude towards me was one of the biggest reasons why she decided to move out,” Prateek explains.
The violence that the transgender community faces is also systemic.
“I used to work in an IT company, but before my surgery I quit that job. However, since transitioning, it has been extremely difficult to get a job because I had changed my name and my school certificates still had my birth name,” Prateek says.
When Sadhna was looking for a job, it was impossible for her to find one, and with no other choice left, she turned to sex work.
“Most of the trans women are either beggars or sex workers. We don’t like this profession, but we don’t have a choice,” she says.
In April 2014, in the landmark NALSA judgment, the Supreme Court gave transgender persons the right to self identify as male, female, or transgender person. The SC had also directed the Centre and all states to treat transgender persons as socially and educationally backward classes in order to extend reservation in admission to educational institutions and for public appointments.
However, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016, introduced in the Lok Sabha and currently under review, has ignored several important points in the SC verdict, including reservations.
Even as the government is in the process of finalising and passing a Bill for the protection of transgender persons, however faulty, there is little awareness in society about the challenges that the LGBTQI+ community faces. While their visibility in society has gone up, there are several more who are forced to lead suppressed lives in the closet because of the fear of social ostracism.