A day after sections of the media in Karnataka did a story on two young women from Bengaluru who were in a lesbian relationship, one of the women was sacked by the company she was employed in.
The 25-year-old woman, has alleged that Zefo, a company that runs the e-commerce portal gozefo.com dealing with refurbished and used furniture, sacked her soon after a Kannada news channel telecast her (blurred) pictures.
The two women, aged 21 and 25, the younger one facing violence in her home, had moved in together sometime in May.
Though the younger woman had approached the police twice for help, with none forthcoming, she shifted out of her house. Later, her father approached the police, and filed a missing personâs complaint.
Bangalore Mirror first broke the story, followed by Kannada channel Public TV. Soon after Public TV broadcast a blurred image of the couple, the company asked the woman employed with them to leave.
"The company (gozefo.com) people called me in the morning and asked me if I want to continue in the job or not. They asked me to talk to my parents and get back. I told them I'll talk to my lawyers and get back. When I called them back at 5.30 pm, they said HR had decided that you leave the company since they know that it's me who is making rounds in the media from morning. This is totally unfair," the woman told Bangalore Mirror.
According to Roomi Harish of the Alternative Law Forum, the company sacked the woman without having any dialogue with her.
"Public TV aired the story at around 9 am and by 5.30 pm, one of the women was fired after their pictures were screened on television. We have spoken to the company and are initiating legal action for wrongful termination. We have already started a shaming campaign for Go Zefo. We will not stop until the girl gets her job back and is also paid damages," said Roomi Harish.
The other woman told Bangalore Mirror that the companyâs actions were unjustified. âNo one can just claim that it's her and throw her out of the company. They told her it's very evident from what the TV channels have showed in the visuals, and did this,â she said.
Zefo responded saying they were looking into the matter, âSome disturbing news about the termination of a Zefo employee came to our attention late last night. There is zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind at Zefo. We are a young, passionate organization committed to creating an inclusive workplaceâââand no discrimination will ever be tolerated.
Please give us some time to find out all the facts of the matter. We are treating this with the utmost seriousness and will do all we can to set things rightâ.
Roomi also added that the media had got the story wrong and the two women had not gotten married to each other.
"Bangalore Mirror and Public TV went by some rumours that were circulating and presented it as facts. The girls have not come out as lesbians, they are not lesbians. Why does the media not make a big deal of heterosexual people? The story should have been of domestic violence and not about the sexuality of the women. ," she said.
The Peopleâs Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) condemned both the news organisations and the company.
"Public TV sensationalised the issue unnecessarily. What if they are homosexual, although in this case they are not? They called it an incestuous relationship. They passed judgement on the girls by saying 'being Kannada girls how could they resort to such acts'. How can the media do this?" Ramdas Rao of the People's Union for Civil Liberties said.
Is it criminal to be lesbian in India?
Being lesbian, or gay or bisexual, is neither a mental illness nor a criminal offence in India. While it is popularly believed that Section 377 criminalises homosexuality, the archaic law doesnât mention homosexuality â or even heterosexuality â at all.
The IPC section states:
âUnnatural offences. âWhoever voluntarily has carnal interÂcourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with 1[imprisonment for life], or with imprisÂonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Explanation.âPenetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.â
Which means, that any penetrative sexual act other than penis-in-vagina is criminalised by this law. That includes even oral or anal sex between a consenting man and a woman.
What the law definitely doesnât criminalise is two adults deciding to live with each other.
So, does the police have any business telling them to go back to their parents, or insinuating that they are mentally ill?
While the law has been used to harass gay and lesbian couples, according to Lekha from Alternative Law Forum, it cannot be used to criminalise a sexual orientation, only sexual acts.
âThe Supreme Court judgement in the year 2013 states that a person cannot be booked under Section 377 based on identity. Identity as in the personâs sexual orientation. It varies from case to case and since both of them are consenting adults. This will not become a criminal case unless one of the women becomes the complainant. Since both the women do not have any problem, it is not a criminal case,â Lekha explained.