In a major step toward the safety of the queer community, the Tamil Nadu government on Thursday, February 17 made harassment of LGBTQIA+ persons by the state police an act punishable by law. Through a government order released in January 2022, the state government amended the Tamil Nadu Subordinate Police Officers’ Conduct Rules 1964 to include a new rule — 24 C — which states that police officers must not harass LGBTQIA+ persons and those working for the community’s wellbeing.
“No police officer shall indulge in any act of harassment of any person belonging to the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) + community and the persons working for the welfare of that community,” the order read. However, police officers will retain the right to make an enquiry in cases related to the LGBTQIA+ persons as per procedures established law.
The order bears immense significance as it could further push the police force to stop any form of harassment of queer persons in the state. Despite the landmark Madras High Court judgment which issued guidelines for creating safe spaces for LGBTQIA persons, several reports of the Tamil Nadu police harassing queer persons have surfaced. The new amendment is reportedly the first statute in the country to include the entire LGBTQIA+ community and not just specific queer groups such as transgender persons or same-sex couples.
In fact, with the new order, the state government is only following the orders of the high court which, in September 2021, asked the government to include a specific clause in the police coinduct rules to make harassment of persons belonging to the queer community and NGO/activists helping them, punishable by law.
Despite these interventions by the court, reports of same sex couples and trans persons being harassed by the cops continue to surface in Tamil Nadu. In the second week of February 2022, a person from the LGBTQIA+ community in the state was intercepted by the police, while he was fleeing his biological family, and a marriage alliance he was being forced into.
However, while on his way to another city, he was intercepted by the police, following complaints from his family, and forced to return to the latter. (TNM has withheld information that could potentially identity this person -— including his age, location and gender or sexual identity — as we have learnt that doing so further risk his safety and wellbeing).
Similarly, in February 2022, a same-sex couple from Chennai was ‘gently chided’ by the city police, after they sought police protection from the family of one of the women, who had landed up at her workplace and harassed her. However, queer activist groups were quick to send a lawyer to the couple.
“The police officers in the station, including the Sub Inspector and the Inspector, were aware of the guidelines and orders issued by Justice Anand Venkatesh with regard to queer persons protection. However, their loyalties were entirely with the family,” says L Ramakrishnan from the NGO SAATHII who also volunteers as a peer counselor with Orinam, a queer support group.
Ramakrishnan who was present at the station with the couple said that the officers even made remarks such as, “even though legally you are within your rights to be together, what is legal need not always be socially acceptable” and “if Justice Anand Venkatesh sees this mother’s tears, he would not insist on these guidelines.”
In January of this year, LGBTQIA+ activist Gopi Shankar from Madurai was reported to have been attacked in Mahabalipuram of Tamil Nadu, following which he had appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for help. He was allegedly attacked by a gang while he was on his post-dinner walk near his house. The attackers in a car passing by approached him and obstructed his path, following which they attacked him. He also said that even after four attacks, not even a single FIR was lodged in Mahabalipuram.
In August 2021, two months after the High Court issued guidelines, police in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district separated a consenting same-sex couple, both of whom were adults, and forced them to go back to their parents. The couple had been living in Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar after running away from their parents. But a team of police officers visited Chennai to take them back to their families in Salem.
In July of last year, it was the Madras High Court that had to intervene to stop the police from restraining the police from harassing a woman in Namakkal, who was in a lesbian relationship, and the court had directed to give her police protection. The woman who was married off by her parents left her heterosexual marriage and lived with her partner, after becoming aware of her sexual orientation. However, after knowing about their relationship, the families had registered cases and forcibly separated them, and the woman was subjected to abuse and assault. She had then left her home and took her partner and approached the High Court for protection.
Ramakrishnan adds that while the new rule itself is commendable, impactful implementation and sensitization of the police force will take a long time, and that the state machinery must work with queer groups, activists and NGOs towards sensiting the police force.