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In India, Gays, Lesbians and Trans May Face Wizards, Exorcists and “Corrective Rape”

When Sonia Singhal revealed herself to be a lesbian to her father, he took her straight to the wizard.

Her father believed she had been invaded by an evil spirit, and dates became regular.

“You have all the normal organs, there is no problem with your body,” his father told him.

She eventually fled home, fearing that she would be forcibly married or that her father would send someone to rape her to change her sexuality, a hate crime known as “corrective rape”.

She eventually got the protection of a Delhi court when her parents tried to find her.

But it was a time when homosexuality was still illegal in India.

Modern India can be a dangerous place for a gay woman, and Sonia described the years of flight that followed as “a lot of mental torture, emotional torture, financial torture.”

Now a Delhi-based LGBTQI + activist, Sonia has received a silver lining that things may slowly start to change in India.

Just like Sonia, a young gay couple from the south of the country asked a judge for help.

But this time the judge made history.

It all started with a simple request

Shusha and Sheema first approached Chennai-based lawyer Manuraj Shunmugasundaram with what appeared to be a legally straightforward matter.

They asked the ABC not to publish their pictures and their last names.

The same-sex couple, both in their early 20s, went into hiding after their disapproving parents filed a missing person report with police to track them down and force them to return home.

They had, for three years, waged a “war” to keep their relationship alive and hidden from family, friends and the community at large.

But now they feared for their safety and wanted to be protected.

Mr Manuraj had never handled a case like this before, but he had previously obtained protection orders – a routine legal process that would require the police to keep his clients safe.

“I think society is better for it. I think the law is richer for it,” Manuraj Shunmugasundaram said of the judge’s ruling. (ABC News: Wilfred Thomas)

He got what he wanted almost immediately; on the first day of the hearings, the Madras High Court in Chennai issued a protection order.

But the case has evolved into something much bigger than what Mr. Manuraj and his clients ever imagined.

The judge, openly admitting his own biases, decided to take advice with a psychologist and met with LGBTQI + leaders and activists to better understand the plight of the community.

When the case resumed a few months later, the judge said the process had “fired [him] out of darkness “.

“I have no hesitation in accepting that I too belong to the majority of common people who have not yet fully understood homosexuality,” Judge N Anand Venkatesh wrote in his June orders.

“Ignorance is not a justification for normalizing all forms of discrimination.”

The judge’s orders shocked the Indian LGBTQI + community.

“We felt like we had created history”

Judge N Anand Venkatesh ordered the Indian government and states to ban conversion therapy and take action against anyone trying to “cure” homosexuality.

He recommended changes in university and school curricula to end the “stupid notion” that there is a “cure” for gender identity and sexual orientation.

He also called for a range of other measures to tackle discrimination, such as gender-neutral toilets, improved counseling services and better training for the police.

The judge also suggested that “transgender” be a gender option available on application forms.

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“It is quite rare for a judge, let alone a judge sitting in a constitutional court, to undertake such an exercise,” Manuraj said.

Susha and Sheema’s parents were invited to attend a council, but the judge agreed that this did not change the “shame” they felt. The parents did not reconcile with their daughters.

“This court at least has the satisfaction of making every effort to appease their feelings,” the judge wrote.

The young couple are, at least, grateful that their case may encourage others not to suffer in silence.

“We felt like we made the story,” they wrote in an email to ABC.

“We weren’t expecting such a great judgment.”

Homosexual Indians still targeted by “exorcists” and “shamans”

Sonia Singhal applauded the Madras High Court ruling, but fears its rulings will have little impact beyond Tamil Nadu state, where Shusha and Sheema’s case has been heard.

“The decriminalization was made by [the] court, but there is no social conscience in India, ”she said.

An older woman in a sari and a woman with short hair sit together laughing on a sofa
Sonia, who now works as an activist, reconciled with her mother after her father’s death. (ABC News: Som Patidar )

“I see daily that people are driven from their homes by their parents, and are forced to accept prostitution in order to survive.

“It will take a long time.”

Hindu mythology and epics featured non-heterosexual characters, and transgender people were once revered. Currently, the blessings of the “hijras,” who are part of India’s transgender community, are considered sacred on special occasions, such as childbirth or marriage.

Despite this, awareness in modern India of gender identity and sexual orientation is “limited” and heterosexual marriage “is still the unambiguously projected life goal,” according to a qualitative study by the Asia Transgender Network.

The study included testimonies from five trans men and 15 trans women and found that almost all had been subjected to violence “at the hands of their families, medical professionals, exorcists, shamans, [and] neighbors”.

On the sides of the roads in towns and villages, self-proclaimed unregulated medical experts – or quacks – can offer unproven cures for a range of ailments.

Some claim to have remedies for homosexuality.

A row of bottles and images of Hindu gods in a tent store
Self-proclaimed medical experts have settled in New Delhi and are offering what they claim to be “cures” for homosexuality. (ABC News: Som Patidar )

When the ABC visited five quack tents around Delhi, two of them admitted to offering therapy to treat homosexuality.

“Normally worried parents and relatives approach me asking for treatment and a cure for their children,” said one operator, who spoke to the ABC on condition of anonymity.

“Homosexuality is a weakness linked to sex, and its treatment is possible.”

What future for gay rights in India?

Ensuring that conversion therapy is banned across India could be a long and arduous process.

The making of laws in India is a matter for parliaments, but the high courts, which sit below the Supreme Court, can make such a ruling by determining that the ruling respects the country’s constitution.

In the case of Shusha and Sheema, the judge referred to article 14, “equality before the law” and article 15, which prohibits discrimination based on religion, caste, sex or birthplace.

“This judge used the word ‘sex’ and developed it to understand sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity,” said Mr. Manuraj.

The judge also referred to a landmark Supreme Court case in 2018, which overturned British colonial-era laws that criminalized same-sex relationships, saying homosexuality was not unnatural, nor a “disorder. mental or disease “.

Although Judge N Anand Venkatesh did not attribute criminal responsibility to conversion therapy, Mr Manuraj said the court’s findings set a powerful precedent that could be applied across the country as it is about ‘a constitutional court.

An Indian boy in a lawyer robe standing in front of a court, smiling
Lawyer Manuraj Shunmugasundaram helped a young gay couple obtain a protection order from their parents. (ABC News: Wilfred Thomas)

“The trajectory of an equal rights movement has progressed and we have built on that trajectory.”

While the central government has yet to formally respond to the court explaining how, if anything, it will implement the judge’s orders, progress has been made elsewhere.

India’s leading medical education regulator, the National Medical Commission, has said it will remove “unscientific” and “derogatory” information about the LGBTQI + community from textbooks, scientific literature and government guidelines.

The LGBTQI + community is also closely monitoring other court cases, including at least eight applications to the Delhi High Court to legalize same-sex marriage. A Kerala court is also examining conversion therapy after a woman’s suicide.

“I hope we are on the cusp of something big,” said Mr. Manuraj Shunmugasundaram.

The Shusha and Sheema case will return to the Madras High Court on December 23.


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