Suchandra Das and Sreemoyee Mukherjee connected on Facebook for the first time when the social media platform was fairly new in India. Over the years, they fell in love but their journey to come out to their parents and the society was mired with difficulties arising out of strong conditioning.
Suchandra recalls when she came out to her father, all she was holding on to was a pillow. She clenched it hard. The pillow was her only "support" if she was perhaps hit. While her father was in utter disbelief, she could hear her mother burst into tears in the next room.
However, the Kolkata-based couple had to admit their sexuality to their families before they were married off to a cishet man. Suchandra soon moved out of her house and started staying with her partner. That is where the relationship started to flourish and, now, the same-sex couple has been socially married for the past seven years.
Suchandra and Sreemoyee’s stories reverberate similar tales of same-sex couples who assembled for a panel discussion on ‘Marriage Equality: Legalizing Same-sex Marriage In India’, organised by the All India Professional’s Congress in Kolkata. The event comes at a time when the Supreme Court has concluded arguments debating the legalisation of same-sex marriage in India.
The discussion was not about whether same-sex marriage should be legalised but about which factors have been getting in the way of its legalisation. The five-judge SC bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud received several objections from the Union government and a few state governments.
The panel consisted of a spectrum of people, who are directly or indirectly involved in the advocacy of LGBTQ rights including newlyweds Abhishek Roy and Chaitanya Sharma, the couple who made headlines for having Kolkata’s first-ever gay marriage last year. Like Sreemoyee and Suchandra, Abhishek and Chaitanya also started their love story on a similar note. Abhishek’s family was aware of his sexuality, and they welcomed Chaitanya with open arms into their lives, while Chaitanya’s family needed some time to understand. But their marriage in 2021 also survived immense social hiatus, the tiny details of which only showcase how fear and risk become huge factors in letting the stories exist.
The reality of queer folks in India
While the love story of Abhishek and Chaitanya was widely reported and may have sounded dreamy, these stories also reflect privilege. The two couples came from socially and financially sound families. But the majority of the queer population in India lacks that, especially acceptance in the family or the choice of moving out.
Poushali Basu, who represents Sappho For Equality, interacts with queer women and trans men. She mentions people coming in without proper documents from home because they ran away and have nowhere to take shelter. Abuse of queer people mostly starts at home and, at that point, marriage legalisation looks like a privilege.
Underprivileged queer folks often get their fundamental rights stripped away for no fault of their own. Advocate Sreemoyee Mukherjee shares her own experience with trans people who do not get treated well at home or at the workplace on a daily basis. Even though the Constitution of India declares that it protects all individuals irrespective of their gender, ill-treatment of the queer community is a common practice here.
Advocate Rajdeep Mukherjee says that Articles 14 (equality before law), 16 (equality of opportunity in matters of public employment), and 21 (protection of life and liberty) are rights of every citizen in the country, and asking for marriage legalisation does not go beyond any of these fundamental rights. He mentions that "marriage is a union of two souls" and gender should not be a factor in it that stands in contrast with The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and the Special Marriage Act of 1954, which mention that marriage is legalised only if it is between a man and a woman.
Pawan Dhall, who is the founder and trustee of Varta Trust, a publication that promotes dialogue on gender and sexuality, says, "Everybody should have the right to live out of the relationship they want to and marriage is one end of the spectrum."
Dhall expresses that marriage might not be a goal for everyone, but everyone deserves a supportive environment to boost their relationship and also be open to people who do not choose to be in one.
Why is marriage legalisation necessary?
Considering the situation of the queer folks in the country, the panel agreed in unison that the Supreme Court’s ruling for the legalisation of same-sex marriage can be a big step forward to becoming a more inclusive culture.
The couples raised a number of points that described why the legalisation goes beyond just marriage, but like Advocate Maneka Guruswamy told the Supreme Court on April 18, "marriage is a bouquet of rights, such as gratuity, provident fund, pension, etc., which flow from spousal relationships created by marriage".
Sreemoyee points out how health insurance, inheritance, adoption, and other legal decisions are essential for a married couple to have. She urges people who oppose the legalisation to see it from the perspective of leading regular lives and how, just like any family, queer folks also need to plan their monthly expenses and decide what will be cooked for lunch the next day, and these rights are as basic as these daily activities.
"I don’t see a problem if the government gives these rights any other name but marriage," she says, explaining that the terminology isn’t as important as the rights.
Adding to this, Abhishek Roy says that this legalisation of marriage will eventually become a symbol or a green light for the underprivileged and the scared ones to come out and might also influence the families to understand better.
The lawyers share instances where queer couples who ran away to get married and went to the police for protection but were denied because the police asked them to show proof of their marriage. In such cases, a piece of paper might change the fate of such couples. The advocates also argue against the misjudgement of the police in such cases, as they should be protecting citizens irrespective of their sexuality, but it reflects the shared mentality of the society we live in.
Arguing how laws affect the lives of people in the country and how they trickle down from top to bottom, the moderator asks the panel what they thought worked better regarding such landmark decisions: lawmakers to the masses or the reverse. To this, Poushali Basu remarks that lawmakers can change lives by sanctioning rights for people in need. “There are so many who are denied housing, education, and health rights irrespective of gender, so there can never be enough rights to give out,” she says.
Referring to the 2018 judgment of decriminalising homosexuality, Chaitanya points out that since 2018, there hasn’t been much awareness created by the government for the acceptance and better quality of life of queer people, as was directed by the Supreme Court during the judgement. So Sharma questions, "If there were no steps taken by the Centre, how are they questioning during the ongoing hearing that the Indian society is not ready?"
Pawan Dhall makes a statement: "Get out of the trap of society being ready; laws will change that."
Family matters and so does school
Speaking with Outlook, Abhishek and Chaitanya explain how important family support is for a queer child. In several tragic incidents, queer children have lost their lives to bullying and mental health issues, all rising from the toxic environment they were growing up in.
On this note, Poushali Basu tells that most of the people who come to her organisation for help have been abused by their family and relatives, whether they were seen holding hands with a same-sex person or came out as trans. So legalisation of marriage might be supported to recognise them as citizens when it comes to protection from the police.
She points out that as a measure to educate society about queer lives, one should start at school and family, where the teachings and values need to be inclusive, and topics of gender and sexuality have to be included in the curriculum.
The Supreme Court has concluded the hearing in the marriage equality case and reserved its verdict.