Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022
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Are Cities ‘Safe’ For LGBTQIA Community In India?

From finding a safe home to spending time outside to commuting in public transport, daily lives of the members of the queer community are fraught with endless challenges. At every step, discrimination is lurched in ambush, waiting to take them down. And this happens every day.

LGBTQIA+ community is at the receiving end of gender and identity-based discrimination in India
LGBTQIA+ community is at the receiving end of gender and identity-based discrimination in India Getty Images

In April, Ritu, 25, moved to Bangalore as he started a new job as a technical support engineer there, at an American multinational IT company. Never did he know that the task of finding a house in the city, hundreds of miles away from his home, would be so humiliating for him. His identity comes with an excruciating cost, Ritu, who identifies himself as a non-binary person, realised it.

Alien to the new city, Ritu decided to use an app called NoBroker to hunt for accommodation, and after finding a house he dialled the number that was listed on the app. Ritu asked for the directions and reached the place.

Ritu tells Outlook, “The owners were an elderly couple. I told them I am a trans person and if that would be any problem. They didn't even understand that. After a lot of explaining, they agreed to let the house on rent.” After paying the advances, Ritu left.

When Ritu was at the railway station to go back to her home in Kerala, he received a call that he had never expected. “Their daughter called me and said that that they are not okay to give us the house because I am a trans,” Ritu tells Outlook. After the call ended, the house owners through Google Pay immediately returned the advance that Ritu had paid them.

In India, LGBTQIA+ community is at the receiving end of the gender and identity-based discrimination, and the members go through an excruciating struggle when looking for safe spaces for living. Landlords and brokers blatantly deny providing them rented spaces, rooms or apartments, citing their identities as a cause of possible ‘disturbance’ in respective neighborhoods.

Some property owners rather than being direct, charge exorbitant and unreasonable rents, deliberately making the space unaffordable for the potential tenants.

Ritu is not alone who has faced the discrimination. To people who are visibly queer, for instance a transgender, the discrimination meted out is more rampant. Saral, a 27-year-old transwoman who has just relocated to Bangalore, was denied a space by dozens of property owners when she was looking for an accommodation in Mohali.

“It did not happen just once. I have faced it a lot. Landlords upon finding my identity, would outrightly tell me that they will not accommodate me, because I am a trans,” Saral tells Outlook.

Sometimes, to evade the process, landlords reject the queer tenants by saying that the locality or building is reserved solely for families or married couples. In addition, often, queer folk withstand the worst of the stereotyping. For instance, their presence in the neighborhood will morally degenerate the social space.

A transwoman, wishing not to be named, tells Outlook that a house owner upon finding out her identity, told her that he does not want “a transgender in the building”. The landlord had assumed she would “resort to using the room for sex work”.

Several online initiatives have existed to tackle issues related to identity-based discrimination. For instance, Nirat Bhatnagar, in 2019, founded Belongg, an online platform, just after the general elections as a response to the changing socio-political fabric. Besides focusing on providing education, jobs and healthcare to marginalised groups, Belongg also runs a housing project wherein it connects the tenants who have faced discrimination with house owners openly willing to provide space. 

The housing initiative of Belongg began in 2019 when Bhatnagar, the founder, was approached by a colleague who was unable to find an accommodation because of his religious identity.

“The founder later thought that he could ask inclusive house owners to come together who can commit to the fact that irrespective of the identity, they can provide safe accommodation to the individuals who are ostracized otherwise,” an official from Belongg tells Outlook, adding, “And then Belongg’s housing initiative took a formal shape.”

Similarly, Gay Housing Assistance Resource (GHAR), an online community, was founded by Mumbai-based Spanish language teacher Sachin Jain. The idea of GHAR was conceived in 1998, when Jain in a bid to host the online community, started an email group. The group later moved to Yahoo Groups in 2001, and then assumed its present form as a Facebook group in 2012. 

Currently, GHAR hosts 19,000 members on Facebook. In the group, homeowners —who are willing to offer their homes to people belonging to marginalised sections— connect with tenants who are likely to be treated unfairly otherwise.

Even though such initiatives have been actively working for the LGBTQIA+ community, their domains are limited in nature. For instance, Outlook spoke to at least 30 members of the queer community from different cities, out of which only five knew about Belongg and just one member knew about GHAR. Initiatives like Belong and GHAR can only cater to the people who are aware of their presence, and the members who lie outside this information chain continue to struggle.

“Besides the problem of lying outside this information chain, there are other challenges,” Dr. Dhiren Borisa, Assistant Professor at OP Jindal Global University, whose doctoral research focusses on Queer Cartographies of Desires in Delhi, tells Outlook.

“Queer people who belong to financially marginalised sections of the society often lack access to smart devices and internet, owing to which they are not privy to such campaigns and initiatives that exist out there,” said Dr. Borisa.

Hence, hunting for a discrimination-free accommodation becomes an onerous task for the members of the community, especially for those who are visibly queer or belong to marginalised strata of society. Nevertheless, struggles do not end there, finding spaces for leisurely activities comes with a different barrage of problems altogether.

Leisure has a cost? 

The organisers of a private queer gathering in Pune recently accused the police of harassing them, claiming that that on July 9, without a warrant, the police locked up at least 150 members of the LGBTQ community inside the event venue for 30 minutes. The organisers further alleged that police threw a spate of homophobic and derogatory remarks at them.

“Such incidents were rampant before the section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was decriminalized,” says Dr Borisa.

Prior to 2018, homosexuality was punishable by law. However, in September 2018 in a landmark judgement of the Supreme Court of India, Section 377 of IPC was decriminalised, which made private homosexual relations legal —not to forget that same-sex couples cannot get their marriage legally registered whatsoever.

The decriminalisation of Section 377 cleared the air, seeming like a historic step towards making the society more inclusive. Metropolitan cities like Delhi openly started hosting gay bashes and pride meets in pubs, nightclubs and cafes. During the Pride Month, dozens of cafes around South Delhi’s Greater Kailash had hoisted rainbow flags over their entrances, openly welcoming queer folk aboard for spending their leisurely time. However, some members of the community tell Outlook that this is nothing but a well-planned gimmick to capitalise on queerness.

A queer tells Outlook, “Going to such places is expensive, it’s like a glass of drink costs you like 800 rupees. Queerness now comes with a price tag, as people only who have a certain amount of privilege have access to these places.”

Boria tells Outlook, “On one hand, there is a proliferation of such cafes, but on the other hand, they are just remorphing the same exclusionary spatial politics which has always been there.” Borisa, who is also a poet and urban sexual geographer, believes that navigating through such scenarios, class and privilege play a huge role as such, because people who can earn leisure, and have monetary upper hand can only enjoy the accessibility.

Another member from the community tells Outlook that once a famous bar-cum-cafe in Delhi denied his friend the entry because she was wearing a sari.

Un-welcome aboard?

The LGBT community’s struggles do not end here. The persistent violation and discrimination they face while commuting in public transport has been happening for a long time, as continues even today. For instance, it gets very uncomfortable for transgenders in Delhi Metro’s train coaches.

Bruna, a transwoman tattoo artist based in Delhi, tells Outlook that on several occasions, when she boarded Delhi Metro to commute, dozens of people started staring at her. 

She tells Outlook, “That gaze is so penetrating that you feel very uncomfortable. It gets worse during rush hours when coaches are brimmed with commuters. You don’t understand whose hand is touching or groping you, and people deliberately lean against your bodies. I have a car. I don’t need to board the metro at all, but not every person of my community has this privilege. Imagine the levels of harassment they go through every day.”

From finding a safe home to spending time outside to commuting in public transport, daily lives of the members of the queer community are fraught with endless challenges. At every step, discrimination is lurched in ambush, waiting to take them down. And this happens every day.

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