A friend asked, what does it feel like to have Varta complete 10 years. Tenacious? More like a mix of tender and tensed up, I replied. Memories of highs and lows mingling with tensions about the current times and what’s to come. A happy 10th birthday with a question mark, so to speak.
How can it be otherwise? In the decade since August 1, 2013, Varta has witnessed, been part of, and reported on tumultuous developments in India and globally around a range of issues – gender, sexuality, trans and queer rights, mental health, disability, HIV, COVID-19, and the right to privacy. However, all the positives have been tempered with barriers and letdowns, played out against a backdrop of existential concerns like erosion of democratic values and institutions, and climate change.
When the Supreme Court of India upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code as constitutional in December 2013, there was deep shock and distress. Yet, there was a fightback, and I witnessed some of the most heart-warming protests on the ramp of a beauty pageant for trans persons in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. How do I reconcile this memory with the state of affairs today in Manipur?
In April 2014, the Supreme Court rekindled hope with the NALSA verdict on trans rights. The verdict affirmed the right to choose and express one’s gender identity – not many other countries had managed this at that point of time. An agonizing five years later, after much debate and protest around controversial draft legislations, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 failed to uphold the spirit and letter of the NALSA verdict.
The Act did streamline the procedure to apply for a transgender identity certificate, but the process requires digital literacy and is dependent on the speed at which state and district level government officials respond to applications. Access to certification remains patchy, varies from state to state, and still requires judicial intervention to get things moving.
While the 11/12/13 reversal on Section 377 was an ugly surprise, the apex court’s 2017 verdict on the right to privacy in the Justice K. S. Puttaswamy & Another Vs. Union of India & Others case was an equally happy surprise. Though the court was dealing with a constitutional challenge to the Aadhaar card scheme, it went beyond and emphasized the larger issue of the Fundamental Right to Privacy. The court effectively stopped the central government from sending the right to privacy into oblivion, and also signalled its intent to revisit its decision on Section 377. This eventually led to the September 2018 decriminalization verdict where this colonial vestige was irreversibly read down. A nearly three decades old sociolegal struggle came to an end, but it did not end the violence against trans and queer people.
Even today, adult queer couples who want to live together are prevented from doing so by their natal families and the police. Some of them manage to fight back by taking recourse to the decriminalization verdict (through habeas corpus petitions filed in High Courts). Ironically, cohabitation by two (or more) consenting adults, irrespective of their gender identity and sexual orientation, was not a crime even before decriminalization.
On a happier note, the year 2018 was not just about decriminalization. In June that year, the World Health Organisation finally depathologized trans identities and stopped classifying them as a disorder. Moreover, decriminalization along with positive developments around trans rights have led to progressive moves such as the Madras High Court directing the National Medical Commission in 2021 to change the content and language in competency-based medical curriculum in relation to gender and sexuality. Earlier, in 2019, the same court had banned intersex genital mutilation, drawing attention to the poorly understood issue of differences (not disorders) in sexual development.
In 2016, another decades-old sociolegal struggle ended with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 becoming a reality. In the following year, the Mental Healthcare Act came into being, possibly the first public health legislation that prohibited discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. These developments occurred at a time when rainbow pride marches in cities like Hyderabad and Chennai began raising the issue of Dalit identities in queer spaces. In 2016, the death of research scholar Rohith Vemula in the wake of the Hyderabad Central University’s unjustified expulsion of Dalit students provided an impetus to the recognition of the intersections between gender, sexuality, class, caste, race, religion, disability, mental health, and other social factors. In 2017, the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’, following in the footsteps of its Bangalore counterpart, added sign language interpretation and other facilities to ensure the participation of people with disabilities.
In 2019, when Article 370 was unjustly revoked in Jammu & Kashmir and the state was bifurcated and made a Union Territory, several rainbow pride walks protested the move. This also brought forth the growing homonationalism within the ranks of India’s trans and queer movements. The ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’ that prides itself as the oldest in South Asia and marked 20 years since the first walk was held on July 2, 1999, also attracted criticism that it was diluting the fight for LGBTIQA+ rights by talking about intersectional issues. Fortunately, the organizers did not give in. At the same time, the political element of many rainbow pride walks seems to be diminishing, even as the geographical spread of the walks and numerical participation has grown.
In 2017, another ‘happy tiding’ was the enactment of the hugely delayed HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Act. This too was a culmination of one of India’s longest running civil society campaigns, but recent incidents, in Kolkata for instance, strongly indicate that its impact on reducing stigma and discrimination in healthcare and other settings needs to be assessed dispassionately.
Another policy development that needs closer examining is the National Education Policy of 2020. Its mandate of supporting trans students does not seem to extend to embedding trans realities in the curricula itself. The starkest example was the withdrawal of the draft NCERT manual on trans and gender nonconforming children’s inclusion in schools. Seven years of collaborative hard work between the government and civil society organizations was sacrificed because of reactionary posts on social media.
Even when it comes to developing a comprehensive protocol on gender affirmative care, one of the best examples remains the effort of a trans and queer support group – Sappho for Equality’s good practices guide released in 2017. The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 and the decriminalization verdict of 2018 were followed by several associations of mental health professionals issuing position statements on gender and sexuality diversity in 2020. Many of these statements were issued after the death by suicide of a bisexual person from Kerala who had been forced into ‘conversion therapy’ by her natal family. In 2022, the National Medical Commission declared ‘conversion therapy’ as professional misconduct, but who exactly is monitoring the conduct of medical professionals (qualified or otherwise)?
For all the progress around trans and queer rights, are we still on our own at the end of the day? For an answer, one just needs to look back three years when the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on everyone, but clearly not equally on everyone. Self-help was the strongest driving force that mobilized India’s earliest queer support forums in the 1980s and 1990s, and the pandemic drove home the value of self-preparedness for trans and queer communities and their movements any time, every time.
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Varta’s own story may not have been half as eventful as the developments mentioned above, but it has faithfully tried to report, examine, and comment on them through articles, photographs and graphics on its pages and columns. Some major examples are included in this article, but you can also see numerous micro histories here and here, and the coverage of literary and cinematic developments (here, here and here) on the webzine’s pages.
Our Facebook page and YouTube channel complement the webzine, while also documenting key gender and sexuality related discourses on issues like polyamory, safer dating and more. Have a look also at our contributions to the evolving world of queer-themed literature in India.
Organizationally, Varta Trust, which publishes Varta, started as a volunteer group on June 3, 2012, became a registered trust on May 14, 2014, and acquired a charitable status in December 2018. We are led by a five-member Board of Trustees, but our mainstay has always been a diverse set of volunteers, staff members, resource persons, vendors, partner agencies, and donors, not to forget an exciting lot of committed webzine contributors and a critical readership of the webzine. This is an occasion to convey a humble thank you to each and every one of them.
Browsing through the pages of the Varta Trust website (and older blog, 2013-16) will give you a fair idea of our work and achievements in six broad areas – publications, awareness generation events, research, advocacy, training, and services referrals (our well-known online locators on queer-friendly health and legal aid services). However, some of the milestones merit a mention here, if only to reflect our engagement with the larger developments described earlier.
Sample this small but engaging doodle campaign on the first anniversary of the 11/12/13 verdict on Section 377 and the parallel formation of Queer Friendly Lawyers Network (QFLN) – West Bengal to address the human rights violations faced by trans and queer people in West Bengal (and elsewhere). Since December 2016, lawyers associated with QFLN – West Bengal have successfully argued in the courts of law to further trans and queer rights, whether it was to push for implementation of the NALSA verdict, protect the right of adult queer couples to cohabit, or compel the West Bengal government to speed up the issuance of transgender identity certificates as recently as January 2023.
We are equally proud of our citizen journalism programme, which has trained trans and queer individuals from Assam, Manipur, Odisha and West Bengal to report on crucial developments like the trans exclusions from the National Register of Citizens in Assam, need for trans inclusive sanitation in Manipur, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Amphan cyclone on marginalized communities in eastern and north-eastern India. These reports were published in Varta and on several occasions amplified through traditional and social media to garner wider public attention and mobilize resources for communities in distress.
Since 2014 we have been engaged with research, advocacy, training and mentoring around economic inclusion for trans and queer people in eastern and north-eastern India, particularly West Bengal and Manipur. The decimation of the livelihoods of trans and queer people by the COVID-19 pandemic motivated us to start a mentoring forum in 2021 for people looking for higher or continued educational opportunities, jobs, self-employment, and skills building. In our experience, both government and corporate efforts in facilitating sustained economic inclusion for trans and queer people have had a chequered record. In part, this may be because of a failure to address issues of class, caste, location, mental health, legal aid, and housing along with livelihood. Then again, many well-meaning employers tend to forget that trans and queer people also have career growth aspirations beyond a need for job openings.
Underlying all our work is a passion for queer archiving and associated research and awareness generation. This is motivated by our desire to never forget our roots, honour the past and its memories, and learn from them to strategize for the future.
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What therefore of the future? What is going to engage our energies in the next 10 years? Will it be marriage equality, uniform civil code concerns, or anti-discrimination legislation, social protection, and the still-burning issue of reservations in education and employment? What about data protection? How are we going to deal with healing and recovery in Manipur? Will we be able to do anything about the climate meltdown?
One concern that may soon be overshadowing many others is the Lok Sabha polls in 2024. In the last polls in 2019, trans and queer representation among voters, candidates, and political party manifestos went up a few notches. Are things going to be better this time? If yes, how far will that check the erosion of India’s democratic top soil?
So many tensions!
Look out for a special series of articles on this subject – written by Varta regulars and many others invited – in the next few issues of the webzine. And, if you are curious about the ‘social G-spot’ mentioned in the introduction to this article, please click here.
Main graphic credit: Arkadeepra Purkayastha