It has been over three years since the Supreme Court of India repealed Section 377, decriminalizing homosexuality. Though years of struggle has resulted in a victory in the legal sense, the battle against social stigma and social exclusion continues. We live in a society where patriarchy has become an accepted norm and the fight for equal gender rights is still on. And in a society that has succumbed to social conditioning that dwells in social norms and stigma, it is important to recognize and educate ourselves about the differences that exist in the society. This is the first step towards an equal and harmonious society, where we can learn to co-exist with mutual respect and acceptance. Over the years, we have been learning to respect and live in a multicultural dimension, it is also time we start acknowledging the reality of a multi-gender society, breaking stereotypes that exist in the society.
The change proposed above does not happen overnight, and the struggle for this change has been happening for many years now. But to begin with, it is important to understand the concept of gender and educate ourselves beyond the basic understanding of the existing textbooks. It is necessary that the concept of gender and sexuality is understood beyond the existing binaries and social conditioning.
In Sikkim, Rainbow Hills Welfare Association (RHWA) a registered organization that has been working towards LGBTQIA+ rights and awareness has been actively trying to educate and create awareness among the people in the hills. On January 29, 2019, RHWA organized the first pride march, Sikkim ever witnessed. The organizers and participants marched the streets of Gangtok, painting the town in colors of the rainbow. The battle against discrimination of the community began back in 1992 when a petition was filed at the Petition Committee of the Parliament seeking decriminalization of homosexuality. In 2009, a division bench of the Delhi High Court consisting of Justice A P Shah and Justice S Murlidhar gave a judgement in favour or Naz Foundation, the petitioner, striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. And finally on September 8, 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality. A few months after this, Gangtok stood witness to its first ever pride march. Ever since then, the RHWA has been actively organizing various events and drives to promote awareness and education among the people in Sikkim.
Viveka Gurung, an active member of the RHWA, has been associated with the movement since her graduation days. Being a passive observer then, she learnt a lot about the queer movement. She became a part of RHWA in March 2020 when she attended a program organized by RHWA on LGBTQIA+ rights and law. The president of RHWA Tsheringla Wangchu welcomed her aboard, and she has been a part of RHWA ever since. In discussing the perception about the community among the people in the hills, she says, “With regard to queer, there are layers of reception and acceptance in the society. The outer layer consists of people who come across a queer in full gender performance in a public space, they are just treated as anyone else. The next layer consists of immediate friends, where, to a great extent, there is acceptance.
The issue exists at the innermost circle, which is the home. Many families do not know how to deal with differences in terms of gender and sexuality.” She believes that the need of hour is visibility. As much as developing RHWA as an NGO, the volunteers are striving hard to develop it into a safe space for more people to come out. According to her, visibility is needed for the society to gain more exposure and then learn further to accept differences. Another challenge faced by the organization is mobilizing and organizing individuals as a community to take up issues pertaining to discrimination as a unit and a family. She says, “We have been organizing programs in order to create awareness among the people and alongside also learning and adapting from other similar organizations from elsewhere in India and attempting to create a network of people who identify themselves with the queer.” One one-side they are working with the society and on the other, the organization is also going about attempting advocacy in other avenues of the society and the Government of Sikkim. She appeals to the people to come forward, educate, learn and participate. A little bit of consideration and open-mindedness is all that is needed among the people to accept differences.
Tsheringla Wangchu shares that RHWA was born out of necessity. She was herself bullied and harassed by her peer during her school and college days. It was her decision to stand against such ostracization and support others from the community that she began researching about organizations that work for the LGBTQIA+ community in India. She volunteered at the Mitzyu Society at Darjeeling, an organization that works closely with the community, which lead to the idea of beginning an NGO in Sikkim. She says, “I decided to fight against the mindset of people and society which they have for the LGBTQIA+ community in Sikkim. With the help of Mr. Lhakpa Tamang and Ms. Lhamu Dukpa, the foundation of RHWA was laid in December 2018. After its registration as an NGO in January 2020, RHWA today works for the holistic development of the LGBTQIA+ community in Sikkim.”
Anup Sharma, a researcher based in New Delhi says, “In Sikkim, there is an urgent need to introduce awareness among people and students about gender which often is understood in binary terms as male and female. For the members of the queer community to feel safe in Sikkim, people in general and students in schools and colleges, have to start demystifying sex, sexuality and desire making it integral to how we live, think and act.” He feels, though being closeted is a choice, many times it becomes forced upon as individuals do not find support within their homes and circle of friends. And proper education and awareness would create a safe space for the queer in the society.
Rigyal Sherpa, who identifies himself as a transgender male, says, “Coming out is different for everyone. In my opinion, it is important to come out to yourself before you come out to the world. And it is equally important to educate yourself on your identity so that you can educate others with clarity. And most important, it is necessary to be sensitive to others and respect and allow time for others to get used to differences.” Shraddha RC, a queer, envy feels, “The fundamental issue lies in the stereotypical mindset that has set into the society in understanding gender in the binary of male and female. The notion of gender goes beyond this, and gender and sexuality are two different concepts. It is important to realize and educate ourselves about that.”
The Madras High Court last year directed Union and State government to take steps to prohibit the medical ‘cure’ of people belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community through medical procedures. The judgement was passed by Justice Anand Venkatesh. In an interview with Live Law, he shared that he took the initiative to attend a few psycho-educative sessions with professionals who specialize in LGBTQIA+ issues in order to break his pre-conceived notions on the community. In the judgement, he openly shared that he too, like many others, had a socially-conditioned thought process that ostracized the community. But he set an example for many others by taking the initiative and effort to learn and educate himself, thus impacting his decision-making in his landmark judgement. It is important for all of us to put in an effort and interest to educate ourselves and learn to accept differences and live through mutual respect and harmony.This pride month, let us all evaluate ourselves, educate our minds and empower the community