Only until very recently, in a world that has moved – or is moving towards a greater acceptance of the LGTBQI+ spectrum, did India legally accept same-sex relationships. Even as the law has accepted it and, indeed, quicker growing sections of society, the fact remains that homophobia is still rampant – in society, and in sport.
On Sunday, Indian Olympic sprinter Dutee Chand publicly came out as a lesbian, making her the first openly LGBTI+ athlete in India, and the first to speak publicly about a same-sex relationship.
It was only months ago, in September 2018, that the Indian Supreme Court finally decriminalised same-sex relationships, with a panel of five judges in the SC ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was both unconstitutional and violated an individual’s right to privacy.
But as we have seen all too often, the law does not always help the vulnerable, particularly in the case of LGBTQI individuals. During an independent research many years ago, when the battle to have Section 377 struck down was still relatively nascent, this writer spoke to a number of junior and background artists in Bollywood, and those in relatively more common professions – many of whom had been bullied by those with authority, threatened with forcible outing to families that are not accepting of their homosexuality, many of them with friends who, under that same duress, committed suicide.
Coming out in sport is still a relative rarity, especially in team sports, and while it now happens with increasing frequency in the West, it is more due to societal repercussions that in South Asia, it is still far less frequent to see an “out” sportsperson.
Dutee was able to take control of her coming out, unlike so many sportswomen in the past – most crucially, Billie Jean King, who was forcibly ousted by a blackmailer – and seizing her own narrative is, as Dutee said, one of the most crucial parts of coming out in the first place.
When male athletes come out, they are considered as going “against the grain”. Sports is considered hyper-masculine, hyper-macho, and people, to this day, associate masculinity with strength, in whatever form that may be. When female athletes come out, society still, unfortunately, believes they are playing into a stereotype. Lesbian and bisexual women are often considered ‘less conventionally feminine’ because the ideals of how people believe sexuality, gender roles and physical appearance are related are so deeply ingrained in the public psyche.
In a country, too, where even the limited conversations the public has had about the LGBTQI community have been restricted to gay men, Dutee has opened up new avenues of discussion. Apart from certain socio-economic sections of society that may have more discussions around the subjects of homosexuality, bisexuality and queerness, the larger conversation around LGBTQI causes has still been around the world of celebrity rather than sport.
Dutee’s coming out has brought, and opened up that discussion to the world of sport, where, in India, it has yet to be discussed by any sportsperson, active or otherwise.
Unfortunately, the same sections of society that lauded Hardik Pandya for his hypersexualised, objectifying comments against women on a popular TV chat show have made crass, crude jokes about Dutee’s coming out. That is part of the wider rhetoric, and the wider attitude that needs to change – and her acknowledgement of her same-sex partner is a step in that direction.
Much has already been said about Dutee’s bravery in coming out – but in all truth, she has been braver than many of us realise. In so many countries, even those not in the proverbial “Third World”, sportspeople are afraid to come out for fear of their sporting image being tarnished.
What Dutee has brought is far more than just her story – she has brought visibility to a section of society that until recently in India, could be prosecuted for their sexual orientation, and still continues to be persecuted. A lot of rhetoric around homosexuality, bisexuality and a discussion on the LGBTQI+ spectrum has still centered on men, while her open, frank discussion on the topic has highlighted an issue that needs to be normalised, especially now that laws from over 100 years ago have been amended.
Coming out as queer in India, unless one belongs to a certain socio-economic class - and often not even then, is difficult. Just ask Dutee herself - the athlete’s sister threatened, following her coming out, to “remove her from the home”. But what has been heartening to see is Dutee’s courage in the face of her sister’s threats to “send her to prison”; with the law now firmly on Dutee’s side, so to have been large sections of users across social media, who have stood behind the Olympian.
One post in particular, from an anonymous user on Reddit, said that Dutee’s decision to come out gave them the courage to do the same. If even one person was able to find that courage, her coming out has already been having an effect.
Dutee’s coming out carries far more weight than we may realise. One, it may well give that courage to youth around the country struggling either with their sexuality, or with speaking about it. Second, it brings visibility to a section of society that until recently, did not have legal rights and were routinely subjected to harassment, violence and blackmail. In a country where viewers are all too happy to click on photos of cricketers, footballers and their opposite-sex significant others, Dutee is also a breath of fresh air - and hopefully heralds an era where a picture labelled “Dutee Chand and girlfriend” is not met with homophobia or derision.
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Updated Date: May 23, 2019 10:58:31 IST