Odisha’s ace sprinter Dutee Chand, who describes herself as the “fastest woman of India”, has failed to qualify for the semi-finals of the women’s 100 metres event at the Tokyo Olympics. While her performance in the heats might be a let-down, it is important to mark another win.
Considered to be the first Indian athlete to openly acknowledge being in a same-sex relationship, Chand gets to represent her country along with 174 publicly out lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary athletes from all over the world. According to Outsports.com, a sports website dedicated to LGBTQ+ athletes, fans and allies, this is “more than triple the number (of LGBTQ+ athletes) who participated at the 2016 Rio Games”.
This must be a proud moment for Chand, who hails from the village of Chaka Gopalpur, and has braved many obstacles, including poverty, hyperandrogenism regulations, and homophobia, to earn respect and medals at various international championships. Sundeep Misra’s book Fiercely Female: The Dutee Chand
Story (2021), published by Westland, provides a detailed account of her courageous struggle.
The author writes: “In India, people from privileged backgrounds have been unable to walk the bridge between life in the closet and life in the open. And here is a woman from an underprivileged background, who had once been accused of ‘failing’ a gender test, who is not only willing to come out but wants to take her relationship all the way.”
Chand spoke about her sexual orientation and her partner after the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Her family, particularly her sister, Saraswati, is having a tough time accepting her decision to be out and vocal.
Misra writes, “At home, they discuss how this will affect her career as a runner. They had thought with the hyperandrogenism controversy fading, all issues had been resolved. They had emerged free of the stigma that their daughter was a son. But this seems worse. The girl is in a relationship with a girl; worse, she wants to marry her.” Saraswati told the author that her sister must remember “there is a difference between Eastern and Western culture”.
Chand is confident that her personal life will not affect her professional competence. The author reminds us of a press conference in which she said, “There are athletes at the international level who also have same-sex relationships and their careers are going well. In life, everybody needs a partner and we like each other, so we have decided to live together. She motivates me for my sport.”
The phenomenon of women being in love with women is neither new nor a Western import. It can be helpful to read Misra’s book alongside Ruth Vanita’s Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (2005) and Maya Sharma’s book Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India (2006). Sharma writes: “One case involved the fate of Mamta and Monalisa, two young women from Orissa. Their case was detailed in a 1998 fact-finding report by the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA). Both women knew that their same-sex relationship was not acceptable to their families, and had filed an affidavit for a partnership deed so that they could live together.”
Knowing that they would be separated after the transfer of Monalisa’s father, a government employee, these women attempted joint suicide. In their suicide note, they wrote that nobody should be held responsible for their deaths and also expressed a wish to be cremated together. If they could not live together, they wanted to at least die together.
Vanita, who has extensively documented same-sex relationships outside metros like Mumbai and Delhi, writes: “Hindu weddings do not require written certification but they generally have witnesses. Suicide can rarely have witnesses, but it does have witnesses after the fact. Through their suicide notes, the couples call upon these witnesses to posthumously ratify their unions. Through the words they write together, they make their vows public.”
Many precious lives have been lost because families and communities have refused to change their mindset. Chand’s decision to come out has the potential to benefit LGBTQ+ youth who feel helpless without the support of their immediate kin. However, Jayaprakash Mishra, author of the article “Understanding Re-partnership in Non-normative Conjugality: Narratives of Gay Men in Odisha, India” (2020) in the Journal of Family Issues, also cautions us against idealising “verbal pronouncement of one’s homosexuality in public”.
His argument is that India’s “decade-long association with transnational queer discourse has not been inclusive of different ways of negotiation with which queer people engage”. This is true. It is incorrect to assume that everyone who chooses to be silent about his or her sexual orientation is persecuted. They might have a fulfilling life, and no need for public validation.
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