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Queer inclusivity remains hugely tokenistic in India

The Indian state’s paradoxical stance on queer rights – oscillating between tokenistic reforms and harsh crackdowns – underscores the profound disconnect between political rhetoric and lived realities for the LGBTQ+ community.

The recent ban imposed by the Pune Police, prohibiting transgender individuals from ‘congregating at traffic junctions and forcibly demanding money from commuters,’ has ignited outrage within the community.

The draconian measure, enforced under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, has effectively criminalized a crucial means of livelihood for many transgender individuals, further marginalizing an already vulnerable population.

Institutional tokenism: committees and surveys

In a seeming gesture of inclusivity, the Central Government has established a six-member committee to address the myriad issues faced by the queer community.

This committee, formed at the directive of the Supreme Court while hearing a petition on marriage equality in November 2023, is tasked with suggesting measures to prevent discrimination in access to goods, services, and social welfare schemes, as well as mitigating the threat of violence.

However, such institutional efforts often fall short of effecting tangible change, reduced to mere tokenism and data collection exercises. The 2011 census, for instance, recorded a mere 4.9 lakh transgender individuals in India, a staggering underrepresentation that fails to capture the true diversity and scope of the community.

Despite the rhetoric of inclusivity and the establishment of committees, the lived experiences of queer individuals paint a grim picture of systemic exclusion and gendered violence. According to a 2021 report by the National Human Rights Commission, over 50% of transgender individuals in India have faced harassment or abuse from law enforcement agencies.

Moreover, the denial of fundamental rights, such as access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, remains a harsh reality for the queer community.

A 2017 study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) revealed that a staggering 92% of transgender individuals are deprived of the right to participate in economic activities in India, forcing many to resort to begging or sex work for survival.

The personal is political

Amidst the systemic oppression and institutional tokenism, the queer community continues to assert its resilience and demand substantive change. Activists and advocates have long criticized the state’s superficial efforts, calling for a holistic approach that addresses the root causes of discrimination and violence.

Ritika Sharma, a transgender activist from Delhi, shares her harrowing experience of being denied basic healthcare services due to her gender identity. “The system treats us as outcasts, denying us the most fundamental rights and subjecting us to constant humiliation,” she says, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive legal and policy reforms.

Despite the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement decriminalizing homosexuality in 2018, the journey towards true equality and acceptance for the queer community remains arduous. Discriminatory laws, such as the regressive Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, continue to cast a long shadow, perpetuating societal stigma and institutional bias.

Moreover, the lack of legal recognition for same-sex marriages and the absence of comprehensive anti-discrimination laws further exacerbate the marginalization of the queer community. In this climate of legal ambiguity and societal prejudice, the state’s tokenistic measures often fail to address the deep-rooted systemic issues.

The way forward

As the Indian state grapples with the complexities of queer rights, it is crucial to recognize that true emancipation cannot be achieved through tokenistic measures or superficial reforms. The lived experiences of the queer community demand a holistic approach that addresses systemic discrimination, gendered violence, and the denial of fundamental rights.

Comprehensive legal reforms, including the repeal of regressive laws and the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation, must be prioritized. Additionally, targeted initiatives to promote societal acceptance, educational campaigns, and inclusive policies in domains such as healthcare, employment, and housing are imperative.

It is time for the state to move beyond mere data collection and committee formations, and instead prioritize substantive policy changes that dismantle oppressive structures and ensure the safety, dignity, and equal participation of queer individuals in all spheres of life. Only then can the rhetoric of inclusivity be translated into tangible, lived realities for the marginalized.