In parts of India, deeply traditional and patriarchal social norms mean that people coming out as LGBTQI+ can result in their families abandoning them — or worse.
That was the case for a young lesbian couple this year in the Hindu pilgrimage city of Madurai, in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The women’s parents staunchly opposed their love, and the couple believed their only chance for building a life together was to leave Madurai entirely and move to Chennai — the largest city in Southern India. Their parents’ response? To report their daughters as missing, thereby launching a police search to force their separation and bring them back home.
Sadly, this practice — parents reporting LGBTQI+ family members as missing even though they’ve chosen to leave home — is cruelly common in India. The families hope that a police chase will frighten and humiliate the couple, pressuring them to return to their respective parents’ homes. India’s police, many of whom share these anti-LGBTQI+ sentiments, are typically happy to oblige.
Thankfully, this couple found a powerful ally: a grassroots AJWS grantee organization in Tamil Nadu that helps couples who are trapped by this terrible practice.
This organization was there to provide these women the support they needed to defend themselves against police harassment. But their fight didn’t stop there. The couple’s struggle in Chennai sparked a change in the Tamil Nadu legal system that will be felt for years.
As police began hunting for the couple, the organization provided them with “immediate needs like groceries, so they could start living together,” according to their project coordinator, Ganan (whose name has been changed to protect his identity).
Ganan added, “We did not have their exact address because we did not want to put them at risk in case the police brought us in for investigation.”
As well-known advocates for the local LGBTQI+ community, the organization’s staff was an immediate target of the police in the hunt for these two young women.
Ganan was forcibly detained by Madurai police and, he says, “threatened with arrest for human trafficking” if he withheld information about the location of the couple. Despite Ganan’s silence while under police custody, both women were pursued and apprehended by the police, and subjected to harassment and invasive questioning before being released.
Couple Takes Police to Court in Groundbreaking Trial
In the aftermath of this frightening and humiliating experience, the couple bravely decided that it was time to fight back. They knew the LGBTQI+ community of Tamil Nadu should not be bullied into living in fear — and they charged the police with harassment.
Ganan shared, “We are very happy to see this couple standing up for their rights and being an example for the community.”
The grantee organization provided support at every turn during their preparation for the trial, including “providing mental health support to one of the women” so she would be in the best possible position to face the daunting task of testifying to the court. Staff also provided basic education about the legal process.
Following the testimony, the presiding judge, Justice Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court made a decision that was all but unheard of in Tamil Nadu: he sought education from a psychologist about same-sex relationships. He even, according to local news reports, described himself as “not fully woke.”
At the end of the trial, Judge Venkatesh ruled in favor of the women — and then took his ruling much, much further.
Watershed Court Ruling to Address Homophobia
After hundreds of court rulings that have only codified entrenched homophobia in Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court issued a watershed order demanding sweeping changes to eliminate “illegal discrimination” against members of the LGBTQI+ community.
“Ignorance is no justification for normalizing any form of discrimination,” Justice Venkatesh stated in his ruling. He ordered the state and central government to create sensitivity trainings and mandatory curricula about LGBTQI+ people’s challenges for civil and police forces, with measures in place requiring these forces to report their progress back to the court. He also called for the end of the inhumane practice of sexual conversion therapy — declaring that medical practitioners in the region who claim to be able to cure homosexuality must have their licenses revoked.
In India, judges have rarely ruled in favor of the LGBTQI+ community in cases of discrimination or harassment. With this ruling, Judge Venkatesh set an important precedent within the justice system, and hopefully set a new course for his peers. Although the court itself does not have the power to impose widespread change with this one ruling, activists explain that government departments simply cannot ignore the order to report back the steps they intend to take to comply with this ruling. More importantly perhaps, the arguments raised by the judge could set precedent for future cases of LGBTQI+ discrimination.
An Unprecedented Opportunity for Structural Change
While this grantee organization has tirelessly worked to “sensitize state actors on gender and sexuality,” Ganan explained these efforts are often met with much resistance and hostility.
With the power of the judiciary now on their side, “this ruling will be a valuable tool for advocacy.” The case could be an important turning point in the efforts of AJWS grantee organizations to create systematic change within India’s civil service — which could ripple out to cause change in Indian society at large.
AJWS supports social change organizations in India that endeavor to improve the lives of the LGBTQI+ community at all levels of society — from immediate crisis management like providing safehouses for people experiencing community harassment, to advocating for policy changes that will stop systemic discrimination. Our partners have made significant progress in these efforts, including the 2018 repeal of the draconian Section 377 of the Indian Constitution, which criminalized homosexuality. But too often, this work has been met with closed doors.
Perhaps with this judgment in place, more doors will begin to open.
Madeline Cohen is the Executive Assistant to the Vice President of Communications and Marketing at American Jewish World Service.