On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, finding it unconstitutional “in so far as it criminalizes consensual sexual relations between adults of the same sex”. This landmark judgment is the result of decades of struggle through petitions and protests by activists and gay rights organizations.
It was a moment of triumph for India’s queer community. The judgment was not only a symbol of social progress, but also a turning point in decolonization from the draconian laws of the British era. However, while the big-city queer community held celebrations, those living on the fringes were cautiously optimistic. For most, rainbow flags and Pride celebrations are a distant desire.
In India, the representation of queer voices in the media, academia, community work and politics is disproportionately made up of upper-caste, upper-class and mainland citizens who can afford to live relatively comfortable as themselves.
Queer individuals on the fringes are an afterthought within the movement or are considered when used to score diversity points. The multifaceted discrimination faced by queer individuals struggling with other social oppressions is rarely discussed.
In Mizoram, queer Mizos face sexual orientation and gender-based discrimination, while in mainland India they struggle with prejudice based on race, religion, language and identity. tribal, in addition to queerphobia.
How do queer Mizos who have migrated to other Indian cities in search of better opportunities and openness find safe spaces and face challenges unique to them?
Remi*, who has known her lesbian identity since childhood, left Aizawl to pursue higher education in Bangalore. When she was in middle school, racial slurs were common. She recalls one instance where a teacher subjected her to a tirade in Kannada that left her sobbing and caused her to walk out of the classroom.
At a church in Bengaluru, fellow worshipers asked him if Mizos “still practiced witchcraft and ate wild animals”. Rémi said she had to take a two-year hiatus while studying at a university where she was Mizo’s only student because she was being harassed by her neighbors.
She was stalked by these neighbors who spread rumors about her on a messaging app. Living with such normalized prejudices based on caste and race has been exhausting and detrimental to her mental health, she said.
Rina*, a professional photographer in Delhi, said he was called “Corona” during the pandemic by neighborhood children. “These things don’t really bother me anymore,” he said.
He was repeatedly sexually harassed by a male employer at the first place he worked in Delhi and quit his job soon after. “I think I faced more discrimination because of my Mizo identity rather than my gay male identity here because my homosexuality isn’t as visible as my race,” Rina said.
This rings true for queer people from other marginalized social groups in India. Hate crimes and racial slurs against people in the North East had increased after the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020.
As Rina’s story shows, although they also face discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, being identified with racial slurs or as members of the tribe puts them at particular risk of being harassed.
In Mizoram where 87.16% of the population is Christian, religion is closely linked to Mizo identity. Church councils have historically influenced state policy. Many church members are also state legislators and local leaders.
Homosexual individuals are vilified and considered “sinners”. It is the institution of the church and not Christianity that most queer Mizos struggle to come to terms with.
Kimi*, who identifies as bisexual and is pursuing a master’s degree in Allahabad, said her sexual orientation does not affect her relationship with God or her spirituality. Her parents, however, are deeply conservative and might never accept her if she spoke to them.
She is not ashamed of her sexual orientation but struggles against church opposition. “Sometimes when I feel like my heart is heavy, I just talk to God and tell him my problems and I feel less alone,” she said. “It’s good to think that there is a higher being who listens to me”.
For the mainstream queer community, it may seem contradictory to call oneself queer and Christian. But many queer Mizos have grown up with church as an integral part of their lives.
Engaging in community activities often meant engaging with the church. Spirituality offers comfort and tranquility even if the institution rejects and alienates them.
Remi survived a suicide attempt in her early twenties as she struggled with self-acceptance and with her faith. Congregants at her church in Mizoram reached out and helped her reconcile her faith with her queer identity.
She said she felt reassured after hearing the story of spiritual Christians and their visions of heaven as a place where there is no gender or markers of human identity. Rémi says she goes to church regularly without feeling guilty about her identity.
In the face of such challenges, queer Mizos find safe spaces among their chosen queer families who sympathize with them. In many cases, these chosen families also belong to other marginalized social groups because they have shared the experience of oppression.
For Kimi, Allahabad has been a difficult place to settle as she has been subjected to exocticization and sexualization not only on the streets but also in her educational institution. She said she also felt caught between the Hindu/Muslim binary.
According to her, the sexualization she faces varies from the experience of local women or queer individuals because she has been harassed and fetishized. However, she said her safe space is her bedroom in an apartment she shares with other Mizo women.
For Rina, a safe space is a person, someone he can trust and be himself with. He also finds it easier to connect with queer people from other northeastern states because of a common culture and experiences.
But, he believes that ultimately any space can become a safe space if there are accommodating and compassionate people.
Rémi feels most secure when she is not subjected to misogyny from straight men or when she is around other queer people, regardless of background.
Having experienced targeted harassment and prejudice about her sexual identity from several heterosexual men, Remi struggles to find herself in a male-dominated environment.
There is a unique form of estrangement queer Mizos face from society in Mizoram and out of state. Queer Mizos in mainland India often struggle to choose between their queer identity and their Mizo identity.
Big cities offer better opportunities and a sense of anonymity and freedom to express sexual and gender identities. At the same time, Mizo society being relatively collectivist rather than individualistic, it is difficult for queer people to feel a sense of belonging. But in big cities, separated from family and friends, they still yearn for the community support they grew up in.
Queer Mizos in mainland India hope that change is possible, as seen with Section 377. But the reality is that the changes experienced by the majority of queer people in India do not always reach those living on the margins. For queer Mizo individuals, the identities ascribed to them by traditional Hindu caste hierarchy identities as tribal and “rice-sack converts” influence their view of what democracy means.
They may never see a pro-LGBTQI politician in Mizoram or proper representation in the state and mainland India, but nonetheless, they are dreaming.
Ruth chawngthu is a graduate student in social design. She is passionate about creating art and writing about culture, sexuality and marginalization, especially issues that are not highlighted by mainstream Indian media.
*Names changed to protect identity.