Threat of violence at root of homelessness

New Delhi | ByDhamini Ratnam
Jun 08, 2019 11:21 PM IST

A recent International Commission of Jurists report found that homelessness is a condition that many in the LGBTQ community face.

Urban homelessness is not only a function of entrenched poverty interlinked with rural migration. Across class and caste, it is also driven by social and cultural prejudices.

Members of the LGBTQ community participate in a pride parade in Mumbai, Saturday, Feb 2, 2019.(AP)
Members of the LGBTQ community participate in a pride parade in Mumbai, Saturday, Feb 2, 2019.(AP)

KC, a 24-year-old Dalit woman and BS, a 19-year-old woman who belongs to an Other Backward Class, have experienced this [initials have been used to protect their identities]. Some months back, the same-sex couple sought the protection of the Delhi High Court from BS’ family. They also asked the court to protect their constitutional right to live with a partner of their choice.

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The court ruled that they were free to live with each other, being consenting adults, and provided police protection. In a later hearing, however, it also asked BS to keep in touch with her family, despite her claims that she had faced violence and gender-based discrimination at home. The court also withdrew police protection. In effect, the two could stay together, but were homeless, as neither could return to their families.

“One of [BS’] relatives threatened to kill me and my family members,” said KC. “[BS’ family] told the court that I had fed her some medicine which influenced her,” she said. HT has seen the application filed by the family, which corroborates her claim.

KC and BS’ lawyers, Mihir Samson and Amritnanada Chakravarty, put them in touch with a shelter home that housed them for six weeks. Today, they live in a city undisclosed to their families, and with another same-sex couple, who too has faced homelessness.

A common experience

A recent International Commission of Jurists report found that homelessness is a condition that many in the LGBTQ community face. Titled ‘Living with dignity: sexual orientation and gender identity-based human rights violations in housing, work and public spaces in India’, the report which was released on Saturday, stated, “LGBTQ persons are at risk of a range of human rights violations while seeking adequate housing including violence from family members, confinement in the house, and involuntary institutionalization by family members into pseudo medical institutions for “corrective therapy”.”

C, a transgender activist from Chennai, who is quoted in the report, recalled years of harassment by family members after she began to express her gender identity. At 15, she became homeless. “I was about 15 years old. My uncle was a police constable and wanted me to join the police force as well. He kept telling me to be a man and behave like a man. One day, in order to punish me for trying to express my gender (by wearing lipstick and having a feminine gait) he hung me upside down from the fan and beat me harshly. My father told me to leave home because my sister was getting married and my being transgender was an issue.”

She is one of the 65 LGBTQ activists and lawyers, from across six states — Gujarat, Manipur, Delhi, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — whom the ICJ team spoke to for the report.

While physical violence, or the threat of it, prompted many respondents to leave their family homes, the fear of violence also prevented their return.

“My mother would hit me routinely, sometimes with a belt, once with a steel bucket. Once she held my neck and beat me. I have a younger brother, and even he has raised his hand at me. All my mother said was, he won’t do it again. She didn’t pull him up,” recounted BS.

No state support

“I can’t tell you about the scale of the problem, as we are limited by our location,” said Maya Sharma, who is part of a Baroda-based organization called Vikalp, when asked how endemic the issue of homelessness is.

Since 2003, Vikalp has been providing shelter to women in distress, which often includes lesbian couples, as well as to transmen.

“I can tell you about the sheer need of a shelter,” she said.

Sharma, who authored the book ‘Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India’ in 2006, is currently documenting stories of LGBTQ persons. She offered an example of a transman, who grew up on the streets. “He told me, if a homeless person ever tells you they have not been violated, they are lying. Experiencing violence is part of being homeless.”

Queer groups across the country have an informal network to help provide shelter to couples who elope, or even to individuals who wish to protect themselves from violent environments.

Such a network is essential said Sharma, because often state-run shelter homes don’t provide conducive environments to same sex couples or trans individuals. “In one case, in which we intervened, a shelter home in Gujarat did not allow a resident to meet her partner, but allowed her to meet her parents, even though the woman had filed a case against them. In the case of transmen, there is a compulsion to wear female clothes. So one really needs to sensitize public shelter home officials,” she said.

The ICJ team filed RTI queries on various issues, to several state and central governmental departments. They also questioned the access of transpersons to public shelter homes.

The department of Social Welfare, Delhi responded stating, “No transgender persons are presently living in any of the shelter homes maintained by the Department of Social Welfare, Government of NCT of Delhi, in the recent past. The Department of Social Welfare does not have any provision for separate homes/ institutions for transgender persons.”

Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Kerala stated that separate shelter homes were not maintained by the state governments for transgender persons, while the state of Manipur, Karnataka and Odisha did not respond to the query. Andhra Pradesh replied stating that there were no orders available.

Delhi-based Shakti Shalini, which runs a shelter home for women survivors of violence, is one of the few that is open to transwomen in distress. The decision was made after the team held discussions over the inclusion of transpersons earlier this year, said Bharati Sharma, honorary secretary. “However, we cannot offer shelter to transmen, on account of their gender identity being different from women,” she said.

Earlier, (when lesbian couples would reside here) we would not confront them about their sexuality, and we realized that this was a gap in our communication.

That’s where Nazariya helped us and we were able to talk about LGBTQ issues in our initial sessions with residents,” said Dolly Singh, counsellor and coordinator of the centre of crisis intervention at Shakti Shalini.

Nazariya, a Delhi-based queer feminist resource group, often refers lesbian women in distress to shelter homes such as Shakti Shalini. In March, they conducted a workshop with the team of Shakti Shalini to build awareness on gender and sexuality.

But these examples are far and few in between.

Turning to courts

“The courts have not yet expressly addressed the rights of LGBTQ persons to be accorded priority in housing, but in light of NALSA and Navtej it is clear that LGBTQ persons are considered by the Supreme Court to be a vulnerable and marginalized group in need of appropriate prioritization and protection,” the ICJ report points out.

Since September 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code — which outlawed adult consensual same-sex intercourse — was unconstitutional [Navtej Johar vs Union of India], a clutch of couples, like KC and BS, have moved lower courts seeking the right to live together.

On September 24, 2018, the Kerala High Court ruled in favour of a 40-year-old trans masculine petitioner, who moved court alleging that his 24-year-old partner had been confined against her will. On May 2, the Delhi High Court directed the police to protect the 24-year-old and 38-year-old petitioners, a lesbian couple, who were being threatened by the former’s family.

Legal acceptance, however, does not address the issue of homelessness.

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