10, Jun 2021 | Deborah Grey
In a landmark approach to delivering justice, Justice Ventakesh, a Madras High Court judge, recently underwent sessions with a counseling psychologist and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, before passing orders in a case where a lesbian couple sought protection from violence and intimidation by their own families.
Justice Venkatesh’s unique approach to jurisprudence
The court could have simply declared that the women in question are adults and therefore have the right to live their lives on their own terms. But Justice Venkatesh went a step further and admitted his ignorance about matters related to the community. He made an honest endeavour to challenge his own beliefs by undergoing counselling to understand the LGBTQIA+ community.
“Ultimately in this case, the words must come from my heart and not from my head, and the same will not be possible if I am not fully “woke” on this aspect,” he had said.
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Justice Venkatesh underwent sessions of psycho-education with psychologist Vidya Dinakaran. He also felt, as recorded in his order, “After gaining a great amount of insight and understanding from Ms. Vidya Dinakaran, I felt that a further interaction with person(s) who belong to the LGBTQIA+ community would be greatly instrumental to help myself understand the ground realities, the emotions, social discrimination and exclusion, and several other difficulties faced by the community.”
Thereafter sessions were scheduled with Dr. L. Ramakrishnan (Vice President, SAATHII), Ms. Shanmathi (PCVC), Dr. Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju (Digital-Content Creator, Actor, MBBS Intern – Kasturba Medical College) who is a transwoman herself, and her mother Ms. Haima Haldar.
SAATHII is an organisation that has been working in the field of providing healthcare, counselling and crisis support to members of the community.
The result of these interactions was evident in the detailed order passed in the case, especially with respect to creation of a robust infrastructure to support distressed members of the community. Following is a part of the 104-page order that lays out the details of a stakeholder sensitisation programme and identifies government ministries and departments that will be responsible for successful implementation of initiatives aimed at different stakeholders including:
- Police and Prison Authorities
- District and State Legal Service Authorities
- Physical and Mental Health Professionals
- Education Institutions
- Health Workers
- Public and Private Workplaces/institutions
- Parents of LGBTQIA+ members
In this EXCLUSIVE interview during the International Pride Month, Dr. L Ramakrishnan, Vice President of the health and human rights NGO SAATHII, tells Deborah Grey why Justice Venkatesh’s decision to seek counselling is significant, and what more can be done to treat the community with the respect they deserve.
Q) Why was the judge’s decision to seek counselling significant?
A) It was significant because he had the humility to acknowledge his initial limited awareness, and then take corrective measures to gain more understanding. He kept an open mind and showed a desire to understand something that was outside his worldview.
Q) What can you tell us about your interaction with Justice Venkatesh?
A) I had the opportunity to be involved in two online discussions with the Judge: one in which MBBS intern Dr. Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju and her mother Haima Haldar were also present, and a subsequent interaction with him along with psychologist Ms. Vidya Dinakaran, Ms. Shanmathi (PCVC), and Justice Venkatesh’s legal interns.
Justice Venkatesh listened patiently as we described the different kinds of exclusion, discrimination and violence that community members face at home, in the workplace, in school, while seeking medical help, and even when they seek help from the police. We told him how young queer couples are often “counselled” to go back to their parents by police personnel who are well aware of the September 2018 Section 377 judgement by the Supreme Court. Community members in crisis are often told, “The law may have changed, the culture hasn’t.” They are told not to cause further distress to their families.
The judge asked us to develop reference documents such as a list of LGBTQIA+ support groups in the state, a flowchart of what a couple in distress experiences at successive stages while seeking help from authorities, and a list of stakeholders such as police, judiciary, medical professionals, etc. along with the content on which they need to be sensitized. We submitted these, and in the second call, we also requested that the entire responsibility of providing support and safe spaces not be left only with NGOs, as NGOs lack the resources and scale to cover the entire country. We urged that government ministries and departments such as the district legal services authorities and government shelters become more proactive in providing protection and defending rights of LGBTQIA+ persons.
Q) What has been the impact of Covid-19 and the resulting lockdown on the community?
A) Large segments of the community already face discrimination and exclusion. With the pandemic and the lockdown there has been a huge escalation of crises involving financial and food insecurity. Many community members were forced to go back home to their families where they faced increasing amounts of bullying, mental torture, physical and even sexual assaults. Many were forced into heterosexual marriages, many transgender persons were prevented from taking their gender-affirming hormone treatment, or forced to dress in attire at odds with their gender identity.
Q) When it comes to parents, what do you think are the key reasons for resistance?
A) It revolves around the family’s “honour”. Most people still have a very patriarchal and heterosexist mindset, add to that adherence to beliefs about traditional gender roles, the compulsion to get married, procreate and be a part of society. Many parents are homophobic or transphobic. Those who are not, still fear that their child will face ridicule, discrimination or exclusion if they come out. Some, who are privately accepting, tell their children it’s okay not to get married and make some excuses to evade the question while dealing with other members of the extended family. There is also the pervasive sense of male superiority that leads to hostility and violence against male-assigned children whose gender expression is feminine and/or those who socially transition to their identities as transwomen.
Q) What is then the correct approach to sensitising parents?
A) There is no one correct approach, instead we could look at diverse approaches based on what works with the parent and family in question. Some parents respond positively to scientific and medical facts around gender and sexual diversity, others prefer cultural, religious scripture-based references. Most need reassurance that their children will not be ostracised by society and will continue to have friends and support systems as they age.
Some understand when their child tells them they will not be able to fulfill expectations of their partners in a heterosexual marriage. But then we must remember that even heterosexual couples from different castes and religions face violence and intimidation. We need to respect choices made by consenting adults, that is the key.
Q) Has the SC judgement in the Sec 377 case finally empowered couples from the community to move courts to seek justice and protection?
A) The increase in the number of couples moving the courts has resulted from multiple factors. Yes, the judgement played an important role in imparting confidence to some individuals. The increased access to mobile phones and internet, has also allowed people to find correct information and support in times of crisis. Also, in the case of the lesbian couple, they had an excellent lawyer.
Q) This is the international Pride Month. What is your message to people who want to be true allies of the LGBTQIA+ community?
A) I’d say, make an attempt to understand human diversity. You may not be able to understand everything, but you can try to understand different types of discrimination, perhaps even some ways in which you may have unknowingly and unintentionally excluded a member of the community or made them feel uncomfortable.