Queer advocacy of Madras High Court

madras high court

NMC advisory latest example of progressive steps taken by the Court

By Arushi Bhaskar

Chennai: The National Medical Commission (NMC) issued an advisory on October 13 to medical colleges and authors of medical textbooks to remove derogatory references targeting members of the LGBTQIA+ community from the curriculum.

This was done in response to a Madras High Court observation last month that medical courses in India, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, re-affirm queerphobia (hatred towards the queer community).

Apart from this, all medical colleges, institutions and universities have been asked to reject in future any textbooks that contain “unscientific, derogatory, and discriminatory information about virginity, LGBTQIA+ community, and homosexuals.”

The NMC advisory is the latest step in what can be termed as ‘queer advocacy’ of the Madras HC, specifically under Justice Anand Venkatesh.

In April this year, Justice Venkatesh had set a precedent of sorts when he said that he wanted to educate and sensitise himself on issues faced by members of the LGBTQIA+ community and “pave the way for his evolution”, in connection with a protection plea by a same sex couple.

Ajay Maherchandani, TRIP (Teaching and Research for Intellectual Pursuit) Fellow and Academic Tutor at Jindal Global Law School, Haryana, calls this discourse of queer rights in higher judiciary “heartening”. He adds that Justice Venkatesh’s efforts at self-education should be replicated formally, with actual judicial training.

“Lower court judges, specially family court judges, would be benefited enormously from such training,” he says.

However, Anish Gawande, co-founder of Pink List India, the country’s first archive of politicians supporting LGBTQIA+ rights, cautions against setting too much importance in judicial verdicts.

“Judgements passed in the corridors of courts do not necessarily translate into change on ground,” he says, citing the example of Professor Ramchandra Siras who was driven to suicide after being at the receiving end of homophobic harassment. This happened after the Delhi HC judgement decriminalising homosexuality in 2009.

“Local activism matters most,” Gawande continues, referring to it as “constant and positive”.

Along with his observations on the medical curriculum, Justice Venkatesh has called out the media for its incorrect portrayal of LGBTQIA+ people, and has instructed journalists to adopt better language in their coverage.

He has also instructed the Tamil Nadu government to amend police conduct rules to punish cops who harass not just members of the LGBTQIA+ community, but also activists and allies. In a subsequent hearing, the government assured the court that they are working on the same.

According to Jaya (goes by her first name), General Manager at Sahodaran, an LGBTQ+ organisation based out of Chennai, while the English-language media is quite progressive when it comes to reporting queer issues, the Tamil media hyper-focuses on transwomen and completely ignores “LGB people” and transmen.

“Even while covering events like pride parade, they make it sound like a party of transgenders, whom they actually refer to as the third gender,” she says. “I mean, till when will they get away with this? Some change has to come from somewhere. Sensitisation should happen from editorial level itself.”

She adds that societal change will not happen unless first media and then policy makers change their attitude towards LGBTQIA+ concerns.

According to Gawande, the abolition of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 2018 came with its own “victories and hurdles”, which include policemen, especially of lower ranks, still using it to terrify people.

“The Supreme Court verdict is a huge victory, but the engine behind it has to be kept moving,” he says.

Maherchandani says that while advisories and judicial observations don’t really do anything, they are important anyway because it will take a lot of time for them to become legally enforceable regulations.

“In the meantime, it’s important to ask questions like will the teachers [in medical colleges]  be sensitised? Will there be a grievance cell to deal with complaints, in case of non-compliance?” he says.

Jaya says that it is more important to bring about change at a community level, instead of focusing on individuals. “It is impossible to go around India and try to change every single person’s mind. The best thing is to collaborate with grassroots organisations and change perceptions amongst groups.”

“Instead of ‘pudhu’ (new), we should try to be ‘pudhumai’ (innovative),” she says.