The Need to Make Space for Dalit Queer Voices in India

Forced to hide their caste and faced with discrimination on mainstream platforms, the community has sought refuge in new online forums

The Need to Make Space for Dalit Queer Voices in India
Members and allies of India’s LGBTQ+ community take part in Delhi’s 12th Queer Pride March on Nov. 24, 2019, in New Delhi, India. (Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

When Rishi Raut was 18, her father — whom she recalls being abusive toward her mother — forced her into conversion therapy because he couldn’t stand her “feminine” behavior. She resisted, but at the cost of her relationship with her family, who have since been reproachful toward her. “My father started abusing me financially. He hasn’t paid for any of my expenses since then, so I have had to rely on odd jobs like working in cafes and other places,” the 23-year-old told New Lines. In India, it is common for people to live with their parents both during and after college, and it is expected that parents will support their children financially through their higher education, until they start working.

It was not only her gender identity and gender expression that led to her feeling marginalized. Raut, who identifies as a trans woman, was born to a poor launderer family in the Dalit community in Pune, a thriving city in western India. Dalits, officially recognized as Scheduled Castes (SC), are at the lowest stratum of India’s rigid caste system, considered “untouchables,” despite the practice being constitutionally banned since 1950.

Structural violence and discrimination against the community by the dominant or “upper” castes are rampant in the country. Nearly 60,000 instances of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis (“Tribals”) were reported by India’s law enforcement agencies in 2021. The country’s Crime Records Bureau noted that crimes against Dalits and Adivasis increased by 1.2% and 6.4%, respectively, compared to 2020.

“I always felt discriminated against when I would go out with my mother to deliver clothes because I come from a Dhobi [launderer] family. I was very young at the time and so women, whom we would deliver clothes to, used to yell and ask me to stand far from their house door,” recalls Raut. “So, it is like a double whammy of being at the margins of caste and gender.”

During her teenage years, Rishi was always confused about her identity, first in relationship to caste and later in regard to gender. She was frustrated and reluctant to ask people about it, until a cheap smartphone and internet services opened a new world to her.

“Not long ago, people had started using the term ‘Bahujan’ a lot on the internet, especially after Rohith Vemula’s death in 2016. So I would read articles and see people’s posts on it. I also searched for my caste identity and then got to know that there are so many people from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other North Indian regions who belong to Dhobi Samaj. That’s when I realized that the way I was treated in my neighborhood was because people from my caste were hitherto untouchables,” she says.

Bahujan in the Pali language literally means “the majority.” In India, it is used to define the combined population of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Muslims and other minorities, who together comprise the majority demographically. The word also informally designates a new anti-caste movement begun by Indian youth in the aftermath of 26-year-old Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s death. He took his own life after encountering caste-based discrimination at Hyderabad University.

In 2021, Raut became the first person in her family to graduate from an English-language institution, when she graduated in finance from Arihant College of Arts, Commerce and Science in Pune. It took her five years to complete the three-year program because of poor mental health and transphobia on the campus. She felt excluded, as she never had the privilege to access books and all the “cool stuff,” such as the latest pop culture, music, art or cinema to which other people her age had been exposed. She couldn’t afford to go to popular hangouts like cafes and pubs. Even learning a new musical instrument or skill felt like a privilege.

A 2019 report by a Bengaluru-based nonprofit, the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR), highlighted that Dalit transgender persons face the most amount of violence in school and are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence at work, with 33% reporting sexual assault and harassment at the workplace.

Initially, Raut felt liberated after joining various LGBTQ+ groups on social media because she finally found people to talk to and was a member of a larger community. At 17, she was part of a support group called Queer Talks and Meetings (QATM), where she initially found refuge, explored her identities and sexual orientation, met people from different walks of life and made friends. “It was much more than just a group. It was a place where I learnt how to love and accepted myself the way I was coming out to be.”

But soon she realized the flip side. Most members in such queer groups belonged to affluent backgrounds and would only converse in English. This made Rishi feel out of place, but she still tried to navigate and learned English by watching and listening to films and music. “I faked it till I made it.”

Many queer-identifying youth, who were just coming out to the world and sought a safe space in these groups, left midway because they couldn’t handle the pressure of existing and speaking in an elitist way. Since most of them spoke in Hindi and Marathi, they didn’t feel safe expressing themselves. Rishi remembers being mocked and invalidated by many people in these groups for asking them to use correct pronouns. “Moreover, members in these [groups] were upper-caste and so surely caste [discrimination] didn’t exist for them. So we never talked about it,” she says.

In January, the Pride Parade returned to Delhi after three years of suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jatin Pawar, a 21-year-old Dalit queer activist living in the city, did not expect much from it. In 2019, Pawar, who prefers the pronoun “they,” had first experienced caste discrimination during the parade. “I was holding a placard that read ‘We are here, we are queer, and we are also Dalit.’ A fellow queer looked at it and complained to a friend, ‘Yeh log yahan bhi caste ghusa dete hain’ (These people are dragging caste here too),” Pawar told New Lines.

But since it was the first parade after the pandemic, Pawar allowed themselves to be a little excited. “However, as soon as my friends and I brought out our poster which read ‘No queer liberation without caste annihilation,’ a member of the organizing team of the parade asked me to put it down, saying that they don’t want to associate themselves with any political party. I feel nothing has really changed even after three years.” They were also raising a blue flag with the slogan “Jai Bhim,” or “Victory to Bhim” — which refers to Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, who in the 1920s inaugurated the Dalit movement. Blue is the color of Dalit resistance.

Jatin Pawar at the 2023 Delhi Pride Parade in January with a friend. (Abhimanyu Sen)

Growing up in a Dalit ghetto — a rehabilitated slum in west Delhi — Pawar didn’t experience discrimination, since they were living with “their own people.” “We as a community had created our own space to protect ourselves from the external hostility based on our caste.” But they were always aware of their caste identity.

Pawar went through a “weird phase” in school, when they started exploring their sexuality. “I could see that my classmates were getting attracted to people from a certain gender and I was not. So I ended up feeling that I was not right.” It was a Hindi-language public school, where they had nobody to talk or reach out to. “There was nobody to share my emotions with, to be validated, to be acknowledged. So I promised myself to keep my feelings hidden and be in that cocoon.” Coming to terms with being Dalit was already too much to deal with during adolescence, so Pawar would just try to fool themselves into thinking things like gender and sexuality didn’t exist.

It was during college that Pawar joined queer groups on the internet and saw other people embracing their identities. “I remember when Section 377 was read down, I was having lunch with some cis-het [cis-gendered, heterosexual] friends and asked them what LGBTQ+ community actually meant. It was ironic because I didn’t know that, even after living my whole life in an urban space,” they said.

The country’s colonial-era law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, considered same-sex sexual activity as “irrational, indefensible, and manifestly arbitrary.” It criminalized consensual and private sexual acts between adults, until India’s supreme court struck down the law in a landmark judgment in 2018.

Yet coming out as queer did not translate into coming out as Dalit. Pawar used to hide their caste on mainstream, queer-affirming digital platforms and dating apps, since revealing their caste identity could lead to exclusion and being looked down upon. “On queer dating apps, people would ask my surname first and where I came from. There are also profiles which specifically mention that people who come from certain areas, castes or classes should stay away,” they recalled.

Being a member of digital queer groups made Pawar more empathetic toward their body and helped them understand love, desire and sexual preferences — but this came at the cost of hiding their caste.

“I am aware that I am a hypocrite for conducting talk shows on asserting one’s caste identity in anti-caste groups, but not being able to do so on dating apps or when I meet new people,” lamented Pawar. “For people like us, coming out takes place not once but twice because it’s not just about sexuality or gender but also about our caste location in the neoliberal atmosphere of urban India.”

Saptarshi Bairagi, 26, whose pronouns are also they/them, and who hails from the state of West Bengal, belongs to the marginalized Namasudra caste. They identify as Kothi, an Indigenous group wherein a male takes on an effeminate role in same-sex relationships. “People from Indigenous communities like mine aren’t able to reclaim their pride even among the queer community. The online spaces aren’t any different but rather a reflection of our real world,” they said.

In the landmark judgment of 2014, wherein the supreme court upheld the right of all persons to self-identify their gender, it defined Kothi as a heterogenous group in which people who are biologically male show varying degrees of effeminate qualities. Many Kothis are also bisexual.

On gay and queer dating apps like Grindr, dominant-caste people write in their bios that they are Jaat, Gujjar or Brahmin. “It would make me feel very uncomfortable because not only did I not belong to those caste groups, I also identify as trans and a lot of queer forums are not trans-inclusive at all,” said Bairagi.

They recalled an interaction with a gay man on the dating platform, who asked Bairagi if they were gay too. “At that moment, I didn’t think much and just said yes,” they said. When the man questioned why Bairagi was wearing a sari (a long piece of cloth that women in India drape around their bodies) in their profile photo and if they were a crossdresser, Bairagi revealed their identity and tried to make him understand how clothes don’t have gender. But the person got agitated and replied with transphobic and casteist slurs.

Saptarshi Bairagi hails from the state of West Bengal in India. (Jyoti Thakur)

Bairagi has also been relentlessly trolled by dominant-caste members on various queer groups for speaking up against discrimination. “Mainstream LGBTQ+ groups call themselves apolitical, which is like playing the politics of silence. Even in queer Marxist groups, whenever I try to talk about intersectional patriarchy, they would kick me out.” In India, many communist and Marxist groups, including political parties, have been criticized for not being inclusive of Dalit, Adivasis and other minority groups. (The term “intersectional” was coined by the American legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how categories of identity combine to create distinct experiences of oppression for people with multiple oppressed identities. In India, intersectional discrimination has largely focused on the struggles of Dalit and Muslim women.)

Members of the Hindu Queer Alliance have also persistently trolled them and called them Hinduphobic — a term popularized by the Indian diaspora to evade questions about caste — for speaking against Brahmanical patriarchy. The Indian historian Uma Chakravarti defined Brahmanical patriarchy in 1993 as an oppressive system of caste and gender hierarchy which helps build and strengthen a Brahminical social order. The Brahmins — the priestly class — are the highest ranking in India’s caste system.

Last year, when Bairagi uploaded a poster on Facebook that read, “Fighting against intersectional Brahmanical patriarchy,” they were trolled by many, including those who run “progressive” queer pages on the platform. “The founder of a gay group circulated my picture with the caption ‘JNU ki didiya phir se bolne lagi’ [The sisters from JNU have spoken up again]. It’s not just transphobic but also misleading [about] my institution and politics,” they said. Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU, is a prominent university in Delhi often targeted by right-wing groups in India for its left-liberal leanings.

But even Dalit circles can make queer Dalit people feel excluded. “What really astonished me was the indifference of the anti-caste groups. I tried to reach out to members of a few of them, only to be told to settle [and live with it] as they are also trying to survive and fight for their own existence,” said Bairagi.

Raut also found some Dalit groups to be classist, favoring well-known activists or those popular in social media circles. “Even though these digital spaces help you in coming out, soon you realize that they are classist in their own sense as they respond to people coming from different backgrounds differently,” said Raut. “For instance, when I approached a [Dalit] group for raising funds for my master’s program at a university in London, I didn’t get the same response as other people did.”

“A reason that they cited was that I would be trolled,” said Raut. “I told them that I was ready to face that, as my education mattered more, but they still didn’t support me. In their denial, I could sense transphobia. That’s why I feel that I don’t fit in because I don’t talk academically, I don’t sound and look a certain way,” she said.

Raut understands that the amount to raise was high, 2.7 million rupees (almost $33,000), but not “unachievable” because people from Dalit and other marginalized communities had managed to raise similar amounts within a short span of time. “I thought they helped people like me who fight for their dignity and have no support. But nobody helped me.”

For these reasons, queer folks hiding their caste on digital platforms is a pervasive phenomenon, even though social media has also been instrumental in forging a sense of community. It is in the wake of such closeting of caste identities that many Dalit queer forums like The Outcaste LGBTQIA+, Indian Queers’ Collective, The Blue Club, The Dalit Queer Project and others have formed to create a safe space for people to explore their intersectional identities. Even though these groups are in their infancy, they have managed to make a discernible difference, with members engaging in conversations that are not devoid of political connotations or identity assertion activism.

The Blue Club, an all-women and queer team, provides writing fellowships and capacity-building programs for writing on anti-caste issues. “I got to know about it in my college when I couldn’t even voice how I felt. But then I got the fellowship and learnt not just writing but also how to amplify the caste and gender issues,” said Pawar. Similarly, the Dalit Queer Project, active since 2019, a transnational coalition of Dalit-queer youth, organizes capacity building workshops, mental health services, community research and cultural production.

A primary school teacher in the eastern state of Odisha, Rabi Raj, founded the Outcaste LGBTQIA+, with a friend who wishes to remain anonymous, with the idea of shifting the mainstream queer discourse from urban to rural spaces inclusive of caste, class and gender minorities. “Brahmin queer folks in Odisha are stuck in the bars and cafes of Bhubaneswar and so are their politics,” Raj added.

The 28-year old recalls being fed up with the “casteless” and “apolitical” nature of many groups. “These forms of exclusion and discrimination are very subtle; you won’t know it initially but you’ll always feel left out, you won’t be valued, your viewpoints won’t matter. Rather they are usually laughed upon. They haven’t understood that queers are not only in urban areas, they are also in rural areas,” they said.

Reservations, primarily in public education institutions and government jobs, are a form of affirmative action provided to socially and historically marginalized caste communities in India; reservations have been opposed by dominant caste groups. Dominant caste people, Raj said, would criticize the policy of reservation or make statements like “caste is the relic of the past and is limited to villages.”

“It’s doubly difficult for people from these communities, especially those who live in rural areas, to come out and assert their gender and sexual identity. Because in rural areas, you face physical violence and there is so much bitterness among people for those who go against the status quo and gender norms,” Grace Banu, a software engineer and Dalit queer activist based in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, told New Lines. The 32-year-old founded a community group called Trans Rights Now Collective in 2011, demanding education and employment opportunities for transgender people from Dalit and Adivasi communities. Banu has also launched a publication house to create a platform for queer and trans writers who write in regional languages under the aegis of the collective. Since its launch, the publication and members have been facing harassment.

“In that scenario [of in-person physical violence], online spaces become helpful and easy to access for Dalit queer people living in villages because of cheap internet. However, the larger population still doesn’t know how to handle social media or to even access the internet. Hence, they sort of face that exclusion again,” Banu said. “In India, online spaces won’t become queer and minority friendly unless offline/real spaces become [queer/minority friendly].”

“In India, you unfortunately can’t escape caste. If it is offline, it will come to haunt you online too,” agreed Yashica Dutt, a journalist and author of “Coming Out as Dalit.” “In such a hostile milieu, creating an online space which talks about caste and queer issues in itself is a very radical intervention and they’re much needed because you can’t just have one and not have the other. You can’t just say we are assertive of queer rights, but we are not going to talk about caste. That’s not how intersections work,” Dutt told New Lines. She added that upper-caste queer spaces have always had the kind of social mobility that lower-caste queer groups don’t have, which makes them more vulnerable.

Dutt went on: “Even though there is now more awareness on the spectrum of sexuality among cis-het people and many parents are now on board with their queer children being in same-sex relationships, they find somebody from the same caste. The caste doesn’t leave them. If you look at all these queer weddings, especially the ones that have received some publicity, even though same-sex marriages are not fully legal in India, you’ll see that they’re all weddings of one upper-caste person with another upper-caste person, but never of an upper-caste and lower-caste person.”

Queer forums often announce that they don’t “discuss politics,” primarily because they don’t want to acknowledge caste and class privilege. “Class is the biggest marker of caste mobility in India and unfortunately the truth is that if you watch a certain movie, if you sound a certain way, if you speak a certain way, then only you belong to those spaces and you are more likely to be helped and receive support,” said Dutt.

Some queer activists believe that colonization of discourse and language has made Indigenous trans communities like Hijra, Kinnar and Kothi come across as “exotic creatures.” These terms are used within the queer community as slurs to abuse or shame someone who doesn’t fit in the mainstream aesthetics of the “West-influenced” Indian queer community. “Understanding of gender identity comes from language which is heavily borrowed from the West, but what about the existing subaltern [marginalized] and Indigenous categories?” asked Bairagi.

Eventually, Bairagi along with four other members founded a group called Indian Queer Collectives to create a more accessible and open space. They use social media platforms to promote academic activism and organize pro bono academic workshops. They also collaborate with universities, professors and research scholars to organize lectures on gender, sexuality and queer issues. In July last year, they formed a small circle for Dalit queer youth on the Delhi University campus, with an aim to create an emotional and moral support system for students. They also host weekly literature discussions and film screenings on intersectional queer cultures in India, subalternism in India and queerness in literature, among other issues.

“We want to be an academic and research space accessible for Dalit-Trans people, wherein we can assert our politics and identity because our ideas and experiences have usually been sidelined or overlooked by the upper-caste intellectual elites as they continue to dominate every space,” they said.

Pawar continued: “As our caste locations are different, our issues, our struggles, our experiences also differ. Therefore, we ourselves have to bring our issues to the fore. And we will continue doing that.”

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