By Jatindra Dash
BHUBANESWAR, May 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Sprinter Dutee Chand — India's first openly gay athlete — says she will fight for the right to marry her "soulmate" days after revealing her sexuality to a deeply conservative country.
The 23-year-old caused shockwaves when she told an English-language daily she was dating a woman from her village in eastern Odisha state. Chand was praised for her courage after Sunday's article but the revelation soured ties with her family.
"They should know that everyone just wants to live happily," Chand told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"People oppose many things in the name of culture and religion ... [but] India is a democratic country and many things change frequently," Chand said.
Dubbed "India's fastest woman" with a national record over 100 metres, Chand said she found the strength to go public after the Supreme Court scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex last September — and after her family threatened to out her.
Now, she wants the right to marry her partner in a country where same-sex marriage is illegal and homophobia is rife.
"I am confident we will also be legally allowed to marry. I will appeal and seek permission," she said at her small two-bedroom home in Odisha's capital city of Bhubaneswar.
Gay sex is considered taboo by many in India, and while it no longer carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison, rights such as gay marriage are likely to prove elusive.
But Chand is also a woman who fights for what she wants.
Like South African Olympic athlete Caster Semenya, Chand has hyperandrogenism — a condition that boosts natural testosterone levels — which saw her barred from competing under International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules.
She was subjected to tests and abuse for being "unfeminine." But she took the IAAF to court and won a landmark victory in 2015 that paved the way for hyperandrogenic athletes to compete in 100m and 200m races.
The decision allowed her to run in the 2018 Asian Games, where she won two silver medals.
Her latest resolve to tackle tradition came nearly a week after Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, sparking expectation for change across the region.
Chand said that even if she does not now succeed in her bid to marry, she and her partner would remain "soulmates for life".
"As long as we are united in our hearts and our minds, nothing can prevent us," she said.
Chand declined to name her "very caring" girlfriend and said they shared a "mental relationship" rather than a sexual one.
Her revelation was cheered as a brave act — US talk show host Ellen DeGeneres says she is proud — but Chand said she came out because her sister had threatened to expose her sexuality.
She’s the 100m record holder and the first openly gay sportsperson in India. I guess she knows a thing or two about being first. I’m so proud of her. https://t.co/auoyWY8yvk— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) May 21, 2019
Her sister and mother said they could not accept her relationship, said Chand, something she was "shocked to see", while her partner's family had been more supportive.
"We would have announced this at an appropriate time, maybe after four or five years," she said.
Yet Chand said she felt relieved the secret was out and wants to be a role model for the millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) people in India.
LGBTQ rights activists say much needs to be done to win equality, including the right to marry and adopt, and also better access to jobs, healthcare, education and housing.
"Any rule which deprives someone of happiness is wrong," Chand said.
(Writing by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)