Bhubaneswar: To the world far away, it was an important moment in India’s LGBTQ+ movement and the country’s sports history. Closer home, the story is very different. Those who have seen her grow up, and taken pride in her achievements, are suddenly uncomfortable associating with her… some even embarrassed. In Dutee Chand’s village—Chaka Gopalpur, about 90 kilometres from Bhubaneswar—people are talking about the “news" in hushed tones. They’d rather not discuss it because they think the ace sprinter has become too big a name now, and their opinion wouldn’t matter to her. But within the safety of their private spaces, they express their disappointment about such a “distasteful revelation".

On May 19, Dutee, the first Indian woman to qualify for the marquee 100-metre sprint event at the Olympics, publicly acknowledged being gay, becoming the first athlete in the country to ever do so. This comes less than a year after the Supreme Court overturned the country’s colonial-era ban on gay sex.

The Asian Games medallist and national record holder said she has been in a relationship with a woman from her village since 2017, and the reason she had to speak out about it now was because her older sister, Saraswati, an important character in Dutee’s success story so far, was blackmailing her—saying she’d expose her relationship. Moreover, Dutee didn’t want to spend her life explaining what her partner meant to her.

“Everyone needs companionship. I want to be with someone I love and who loves me, and I found all this in my saathi (partner)," says Dutee over the phone from Bhubaneswar. “As for the society, it will criticize any sort of change...anything that they haven’t seen or aren’t used to. I can’t spend my life thinking about others," she says.

This isn’t the first time Dutee’s sexuality and sexual orientation has been publicly discussed. In 2014, the Athletics Federation of India banned her from competing after she failed a hormone test which found that she had unusually high levels of testosterone, and hence, a condition known as hyperandrogenism. Instead of accepting the ban order, Dutee challenged the decision, and her case eventually brought down a global rule that had, since 2011, been the basis for gender testing in sports.

But back then, since it was a condition she was born with, and her fight was to establish an identity that the villagers were already aware of, support for her came naturally. Her recent revelation, however, has taken them by shock because they don’t think there is anything “natural" about it.

Dutee Chand’s revelation hasn’t gone down well with the residents of her village—Chaka Gopalpur
Dutee Chand’s revelation hasn’t gone down well with the residents of her village—Chaka Gopalpur (Photo: Arabinda Mahapatra/Mint)

Breaking the norm

Chaka Gopalpur, a small village in Jajpur district, is a settlement of weavers. Every other house, including Dutee’s, has an in-house loom and most families are involved in weaving.

At a short distance from Dutee’s house, a group of teenage girls are giggling together while tying each other’s braids on the balcony of one of the many brightly painted mud houses in this village. Only some have heard the recent news about Dutee. Once the oblivious girls got to know, they suddenly fell silent, their mouths agape. “How can a woman marry a woman?" they asked in unison.

Sex and sexuality do not make for easy conversation topics in India, which still largely believes in the sexual regulation of its people—for reasons ranging from honour and caste to tradition and compatibility. Since heterosexuality is the only widely accepted norm, the idea of love, marriage and, hence, sex always revolves around two characters: a man and a woman. Anything breaking this order is unnatural.

But Dutee’s case is not just about her challenging the “order" and “norm" within her own family and village. She is doing so while being in a profession that is largely perceived as a masculine domain. Even being a woman in the testosterone-infused world of sports comes with a certain baggage, so it isn’t a surprise that it remains a final frontier for LGBTQ+ people to conquer.

“My experience with the sporting community in India has shown how there is a certain discomfort around same-sex relationships, which doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist. Perhaps, this is to do with the lack of a safe environment to express one’s sexuality," says Payoshni Mitra, an athletes’ rights advocate and scholar to whom Dutee first turned to for support when she was suspended in 2014. Mitra says the fact that Dutee came out speaks about her resilience and courage to stick to what she believes in, and what she is.

Coming out stories are never easy, and if the “outness" involves a celebrity, there are multiple layers of burdens: the family, the community, the fans, the sponsors, undue attention to an identity they’d rather keep secondary. To top it all, if a star comes from a small town, in almost all cases, they are elevated to a pedestal and given the status of gods, and any step perceived as a mistake leads to a backlash.

Speaking to the media last week, Dutee’s mother Akhuji Chand, 55, had said she had disowned her daughter, but she now says a mother can’t be angry with her daughter for too long, even if the daughter has changed. Yet, she cannot understand what her daughter means when she says she wants to marry a 19-year-old girl. “Who will be the dulha (groom), who the dulhan (bride)?" she asks.

Rural India’s view of sex

Till Dutee and her partner were living together, and seen spending most of the time together, no one raised any objections and no questions were asked. Historically, sexual repression in India has predominantly been imposed on hetero rather than homosexual relationships, unless the latter is formally declared. In fact, in rural settings, as long as no social order is broken and the relationship “passes off" as heterosexual, everyone pretends they don’t see it.

Vadodara-based feminist activist Maya Sharma’s work has persistently been highlighting how in rural settings parents are more accepting of differing relationships as long as they are not visible to the larger community of relatives and elders. Women, who might very easily be labelled as lesbians in urban settings, pass off as “pakki saheliyan" in a rural setting. Sharma’s work talks about instances in which two women live together, some even admitting, though not openly, to having physical relations. No one questions it but no one formally accepts the union.

Dutee’s sister Saraswati says her relationship with her sister has been strained for more than two-three years now. Still angry with the way her sister dealt with the “situation", she says: “Dutee can keep three, four, five women, as many as she pleases, but why ask for marriage? What is this ring ceremony and band baja she is asking for?" Even if the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of same-sex relationships, she says the “Hindu tradition and culture" will never allow such deviancy.

While Dutee claims she was under a lot of stress, at least to the outside world, all was well until last month when the partner’s family started talking about getting their daughter married to a man. She resisted saying she’d commit suicide if she was forced to marry a man. Dutee decided to take a stand. Based on what the family says, she wanted a big function in a five-star hotel in Bhubaneswar to celebrate the union. This is when the family lost it.

Almost everyone in the village knows about the apex court’s ruling, but nobody thinks it fits into the village way of life. “Humans are social animals. What she is saying is against the social order. This is the first time we have even heard of such a thing," says Viswaranjan Panda, 42. “But if she wants to go against society, that’s her wish. In a society, all kinds of people live… rapists, thieves, they are all doing things that are not permitted."

Panda adds, “In a village, if someone takes a wrong step, we come together and show our disapproval. She is too big for us, so we are not speaking out much. But there is one thing. Even though we will still welcome her, we wouldn’t do it with love in our hearts."

The village star

Dutee is the third of seven children born to a family of weavers. When Dutee was born, her parents lived below the poverty line. For the family, similar to other small-town star athletes, sports was the way out of poverty. By the time Dutee was 10, Saraswati was already a national-level athlete. Dutee too got into the field when she won a sports scholarship and got admitted to a government school in Bhubaneswar. At 17, she had already started setting records on the track. She was often compared to P.T. Usha, and it was she who put this small village on the map. Suddenly, Dutee became the village star, who everyone owned.

Subha Das, 56, says even though Dutee has made the entire village proud because of her achievements, what she is doing now is giving the village a bad name. “Wrong is wrong whoever does it. Be it Dutee or an unknown woman in this village…but if she was any other woman, we wouldn’t have felt this bad because the world wouldn’t have been talking about it like it is in this case. We have become a joke."

Outside a temple in the village, a group of men joke about the incident. Adikanda Jena laughs and says: “She is neither a man nor a woman. Dutee Chand is a transgender person." Prasanta Behra says, “She has become an embarrassment for the village. We wouldn’t support her now on."

Some reactions are genuinely out of curiosity. Like Meera Rani Ponda, 25, who says that while there is no denying the fact that everyone needs a partner to live life happily, and Dutee is right in seeking that support from another woman, there is no way, “a woman can give her what a man can. Can she?" she asks.

This isn’t exactly the first time Odisha is faced with the question of same-sex marriage or relationships. Close by, in Kendrapara village, a woman from Mahakalpara block and another from Pattamundai block got married in front of a notary early this year. But as long as all this is happening far away from their homes, everyone is okay with it. Tikki Das says, it’s their family matter, and since Dutee is not a child, no one should question her choice. “But as far as we are concerned, we don’t think this is normal. Lajja aatii hai (We are embarrassed by this)."

Amidst all these reactions of discomfort, there are a few villagers like Ananta Das and Narayan Guin who support Dutee’s decision, irrespective of how others may perceive it. Das says, Dutee has every right to feel how she feels, and act on that feeling, and this is a personal choice which wouldn’t and shouldn’t affect her career as a sportsperson.

Guin says it is unfair that she has been criticized. “Her name will remain what it was. She is not breaking any law. She declared what she had to and said she is focusing on her next big step in her career. We are proud of her as a sportsperson, and we should stay away from her personal matters that don’t matter to us."

But for some, standing by Dutee now means more than just standing by her achievements in sports. It also means standing by same-sex relationships, which they aren’t yet prepared for.

Dutee Chand has categorically said her focus is on the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but eventually, she’d want to settle down with her lover. Even though the Supreme Court has declared same-sex relationships as legal, same-sex marriages are still illegal in the country.

Till the country navigates through that territory, Dutee’s personal battles are plenty. Her pitch is that she should be accepted not on the basis of what makes her different, but because she is the same as everyone else on the racing track. As for other people’s approval, Dutee says, she is neither seeking it nor does she care about what the world says about her. In a 100-metre dash, looking back is a liability. And Dutee seems in no mind to do that.

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