Why Dutee Chand’s ‘coming out’ is more complicated than it seems

The Indian athlete’s brave challenge to gender and caste norms comes at a crucial time for India.

Dutee Chand
Indian athlete Dutee Chand poses with her national flag after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 26, 2018 [File: Reuters/Darren Whiteside]

Star Indian sprinter Dutee Chand recently made global headlines for the second time in her competitive career, when she announced to the press that she had found her life mate. 

Before that, Dutee was also in the international news in 2014, when she was disqualified from competing in the Commonwealth Games because her testosterone levels were deemed elevated, as per the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Dutee challenged the IAAF rules on “hyperandrogenism” and succeeded in having them temporarily suspended in 2015. Earlier this month, those rules came freshly to light when the South African runner Caster Semenya’s challenge was rejected.

There are many things that make Dutee’s announcement a momentous one, arriving not only on the heels of the Semenya ruling but also on the eve of an Indian election that has expectedly brought back a conservative Hindu nationalist government.

The Modi government has been no friend to the queer and trans community, let alone Indian minorities or the poor who form the most vulnerable of India’s “LGBTQ” population. At the same time, it has successfully peddled myths of development and modernity to much of the Indian electorate, including some segments of the Hindu queer community.

Dutee has been widely hailed in the Indian press as “the first Indian sports star to acknowledge being in a same-sex relationship”. The international press, meanwhile, has dubbed her India’s “first openly gay athlete”. Notably, “gay” is an identity that the non-English-speaking Dutee has not herself invoked, although she has tapped into a global discourse of gay rights in other ways. 

Dutee claimed she felt compelled to come out after facing extreme harassment and blackmail from her older sister Saraswati. She credited last year’s landmark judgment by the Indian Supreme Court decriminalising homosexuality, for emboldening her to do so. Coming from a woman of an impoverished rural background, Dutee’s comments suggest a belief in the potential of the court ruling to affect a wider class of Indian citizens, beyond the urban, upper-caste men of the elite (and more rarely women and transgender people) who have been coming out in India with some regularity now. 

Dutee’s announcement represents yet another spectacular moment where an Indian woman has asserted her volition against her family’s control of her choice of partner. In some ways Dutee’s case echoes the case of Hadiya, a young woman from Kerala, whose Hindu parents moved the courts, alleging that their adult daughter’s conversion to Islam and marriage to a Muslim man was a product of “brainwashing” and “psychological kidnapping”. 

Dutee’s sister Saraswati sought to activate a similar protectionist discourse as she claimed that Dutee was being blackmailed by her partner: “Dutee’s life and property are in danger. That’s why I request the government to provide protection and security to Dutee.” 

While in India the move towards normalising gay unions into existing caste structures with familial blessings is well under way, Dutee’s announcement remains a challenge to such structures, which, as a number of anti-caste intellectuals have argued, rely on the institution of heterosexual and endogamous marriage for the literal reproduction of caste boundaries. 

While a simple parallel between cross-communal and queer relationships would overlook the complex intersections of the two, Indian scholars of sexuality have, nevertheless, suggested that the two are linked by the potential disruption they pose to “existing lines of social authority”.

Dutee’s announcement is also significant in light of the pervasive historical and contemporary understanding, across medical and popular fields, that heterosexual identity is a prerequisite for being counted as a “proper” man or woman. In her book Sexing the Body, feminist biologist Anne Fausto Sterling provides a fascinating look into the early history of medical management of intersex babies in the United States and Europe. 

Throughout the 1950s, “When doctors chose to assign a definitive sex to an ambiguously sexed child, then, it was not enough that the child become psychologically male or female. For the treatment to count as successful, the child had to become heterosexual,” Fausto Sterling writes. 

Contemporary society-wide attitudes also hold that to be a real woman, one must desire the “opposite sex”. For Dutee, as someone who has spoken about the psychological cost of having her gender publicly placed in question, speaking out about loving a woman may well mean renewed exposure to the charge of not being one herself. On the other hand, paradoxically, her “coming out” perhaps compels recognition of her as definitively a woman – after all, to be in a same-sex relationship, one has to unambiguously be of a particular sex.

Last week, Dutee spoke of her sister’s blackmail and her own fear: “ki public mujhey kya kahega mere body ko lekey, merey mind ko lekey?” (“What will the public say about my body, about my mind?”). The fear of having her body re-judged in the public eye is close at hand. And yet, she has spoken out, refusing to allow current norms of gender to determine the expression of her sexual/romantic identity. This is a significant refusal on her part to accept the terms of gender currently on offer.

It is tempting, and perhaps not unreasonable, to celebrate Dutee’s coming out as a win for love, against a politics of hate that has returned a resounding mandate for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Many may also be heartened by the media celebration of her as an Indian “first” – the first “gay” Indian athlete – as her coming out presents an alternate face of India, one that appears modern and forward-looking.

It would be a mistake, however, to overlook how such a celebration also puts her inadvertently to work performing symbolic labour for a nation that remains deeply invested in claims to modernity as a way of securing its majoritarian and imperial vision of a Hindu state.

In a moment where Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Kashmiris face a heightened threat of state-sanctioned violence, we might want to look beyond the spectacular appeal of such moments of self-disclosure.

Even as we celebrate the personal courage and symbolic appeal of someone like Dutee, we might keep in our sights those gender and sexual minorities within disempowered communities whose vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the violence their communities face and are often least visible to us.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.