One: Urmila and Leela
n 24 February 1988, two police constables in Madhya Pradesh, Urmila Shrivastava and Leela Namdeo, found themselves on the front page of The Times of India. In the black-and-white photograph accompanying the story, Urmila wore short hair, jeans, and a striped sweater with rolled-up sleeves. Leela sat in a sheer sari streaked with lines of zari. “‘Lesbian Cops’ in M.P. to Challenge Dismissal,” the headline read.
Urmila and Leela met on the beat and fell for each other. In December 1987, they garlanded each other in a Gandharva marriage ritual  at a temple. A few friends and family members were in attendance, and the proceedings were overseen by a priest.
They even went to a local studio to take some standard wedding photos. When they returned to work a few days later, they were told they’d been fired. A jealous female co-worker had shown photographs of their wedding day to their supervising officer.
He began to taunt and harass them about the nature of their relationship. They were deemed ‘bad influences’ on the other female cadets. They were forced into isolation, starved for two days and made to sign documents they weren’t allowed to read. Then, they were dropped off at Bhopal Railway Station in the dead of night and warned never to return to the police barracks.
We might never have heard of Urmila and Leela if they had quietly slipped away into that night. But the two women contested their summary dismissal in a civil court. In 2004, the academic Geeta Patel  noted that their civil suit demanded an explanation for their “no show cause of firing,” or else an immediate reinstatement into the force. The women weren’t “Westernised,” Patel observed. They challenged their dismissal because they were worried about a loss of future income, not because it was an attack on their identities.
This seemingly straightforward case excited the imagination of large sections of India’s media, activists and academics. The country’s budding LGBTQ+ movement lauded Urmila and Leela’s union as the first documented case of same-sex marriage in India. Essentially, their actions were categorised as an issue of sexual identity, so that laypersons might see this as a human rights issue rather than one of deviant behaviour.
The Times of India story reported that they “plead ignorance of the word ‘lesbian’” and were “puzzled at the fuss” over their marriage. If they were given back their constable jobs, they were willing to admit that they’d been “playing around” in the photographs. But, those who grew invested in turning the couple into trailblazers seemed determined to read beyond the women’s own statements.
Urmila and Leela weren’t activists taking a stand with the backing of organised LGBTQ+ movements. They were two women, neither of whom identified as lesbian, who wanted to be together. They used the only course of action available to them to express this desire: marriage. Their story was a reminder of the fact that the categories of gender and sexual orientation in India don’t always neatly line up with how these are seen in the West. And there are more such stories that point to the many shades of lived experiences that lie beyond typical understandings of law and identity.
Two: Identity and Experience
or many years, Maya Sharma travelled outside India’s big cities, interviewing people about lesbian life and relationships. Her ground-breaking book, Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Underprivileged India, was published in 2006. It brought to light the unexpected and moving stories of working-class women. Carefully and gently, Maya told the stories of ten women-loving women and couples who didn’t have access to support groups, helplines, parties, or even the word “lesbian.”
While researching and writing Loving Women, Maya found that being Indian and lesbian intersects with a person’s caste, class, creed and conditioning. Through this book and her continued work with working-class women and transpersons, Maya read the significance that academics and activists attached to Urmila and Leela’s case as an act of “writing in.”
During the fieldwork for her book, Maya was aware that she was doing the same. In its introduction, she argues that the category implied by the use of the word “lesbian” is restrictive and unrepresentative of the complexities of these same-sex relationships in India. She acknowledges that it doesn’t do justice to “their ground realities,” which often included marriage: that is, heterosexual marriage, and children.
But she still chose to articulate Urmila and Leela’s relationship using the word so that their struggle would be recognised by the sexuality rights movement and allow activists to rally around their fight. She chose the word precisely because “it was a word loaded with fear and embarrassment and prejudice,” she wrote in the introduction to Loving Women.
This labelling allowed for Urmila and Leela’s story to become part of the larger fight of the early sexuality rights movement in India, which sought an anti-discrimination law across all state and social institutions. “We wanted to rebuild the very idea of the institutions around us but unfortunately we never got down to it,” Maya explained on a Zoom call. “We have been stuck at fighting each individual institution instead and then binding ourselves to it.”
While state discrimination may have made writing in essential, Urmila and Leela didn’t seem to face similar discrimination in their social milieu. In The Times of India story, Sushil, a woman resident of Urmila’s village is quoted as saying: “After all, what is a marriage? A wedding of two souls. Where in the scriptures is it said that it has to be between a man and a woman.”
“It would be great if we could swap the word ‘marriage’ for ‘partnerships,’ which would be much more inclusive of the realities of queer people’s lives.”
Maya has worked as Program Director with the Vadodara-based Vikalp Women’s Group for over two decades. When I spoke to her earlier this year, she wondered “if the term marriage could truly hold the ambiguity” of the relationships between different female couples which she documents in her book. She preferred to see the women’s actions as that of seeking “more equitable partnerships.”
“These partnerships change the notion of marriage. They challenge the inequality and strict role division that’s expected within the traditional understanding of this institution, which perhaps can be of great value to everyone in the society. It can help us all walk beyond so-called blood lines,” she explained. “It would be great if we could swap the word ‘marriage’ for ‘partnerships,’ which would be much more inclusive of the realities of queer people’s lives.”
Urmila and Leela’s story was not one of oppression simply because they didn’t use labels for their sexual desires and experiences, she thought. “Silence doesn’t necessarily always imply oppression,” Maya said. “Especially in a society where the unsaid and the gesture do most of the heavy lifting.”
Many women have made use of existing systems in “fantastic” ways, she said. “If one is completely denied rights, especially for female-bodied persons, where neither their lives nor loves are valued, then it becomes useful to subvert the system itself. And at least find a way to live a life the way one wants.”
She told me she works with many women of Dalit and Adivasi backgrounds who don’t consider marriage to be sacred. To these women, marriage could be a rite of passage that frees them to pursue other relationships. Some married men to protect their family’s honour, but soon returned to their parental homes. “The fact that working class women are earning anyway, they aren’t seen as a financial burden on returning,” Maya explained.
In some cases, she found that women migrated for work—typically agricultural labour—to live a life with their same-sex partners. Since the work is often seasonal, these women travelled back and forth between their homes and places of work, which removed them and their relationships from scrutiny. In such cases, migration didn’t just fulfil an economic need. It was a way for these women “to express their sexual choice, desires and freedoms.”
In our conversation, Maya also told me the story of an Adivasi woman who persuaded her brother to marry her same-sex partner so that she could be closer to her. Eventually, the brother and the woman’s lover got a divorce, and the two women were free to be together.
After Urmila and Leela, there have been other marriages by women that have been described as milestones by the sexuality rights movement. But these unions often seem to exist at odds with the movement, which still seems to struggle to account for how ambiguous the articulations and practices of people’s intimate lives can be.
ctivists continue to look for ways to translate experiences as rooted in identity as opposed to practice: not marriage or sex as practices and acts, but as a part of people’s identity. As an example, Professor Nithin Manayath has written  about a scene he often witnessed at LGBTQ+ support group meetings across Bengaluru. People there would often introduce their sexual orientation by describing it as a “field” they entered at a particular point in their lives. The word “field,” Nithin suggests, is used in the way people in urban centres across the subcontinent use it to describe a profession or domain of work.
These meetings inevitably featured a clash between two lenses of looking at sexuality. Each time an attendee at a meeting would say that they had entered “this field” in a particular year, the gay or bisexual identified moderator would correct them, and insist that they say “I am” gay, khoti or hijra. Sometimes, attendees would use the phrase “doing gay sex” only for it to be corrected to “being gay.”
This distinction is particularly crucial in light of the pending petitions in the Delhi High Court seeking solemnisation of same-sex marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Foreign Marriage Act, 1969. While there is no doubt that securing equal marriage rights for same-sex couples is of major consequence, queer life and practices aren’t limited to the legal arguments presented before the state. Focusing exclusively on this will erase, or endanger, the many other ways in which queer people relate to each other.
ourav Tarafdar, a scientist, grew up believing that “marriage meant you were stuck.” But over the years, he grew less wary of love marriages. “With some of my close friends getting married, I have come to see that love marriages are a celebration of two people’s love for each other, it is also a celebration of choice,” he told me.
In 2016, he met Kahran Singh, the head of an educational technology company, on a dating app, for a casual hook-up. Subsequent meetings evolved into a relationship. “From just being happy, I realised I could be happier with him,” Gourav said. “But more importantly, I felt safe with him.” Sex and love may have brought them together but Gourav is convinced that it is Kahran’s patience with him, and his “love for researching things to death and problem-solving,” that has kept them growing.
Two years later, when they were attending the Rome Pride Parade on holiday, Gourav asked Kahran to marry him. They had, in fact, spoken about it earlier, dropping hints to each other about what kinds of rings they wanted. In March last year, before much of the world went into lockdown, they threw an engagement party for friends and family.
The choice wasn’t easy for Gourav. He came out to his parents, but marriage isn’t a topic of conversation with them at all. While his relationship with Kahran was going from strength to strength, overcoming continental distances and doctorate deadlines, Gourav was still struggling to find a way to speak to his parents about it.
“Kahran is a US citizen, he is out to his family. We’ve even met and I get along very well with them,” he explained. “Things were more complicated from my side. He has patiently waited throughout, given me the time and the space to work things out at my own pace.” Kahran’s attitude to their situation gave Gourav the strength and conviction to introduce him to his parents in late 2019, over a South Indian breakfast. “It was awkward, yet polite and civil.”
Though his parents haven’t come around to accepting Gourav’s relationship with Kahran, and even refused to attend the engagement party, Gourav hasn’t given up yet. “I’m ready to engage with their doubts and prejudices, but my mind is made up about getting married to Kahran and it won’t be changed,” he declared.
When they had begun talking about getting married, Kahran’s master Googling skills had led them to consider a wedding in Gibraltar, “because you need to be there only for 24 hours to be able to apply for a wedding licence.”  Now, they are trying to find a place where Gourav’s parents might be able to attend, should they change their minds on the matter.
Gourav has been keeping an eye on the progress of the same-sex marriage matter in the Delhi High Court. In 2019, several LGBTQ+ couples separately had filed petitions seeking the recognition of same-sex marriage by Indian law. In February this year, the central government filed an affidavit contesting the petitions.
The affidavit echoes age-old moral prejudices against queer persons, arguing that queer relationships are “not comparable” with the Indian family unit. This unit, it claims, “necessarily presuppose(s) a biological man as a ‘husband,’ a biological woman as a ‘wife’ and the children born out of the union between the two.” In the event the law is amended, Gourav and Kahran will be able to plan their wedding in India.
While Kahran and Gourav did not follow through on their Gibraltar plan, other Indians have taken advantage of the recognition of same-sex marriages in other countries.
evin Kolankanny, a beauty and wellness products entrepreneur, married his Dutch partner in May 2001, a month after the Netherlands had legalised same-sex marriage. They had been in a relationship for eight years. Given that the Netherlands was the first country to legalise same-sex unions, Kevin might be one of the first gay men in the world to be legally married to his same-sex partner.
Marriage wasn’t something Kevin had aspired to. He grew up gay in the India of the 1980s, just as the LGBTQ+ movement was finding its feet in the country. At the time, he said, marriage meant “the baggage of children, in-laws and new expectations,” while sexuality was seen as something “fun,” associated with the practice of cruising, rather than with some essential aspect of who you were. “I grew up with a different kind of conditioning—you were horny, so you went out and sorted it out,” he said. For Kevin, marriage wasn’t critical, but his partner was determined for them to secure the rights made available by the Dutch legislation.
To many of us who grew up in the queer community in India, Kevin was a bit of a cult figure. He was the first Indian gay man to be legally married to his same-sex partner, and yet someone who didn’t romanticise the institution in any way. He has since been married again, divorced twice, and is presently in a live-in relationship. “Herpes might be forever,” he told me, “but everything else has a shelf life.”
Kevin’s ideas about marriage are at odds with the traditional understanding of the institution. While his first marriage started off with the expectation of monogamy from both partners, it grew to accommodate an open arrangement. This eventually strained the relationship, and was the reason it ended in divorce after nine years.
His second marriage lasted eight years. He and his partner started off with an open arrangement, but Kevin eventually asked for a divorce because his partner didn’t respect the details of their arrangement. “That might come as a surprise,” he laughed. Betrayals of this nature within an open arrangement take on “a finer meaning” when it comes to gay men, Kevin said. In these equations, what becomes important are issues like whether partners will repeat sexual interactions with others, and whether they will seek out emotional connections outside the relationship.
It wasn’t the infidelity by itself that caused the breakdown of Kevin’s marriages, as it might have in a traditional cis-gendered heterosexual marriage. It was his partner’s deviation from their mutually agreed-upon understanding of fidelity. These negotiations are significant within many same-sex relationships because they have their roots outside of traditional monogamous structures. Writing in same-sex relationships into the institution of marriage, Kevin thought, would need more precision, to take these intricacies into consideration.
Over a number of meetings on his lush balcony in Bengaluru, a picture of Kevin’s life and relationships emerged. It seemed to me like he could still move deftly between “doing” and “being.” This is something that his Western partners haven’t been able to grasp about him. They’ve assumed that his decision to get married meant that he had picked one side and therefore would stop cruising for sex.
It seemed to me like Kevin could still move deftly between “doing” and “being.” This is something that his Western partners haven’t been able to grasp about him.
“I’m able to compartmentalise between these two modes of functioning in the world, but they weren’t able to,” Kevin said. In the “new gay world” he has come to occupy from the early 2000s, “love and sex began to be muddled.” Though his thoughts have evolved over time, he said he was glad to have known a time when there was a sharp difference between love and sex.
As Kevin sees it, the fact that same-sex relationships began with these kinds of distinctions makes them “truer” in some ways, since partners’ desires and needs are clearly identified and demarcated. Gay marriages “will last as long as they last and no longer,” he believed. They were more focused on individuals and relatively separated from societal expectations. This, he said, allowed for them to be less burdensome.
n the Hindu month of Chaitra, the hijra community travels by the thousands to the towns of Villupuram and Ulundurpet in Tamil Nadu to play out the story of Aravan from the Mahabharata.
According to legend, Aravan is one of Arjuna’s sons. To ensure victory for the Pandavas, he offers to sacrifice his life. In return, he asks for three boons. He wants to die a hero’s death during battle; he wants to watch the entire battle, even after death; and he wants to experience marital bliss. The first two boons are easy to grant: he will be honourably beheaded and his severed head will oversee the war. The third boon poses complications. None of the women want to marry him and become widows the very next day.
So, Krishna takes on his female avatar of Mohini and weds Aravan, spending a night with him as his wife. The next day, Mohini mourns his death as his widow. To commemorate this legend, the hijra community gathers each year at the Kuttantavar Temple in Koovagam village in the Ulundurpet region. Members of the community take on the role of Mohini, and enter into ritualistic marriage with Aravan, the temple deity. It is common for hijras to marry their lovers during the event.
The final two days of the 15-day festival are marked by three events: mass marriages between hijras and the deity as well as their cis-gendered male lovers; a mourning period marked by loud crying, the beating of chests and breaking of glass bangles; and sex, representing the fulfilment of marital bliss, in the sugarcane fields and lodges nearby. In the past decade or so, events have included a transgender beauty pageant for the title of Miss Koovagam, whose winner gets to have her thali-chain tied in the temple’s sanctum sanctorum, and sexual health seminars sponsored by NGOs.
There are those who accept the idea of marriage, and those who participate in ritualistic versions of it. There are also LGBTQ+ persons for whom the institution itself is deeply attractive. As a young child growing up in the Namakkal municipality of Tamil Nadu, the transgender activist, writer and theatre-maker Revathi would sit at the threshold of her house, transfixed at the brides being led through the streets of her village.
At 16, Revathi began to grow out her hair. She had just failed her tenth standard exams, and was plotting to run away from home to join the hijra community in Mumbai. But she postponed her plans to stay back for her elder sister’s wedding. The wedding rituals took place over seven days at their family home. For every ritual, Revathi would sit right next to her sister and imagine herself in her sister’s stead.
In one set of wedding rituals in her community, the bridegroom enacts marriage with the bride’s younger brother: he ties the thali-chain, the pair hold hands, and then they lie together on the bed intended for the married couple’s first night together. Revathi was excited and eager to perform these parts of the wedding ceremony, but couldn’t show any of these emotions. “I had to constantly remind myself that everyone around me saw me as a boy,” she said. Those seven days at her sister’s wedding were a thrill but also a kind of torture. “It was like watching someone eat a whole plate of biryani but you’ve got to be satisfied with only the smell.”
Revathi’s turn came when she was 32. She had joined a Bengaluru-based NGO that worked for sexual minorities as an office assistant. That is where she fell in love with her boss. “Even more than his looks and sex with him, I loved other things about him. He was a very hardworking man—he never seemed to look at the clock while working, and he was totally committed to the upliftment of our communities. Over time, I loved him and wanted to marry him,” she said.
He agreed to marry her but refused to participate in any of the Hindu rituals, such as tying a thali-chain around her neck. Revathi went along with his preferences. With her guru from the Ulsoor hammam, her gurubais and chelas  as witnesses, Revathi got married to the man she loved at the Mariamman temple in Shivaji Nagar. “No one came from his side,” she told me.
For her, it was the fulfilment of a long-held dream. In hindsight, Revathi said, she realises that the community just saw them as the activist couple who had taken a radical stand within the LGBTQ+ movement. In some ways, the relationship was equitable. Revathi and her husband shared a house and financial responsibilities. But in other ways, she felt like there was an imbalance: she was expected to take care of all housework while holding down her job.
Soon, professional and political differences began to affect the couple’s equation. Particularly, Revathi’s husband was displeased by her equation with one of her chelas, Famila.  “Famila worked at the same organisation. My husband and she were constantly at each other’s throats because of a new rule that full-time employees could not engage in sex work,” Revathi told me. “My relationship with Famila became a major issue. Somewhere along the way, we fell out of love with each other. He wanted to open up our marriage, he wanted to be a free bird and have sex with other people.”
“What the fuck? Should I just wear a sari and sit like a demure girl for my whole life?”
Twenty years ago in India, opening up a marriage was nearly unimaginable. “He didn’t seem to consider my feelings as a woman, or even my position in society. What women can do and cannot do,” Revathi said. “If I take a male friend, even my father or brother, back to my house, everyone will ask who this man is. Moreover, I wasn’t interested in having sex with other men any longer.”
For Revathi, marriage was about sharing her joys and sorrows with a partner. Soon, she realised that a man might call himself a feminist and speak progressively about women and labour, but behave differently and expect different things within the walls of the home. Her husband began to ridicule and torment her. “He said, ‘You are not the old Revathi, you have changed,’” Revathi told me. “What the fuck? Should I just wear a sari and sit like a demure girl for my whole life?”
Revathi had overcome many hurdles in her life. She’d run away from home, gone to Mumbai to join the hijra community, faced violence and rape from the police and clients, been deprived of her claim to her familial property.
All she had ever wanted was to be married. When her marriage ended after two years, she attempted to kill herself. “I was unsuccessful both times,” she said, and then laughed out loud.
cademics and activists sought to write in many types of marriages that predated the sexuality rights movement, or occurred outside its frames. One of these was marriages between transmen and transwomen. Transwomen have been marrying their male lovers for a long time. Such marriages now have state sanction, since change in gender status is recognised by law.
If a transman and transwoman get married, their marriage is legally recognised, because it is between a male and female person. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. In many of these cases, the motivations of the couples were far more prosaic than that of taking a political stand: “It’s because ultimately they need someone who gets it,” the scholar Gee Imaan Semmalar told me, “and another trans person just gets it.”
To get at the texture of these relationships, I interviewed a few such couples, often called “complete transgender couples” in the media. But my attempts at parsing out their expectations from marriage, their lived experiences, and trying to understand how these played out differently than in traditional cis-gendered heterosexual marriages, were met with utter bafflement. I would find myself feeling like I was on the verge of invading their privacy, at which point they would usually withdraw and end the interviews.
Gee is a transman and a member of the working group at Sampoorna, a collective of trans and intersex Indians. He attempted to answer my queries, drawing from his own experiences of a relationship with a transwoman, and conversations he has had with his other transmen friends. He suggested that it wasn’t always important that conversations about bodies and pleasures be made political, or part of a movement. Instead, it was “a shared sense of vulnerability that really makes these marriages work,” he said.
Gee suggested that these marriages might be “more mythical” at their core. Since most individuals in these groupings of the LGBTQ+ community are already denied many rights and privileges, partners often come together out of a simpler desire for companionship. “There are no perks to getting married in these cases. There is no property to begin with, one’s parents don’t come for the wedding, there are no gifts, no adoption rights either,” he said.
The kinds of opportunities that transgender couples can avail have more to do with basic survival, he pointed out. “It is like you hear of one transman who has transitioned and had successful top surgery, then you will go get one too. So, just the possibility engenders a chain reaction,” he said.
Gee has found that, within the community, marriage becomes a means of solidifying and securing societal sanction that is otherwise taken for granted. “They start businesses together because it is easier to get loans as a unit, it becomes easier to rent a house and such,” he said. This transaction with the institution of marriage allows them access to the “bottom rung of privileges,” but even this is a “big deal” for those who have been denied them previously.
Another motivation for these marriages is the desire to raise children. But in situations like this, despite legal recognition of their marriages, the marginalisation of transgender individuals and couples by the state and society becomes apparent. In March this year, Gee was helping a transman-transwoman couple apply for adoption to the Central Adoption Resource Authority, the nodal body for adoption in India. The couple has been legally married for the past five years and have a marriage certificate to show for it.
Yet, they hit a hurdle in the process. “We’d finished filling out most of the form when suddenly it asked for the birth certificate of the parents. And to show this document for either of them is a big issue because it notes their assigned gender,” Gee told me.
“Marriage can be thought of as a theatre and storytelling, and these are characters staging something to get access to these minimal privileges.”
There are multiple hoops to jump through even if one is legally married. On paper, one need not be married to adopt children in India. (Single men are allowed to adopt male babies and single women can adopt irrespective of a child’s gender.) But, in practice, the process is extremely daunting and chances of success are low. So being able to showcase a normatively healthy domestic situation is important when a representative from the adoption agency comes for a home visit. “Marriage can be thought of as a theatre and storytelling, and these are characters staging something to get access to these minimal privileges,” Gee explained.
Gee thought it best to be cautious about writing in these marriages into the narratives of queer life and queer marriage in India. He saw the disconnect between how these couples view their marriages, how most queer people read them, and how the general public and the state perceive them.
In fact, from his conversations with people in married trans couples, Gee has realised, that “most of the individuals in these marriages don’t think of themselves as queer at all, and definitely don’t think of their marriages as queer either.” If pushed to label their marriage, “they’d rather choose heterosexual to describe it.” This shows the disjuncture in the way their marriages are viewed from the outside in, he added. “So depending on who is looking at their union, it reads differently.”
It is a question of shifting contexts. They may need to get written in as queer subjects while navigating the state and its agencies to advocate for their human rights. “But they are otherwise happy to slip through the cracks. And if they were writing their own story, they might even write themselves out of this queer narrative,” he pointed out. On his part, Gee suggested writing them out because co-option is likely to offend them.
“Why is inclusion always seen as something that we are recognising someone for? Maybe they just want to merge and assimilate, and there is no shame in that,” he explained. “In fact, writing about them in this way centres their ‘transness’ and exposes that they’ve been storytelling so far,” he cautioned. “And no one wants to be called a bad storyteller.”
or Maya Sharma, the legal route is limiting when it comes to assimilation. She is convinced that it is important to build social practices and structures before approaching the court to have them legally recognised. “Legal rights always come at a price. They don’t leave anything ambiguous, and queer lives are ambiguous,” she warned.
Maya’s own fieldwork suggests that the idea of “union and partnership” has actually extended, expanded and challenged the realities of marriage as an institution itself. She isn’t hopeful that this will find reflection in the law, though she believes it’s important for it to do so. “Marriage has a lot of moral baggage attached to it and non-monogamous relationships aren’t something that we are ready to look at in the face, or even talk about publicly,” she said. “But it is the everyday experience of some of these queer lives.”
Gee is convinced that marriage makes things easier in some cases. “Shaming or celebrating these choices shouldn’t be the point,” he told me. “Allowing people to find whatever little happiness they can find, wherever they can, is more important.”
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer.