CHENNAI: "Ignorance is no justification for normalising any form of discrimination," said Justice Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court on Monday, issuing a slew of guidelines to the State and Union government to ensure the protection of LGBTQIA+ persons in consensual relationships, including to ban conversion therapy and provide for gender-neutral bathrooms for non-gender conforming students.
The interim order came after the judge took time to undergo counselling to better understand the experiences of LGBTQIA+ persons.
Batting for a change to protect the community from the social discrimination it faces, the judge said, "Till the legislature comes up with an enactment, the LGBTQIA+ community cannot be left in a vulnerable atmosphere... This gap is now sought to be filled in by way of issuing guidelines till law takes over and guarantees safety and protection."
Significant among the directions in the 107-page interim order is the court's call to ban 'conversion' therapy. "Any attempts to medically "cure" or change the sexual orientation of LGBTIQA+ people to heterosexual or the gender identity of transgender people to cisgender should be prohibited," the judge said.
Noting that he had never personally encountered a person of the LBTQIA+ community, he said he had been brought up to treat homosexuality as anathema and shared the month-long experience he underwent with counsellors who helped him better understand same-sex relationships before authoring the judgement.
".....problem is not the fact that the law does not recognise a relationship but that the sanction that is accorded by the society is not available. It is only for this reason, I strongly feel that the change must take place at a societal level and when it is complement by law there will be a remarkable change in the outlook of the society by recognising same-sex relationships...," he said.
The court's other directions included the need to make available gender-neutral restrooms for gender-nonconforming students, change of name and gender on academic records for transgender persons and inclusion of 'transgender' in addition to M and F gender columns in applications for admission and for competitive entrance exams.
Educational institutionals should appoint counsellors, who are LGBTQIA+ inclusive, for the staff and students to address grievances, if any, and to provide effective solutions for the same. Further, the appropriate government shall take effective steps to implement measures concerning transgender persons as stipulated by Chapter VI of The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 and Rule 10 of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules, 2020, the judge said.
The court also called for educating parents on issues surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community through Parents Teacher Association (PTA) meetings in schools. Also, necessary amendments to policies and resources must be made to include students belonging to LGBTQIA+ community in school and college life, said the judge.
"Mental health camps and awareness programmes should be conducted to understand gender, sexuality, sexual orientation and promote acceptance of diversity," the judge said. The court also called for awareness programmes to be conducted on a periodical basis among the judiciary, police and prison authorities.
"Outreach programs should be conducted by NGOs with community support to put forth first-hand problems faced at the hands of law enforcement agencies, and to train them in providing effective assistance. Ensure that transgender and gender-nonconforming prisoners are housed separately from cis-men prisoners to eliminate chances of sexual assault by the latter on the former," said the judge.
"The list of such NGOs along with the address, contact details, and services provided shall be published and revised periodically on the official website. Such details shall be published within eight weeks from the date of receipt of copy of this order," the court said.
Noting that the case had given the court a "vested responsibility" to weigh the cause for inclusivity and justice against discrimination, he admitted that he had to "remove the Lordship's hat and instead wear the hat of the average commoners in society, who have not given thought to understand or accept, who are attempting to understand, who totally refuse to understand or accept the LGBTQIA+ community".
"I have no hesitation in accepting that I too belong to the majority of commoners who are yet to comprehend homosexuality completely. Ignorance is no justification for normalising any form of discrimination," he said.
The court directed the State government and Union government to file a detailed report on the plea based on the interim directions issued and adjourned the plea to August 31.
The interim order came on a case related to two young women who fled their homes in Madurai and reached Chennai after their families opposed their relationship. The New Indian Express on March 19 had reported how NGO members were harassed by the Madurai police for sheltering the couple as the parents of the women had filed a kidnapping case.