They dared to love.
“We were working at a thread manufacturing unit. There were many male workers, but I felt attracted towards her. Soon, we fell in love. But the trouble had just begun,” she says.
As the two came out, and expressed their desire to live with each other, their families expressed bewilderment. The refrain, the 18-year-old, who doesn’t want to reveal her identity, says, was “How dare you love?”
On Saturday, the two from Punjab became the first LGBTQ couple to take shelter at a ‘safe house’ managed by the Delhi government’s Social Welfare Department. The Delhi High Court had directed police on Friday to shift the LGBTQ couple to the facility.
“I was born a female but raised like a male child. When it came to choosing my partner though, they expected me to stick to the conventional gender role. I had no option but to move out,” says the other partner, who identifies as a trans man.
From social censure to wrath of own families, from criminal cases to physical attacks, the two-storey safe house has provided shelter to 10 couples from across the country — Delhi (2), Gujarat (1), Bengal (1), Uttar Pradesh (2), Madhya Pradesh (2), Bihar (1), Rajasthan (1), Punjab (1) — since it opened in September 2020. Four are currently still there, and three of them spoke to The Sunday Express.
“Our families called us mad, took our phones away. We decided to come to Delhi and seek help from a foundation that works for trans men. They referred us to NGO Dhanak,” says the 18-year-old. While she studied up to Class 12, her partner dropped out after Class 10.
The couple come from a humble background, says Asif Iqbal, the co-founder of Dhanak for Humanity, the non-profit which works as a support group for interfaith, inter-caste and LGBTQ couples.
After they came to Delhi on July 2, Dhanak initially put them up in a rented accommodation. But family members found them there and attacked them. Subsequently, they filed a petition to be moved to the safe house.
The facility was started following a Supreme Court order in March 2018 directing states and Union territories to provide shelter to couples facing threats due to their relationship. Iqbal says Delhi and Haryana were among the very few states to have followed through.
Among those housed in the facility are an inter-faith couple from West Bengal’s West Midnapore district. The 21-year-old, a Muslim, says he first met the 20-year-old at college in 2019, and for him, it was love at first sight. “Jodio ami kintu dekhini (I had not even noticed him),” the 20-year-old, whose father sells spices, laughs. The friendship soon blossomed into love.
The 20-year-old says she fended off pressure from her Hindu family to get married over the next one year. For her, more than religion, the objection was a reflection of “denial of agency”. “They would have turned down my choice even if I had chosen a Hindu with a regular job. But they would have happily married me to the same guy if they chose him,” she says.
The 21-year-old used the money he received as minority scholarship to book train tickets to Delhi. “Dhanak recommended that we complete our studies first as often lack of income leads to tension between partners. But the intense pressure on her to marry left us with no choice,” the 21-year-old, who is still trying to find work, says.
The introduction of new anti-conversion laws by several states has further put pressure on couples like them.
Hailing from Rajasthan’s Hanumangarh district, 21-year-old Pooja argues, “What love jihad are they talking about? I am a Hindu, he is a Muslim. We married under the Special Marriage Act. Where does the question of conversion come from?” She says the authorities should publicise the Act more. “We must be the first couple in our area to have married under it.”
She got married to Farooq, 27, who is employed with a private firm and also belongs to Hanumangarh, on June 9.
“We started dating on September 9, 2017. I first saw her while going to office. She used to take the same bus to college. For three years our families had no clue about our relationship. But the manager of my office, who was related to her family, eventually told them. They fixed her marriage in 2020. A month before she was to get married, we took shelter at a Nari Suraksha Salah Kendra in Jaipur,” Farooq says.
Pooja’s grandfather filed an FIR against the couple, accusing them of stealing Rs 15 lakh, gold and silver. “I had left home with a pair of clothes, that’s all,” she says.
On the night of Diwali last year, the couple moved to Delhi and filed a petition in the Jodhpur High Court to get the FIR quashed. The case remains sub-judice.
Iqbal says that when couples approach them, they first inform the police station under whose jurisdiction the home of the woman falls, and then produce the couples before a local police station in Delhi.
“We don’t keep the couple in hiding. We try and see how determined they are to stay with each other. If their family members come, we allow them to meet, but only at the police station. We also determine if anyone is a minor and accordingly make arrangements… produce them before Child Welfare Committees,” Iqbal says.
He recounts an incident where a minor, who had fled home to avoid a forced marriage, was sent back, only to be forcibly married off. “Such was her determination that she eventually managed to get back with her partner.”
Iqbal says Dhanak maintains a “lifetime relationship” with couples who come to them, but that some cut off ties with them due to family pressure or marital disputes.
A Delhi Police woman personnel has been stationed at the shelter home since its staffers recently flagged threats from relatives of the couples there. However, the couples say that while there is police presence during day time, the shelter home is unguarded at night. There are also problems with the upkeep of the facility, and an official said they were looking into it.
Farooq says they are determined to stick it out. “If, as adults, we can vote, choose governments, we should have the right to marry a person of our own choice. It is as simple as that.”