Ugra: Brave Dutee deserves support, not a pedestal


Even before she became the first openly gay Indian athlete, Dutee Chand was a revolutionary. But that is not how this small, quietly spoken woman, all of 5ft, would describe herself.

Over the course of a short, successful career, she has jumped over obstacles, broken records and busted open doors. By the time she is done running, it will be hard to quantify the distance Dutee has covered through her competitive career.

It was not merely the Asian Games 100m silver medal that made Dutee an impressive figure. She was the female Indian athlete who challenged and overturned the ban imposed by the IAAF's hypoandrogenism rules on her right to run. There, she had the support of the Indian government and a strong community of activists and lawyers. The rules have been altered, leaving Dutee's discipline out of the hypoandrogenism restrictions imposed on female athletes by the IAAF over middle and longer distances.

After she spoke about being in a same-sex relationship, Dutee has been praised by the LGBTQI community in India and overseas. In her immediate world, however, the responses did not exactly run through social media like a torrent.

Her coach, Ramesh, was quick to say, "Dutee is an adult now and her choice should be respected." Chess maestro Viswanathan Anand retweeted the news, while former hockey captain Viren Rasquinha offered "full support to Dutee Chand". The national women's football team goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan and Commonwealth Game gold medallist shooter Heena Sidhu both praised Dutee's courage.

Elsewhere, from Dutee's own peers, from the athletic community, officials and coaches, all we can hear is the silence of a non-response. As if Dutee's words had never been said or heard.

An Indian woman athlete carries a double burden. The first is simply of gender and belonging, like most Indian athletes do, to less privileged, often very conservative, communities. The second is having to always tap into stubborn belief in order to emerge from a restrictive universe and use her body as an engine of athletic achievement and, from it, economic mobility.

To be an Indian woman who runs, jumps, boxes, wrestles, and stays submerged in any sport is, for most of them, a victory in itself. From here, Dutee went a step further. When she was threatened by her own sister with blackmail and called a "disgrace" for being in a relationship with a woman, Dutee chose to respond by redefining herself in even bolder detail.

"While there have been odd rumours and even loose talk about gay and lesbian athletes in Indian sport, no one knows the consequences of coming out - either among your fraternity or its impact on your future - because it has never been done before"

For a while, she will be hailed as a gay icon, invited to conferences and television panels. But it is only on the athletic track that Dutee will know what others around her really think or what they believe, be it other competitors or people in power - coaches, officials and those with control over her athletic destiny.

While there have been odd rumours and even loose talk about gay and lesbian athletes in Indian sport, no one knows the consequences of coming out - either among your fraternity or its impact on your career - because it has never been done before. Until Dutee was, in her own words, "forced to come out" because she was being blackmailed by her sister.

Despite the tattoos, social media chatter and the trash chat show talk, sport in India is strictly conservative - socially, politically and most certainly when relating to sexuality. For several years now, ESPN Magazine has been trying to get an Indian athlete to pose nude, with sensitivity and aesthetic appeal, for its Body Issue. Other than two exceptions (neither from cricket), it has been impossible to find a willing subject.

I do not know Dutee personally but in her many conversations with my colleague Susan Ninan, I have been struck by her honesty and clear-mindedness, her determination and her trust. Dutee took note that Susan had never betrayed that trust. When they met three years ago, Dutee revealed that she had "begun to feel attracted towards girls."

Dutee was 20, an age when youngsters are trying to find themselves and figure out what they want to do with their lives. She had been pitchforked from a village in Orissa, the daughter of weavers, into competitive athletics. From there, she was put through a humiliating examination not merely of her gender but her sense of self, the physical, mental and emotional, in one go.

What Dutee held on to was the unshakable idea of what she wanted to do - run. What she was not going to do was to run away or be bullied. It is a quality that showed itself again when she found her sister trying to impose herself on Dutee's life and question her relationship with a female partner.

As someone who will be seen as an inspiration to other gay athletes in India, Dutee's interpretation of what she shares with her partner may appear to be far too simplistic, naïve, misguided, or in some ways even undermining same-sex relationships. Her comments about her partner, their non-physical "pure" love, what she thought of any potential relationship with men or her description of herself certainly do not fit in with the conventional definitions of same-sex relationships.

But it is Dutee's truth drawn from her life experience and, as she said, she told her story to ensure that no one could "make it sound like I'm up to a crime."

If there is one thing that Dutee Chand has learnt in her young career, it is to never let anyone else define who she is.