‘No one can live without love’: athlete Dutee Chand, India’s LGBT trailblazer
Country’s first athlete to reveal she is in a same-sex relationship on freedom, happiness and the backlash to coming out
Dutee Chand, India’s fastest sprinter and the nation’s first athlete to reveal she is in a same-sex relationship, doesn’t describe herself as gay. When the word is used during an interview with the Guardian, she breaks in. “I didn’t tell reporters I was that … I simply said I am in a relationship with a woman,” she says.
Chand comes from a village in India where homosexuality is never talked about. Unlike urban India where there is growing acceptance among the young of notions of personal freedom, rural India remains largely entrenched in tradition, and tradition says marriage is between a man and a woman.
“It is going to take time for people in my village to get used to the idea,” Chand says, referring to the backlash that her coming out in May prompted among some residents of her home village, Chaka Gopalpur in Odisha, in eastern India.
Having previously supported her running and taken pride in her becoming the first Indian woman to qualify for the 100-metre sprint at the Olympics, some villagers have since decried Chand for “humiliating” them. But she doesn’t see them as bigoted. Nor is it the case that she is no longer welcome in the village or feels threatened there. The displeasure is not aggressive. “They don’t know anything different from what tradition tells them so I am not angry with them,” she says.
Nonetheless, she adds: “That doesn’t mean to say I am not going to follow my heart. I can’t spend my life worrying about others. No one can live without love.”
‘It’s humiliating for us’: village disowns Dutee Chand, India’s first openly gay athlete
This is a classic Chand remark, spoken with clarity. “I believe everyone should have the freedom to be with whoever they decide they want to be with … Any rule which deprives someone of happiness is wrong … there is no greater emotion than love and it should not be denied.”
‘This is who she is and what she wants’
That Chand, 23, has become a trailblazer for LGBT rights in India is remarkable. She grew up with a father who used to spend a month weaving two saris on his handloom for which he was paid 200 rupees (£2). This sum supported his wife and their five daughters and son. The family lived, ate, and slept in one room.
“When I began running at the age of 10, I didn’t have the diet athletes need. It was just rice and vegetables. Every day,” she says.
Dutee Chand celebrates after her second place finish in the women’s 100m final during the athletics competition at the 18th Asian Games in 2018
Dutee Chand celebrates after her second place in the women’s 100m final at the Asian Games in 2018. Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP
Her elder sister Saraswati, who had put the village on the map as a national-level sprinter, encouraged Chand to take up running, not as a path to fame and money but for the modest goal of getting a low-level government job. Saraswati is now a policewoman.
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She was Chand’s mentor for years but is now an “enemy”, as Chand says, claiming that Saraswati betrayed her by telling the media about her love for another woman without her permission.
Chand grew up worshipping Usain Bolt for his running style. Another idol was South African legend Caster Semenya. Ever since she began winning medals, Chand has been used to positive media coverage and the glow of public acclaim.
Her silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta was India’s first medal in the women’s 100m in 20 years. At the same meet Chand also won silver in the 200m. She followed it up with a bronze in the 200m at the Asian Championships in April this year, along with a near personal best time in the 100m as she attempts to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Dutee Chand participates in the Asian Athletics Championships in 2017.
Her coming out in May was praised as courageous by many sections of Indian society. But the media attention about her private life has shaken her. She is concerned for her partner who also comes from a poor weaving family. The woman has moved to the capital of Odisha, Bhubaneshwar, to finish the remaining two years of her degree. “I asked her to move out so that the media attention and village taunts wouldn’t disrupt her studies,” Chand says.
The women met in 2016 in the village. They shared a love of sport. Two years later, via a WhatsApp message delivered on Valentine’s day, Chand’s partner proposed. Unlike her own parents who have objected strongly to Chand coming out, her partner’s family does not object. “I am giving my parents time. Gradually, when the noise dies down, they will come round. Even people in the village will eventually come round,” she says.
So far her quiet resolve has kept her going during the turbulence. “My partner is also determined. She keeps telling me not to worry about what the world will say,” she says.
Chand wants to continue running until the 2024 Olympics. After that, when her partner’s studies are over, they plan to live together in Bhubaneshwar, maybe near the famous Konark sun temple where they have spent happy moments walking along the beach.
A friend and athletes rights advocate, Payoshni Mitra, says Chand’s decision to tell the world about her love is a display of the resilience she possesses as an athlete. “She isn’t defying anyone – family or society – deliberately. She is simply saying this is who she is and what she wants.”
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