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He or zie? Queer lawyer who asked CJI for pronouns in court slips seeks ‘truly equal citizenship’

Delhi lawyer Rohin Bhatt got 'death threats' after his letter to CJI came out in public domain. He sought inclusion of section in SC advocates' appearance slips for mentioning pronouns.

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New Delhi: If an advocate’s promotion as judge is being delayed “for the simple reason that he is gay”, then it is high time that the country’s top court leads by example by taking appropriate measures to ensure inclusivity is observed not just in letter, but also in spirit. 

Queer lawyer Rohin Bhatt expressed these views while speaking to ThePrint about a letter he wrote to Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud, seeking changes in apex court procedures to end discrimination against the queer community. 

Suggesting what steps can be taken to start with, Bhatt requested the CJI to modify the appearance slips for lawyers in the apex court. The lawyer, who practices in the SC, sought the inclusion of an additional column in the slip for mentioning people’s pronouns so that they may be correctly used in the court’s orders and judgments.

“While this may seem simple, and such a change will only require an administrative direction from you, it will go a long way in affirming the identities of the queer lawyers that appear before the Supreme Court,” Bhatt wrote to the CJI in an email on 26 November. There has not been any acknowledgment of the letter from the CJI’s office yet, he told ThePrint.

He further said that he wanted to draw Chandrachud’s attention to this issue because “it is for the first time we have a chief justice who has been vocal about being inclusive and changing the system.”

Noting how the queer population has been discriminated against for decades, Bhatt said he had experienced it first-hand, adding that the CJI’s vocal stand about these issues gave him hope that Chandrachud will bring some changes during his tenure at the Supreme Court. 

In his letter, Bhatt also provided a sample appearance slip where he has added the pronouns column of the advocate.


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What are pronouns?

Pronouns are linguistic tools that are used to refer to people with terms such as they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, he/him/his, or even zie/zir/zirs. These help people belonging to transgender, genderqueer, or gender-expansive communities to identify themselves according to their gender and sexual orientation.

In the present form of the appearance slip of the Supreme Court, there is no separate column for pronouns, just for the advocate’s name and enrolment number. In the high courts, a blank chit is provided where the advocates can write their names the way they wish to, with or without the salutation such as Mr, Miss, Mrs, Shri or Shrimati.

In lower courts, the judge verbally asks the present counsel’s name to write in the decrees and orders. Often, they don’t mention names and simply mark presence as “counsel for plaintiff”, a Delhi-based lawyer told ThePrint. 

‘Language inflicts symbolic violence’

Bhatt highlighted in his letter to the CJI how language “can often inflict symbolic violence on transgender litigants and lawyers in court” and leads to enhancing gender dysphoria which can cause psychological distress.

“Use of correct pronouns in orders and judgments of the court will affirm identities and challenge discriminatory attitudes, which, as your lordship will be well aware, is heightened when the subject of these attitudes is queer,” he wrote, adding that “the wrong pronouns in orders and judgments can disempower, demean, and reinforce exclusion”.

People’s pronouns should not be assumed based on name, appearance, or voice, he said.

However, he told ThePrint that “this letter is not the last of its kind nor is this letter going to solve our problems.” 

“It is the first step in starting a conversation toward creating a queer-friendly environment in courts. I said in my letter to the Chief Justice that the Supreme Court must show the way but as long as all of these practices don’t go right down to the trial courts and every possible court, the job is not done,” he added.

Broader conversation around queerness, intersectionalism

Bhatt said that his letter was a simple plea to the chief justice to make the courts more inclusive. “I hope this will help us have a broader conversation around truly equal citizenship and not just in terms of queerness, but in terms of disability rights as well as how we look at people from Bahujan and Adivasi community.”

He emphasised upon intersectionality in the struggle for rights for the queer population. “I hope we can have a discussion not just about queer persons but also about caste, and class in the legal profession as these struggles are multi-axial and intersectional,” he explained, adding that the chief justice himself has in the recent past talked about the patriarchal and caste-based networks among lawyers. 

Noting that a strong theoretical foundation for a progressive realisation of rights for queer citizens was laid down by the SC in the 2018 Navtej Johar judgment, Bhatt said that the apex court, being the guardian of the Constitution, should start acknowledging that it needs to move towards equality.

“Now that we have this theoretical underpinning, it is time that the court, the Parliament, and every legal body builds on that and develop the necessary infrastructure required to truly make the law inclusive,” he added.

Bhatt told ThePrint that after his letter was published in The Leaflet, he received death threats on Twitter, adding that even if people might be going through discrimination, they may not be in a position to speak up because of this. However, he said that there are some queer lawyers and judges across India, out or not, who are changing perceptions one day at a time.

Bhatt also alleged that advocate Saurabh Kirpal’s elevation to become a Delhi High Court judge has been delayed for the simple reason that he is gay. 

He also talked about Justice Vivian Bose, who was the Supreme Court judge who had an American wife, adding that it’s not as if other people in other constitutional posts don’t have partners who are not Indians.

“So one comes to the conclusion that despite the judgment in Navtej case which talked of queerness through the lens of equal citizenship, we have people today who are far from equal,” he pointed out.

Need to sensitise the judges, court clerks

In his letter, Bhatt cited the example of a provincial court of British Columbia, which asks people to state their name, title (sometimes called ‘salutation’), and pronouns to be used in the proceeding and for lawyers to provide this information for their clients. 

He explained that, in the particular court, if a party or lawyer does not provide this information in their introduction, they would be prompted by a court clerk to do so. He also told ThePrint that this is widely practiced in foreign jurisdictions. Courts such as the Judicial Council of California have a bench reference guide according to which, if a youth’s attorney does not inform about pronouns, they should be asked about their preferred pronouns. 

To implement such practices, there here have to be sensitization programmes not just for court clerks but also judges because “all of us have some sort of bias”, Bhatt said, adding: “I would suggest that people be given rigorous training on not just the law around it, but also how to respectfully address the queer people.”

“I know that the chief justice is a person who has vociferously advocated for inclusivity. And I remain hopeful that he will do the needful,” Bhatt said.

(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)


Also Read : ‘No reason to hold them back’ — how courts have become a support system for same-sex couples


 

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