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‘Being in love is not a crime’: India’s first openly gay athlete is surprised by the support

India's Dutee Chand celebrates her silver medal during the victory ceremony for the women's 100-meter event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Dutee Chand, a decorated Indian sprinter, had never heard of American television personality Ellen DeGeneres.

But in the days since Chand became the country’s first openly gay athlete, she has received support from around the world — including from DeGeneres — and from unexpected quarters closer to home.

The reaction in India has been far more supportive than angry, Chand said, a sign of changing mores in this country of more than 1.3 billion people where gay sex was against the law until last year.

“Almost 90 percent of the people who wrote to me on Facebook have been supportive,” Chand said on the phone from Bhubaneswar, a city in eastern India where she is studying law and training for the Olympics. “This has given me courage that I did the right thing.”

The 23-year-old athlete is not unfamiliar with racing ahead. Chand is a sprinter and the 100-meter national champion. She won a silver medal in the 100-meter race in the Asian Games last year, the country’s first in a decade.

Chand was also known for successfully challenging a ban by the country’s Athletics Federation after tests found her natural testosterone level to be higher than that mandated for female athletes.

But coming out as a gay athlete was a landmark first even for her. This month, she revealed she is in a same-sex relationship in an interview with Indian Express, which came as a shot in the arm for the country’s gay rights movement.

Gay sex was decriminalized by the Supreme Court in September. However, gay and lesbian couples have struggled to combat the stigma associated with same-sex relationships.

India’s Supreme Court decriminalizes gay sex in historic ruling

“It is not easy to come out in certain societies. This is huge for India!” tweeted Payoshni Mitra, a researcher on gender issues in sports.

“By revealing this, you have shown as much courage off the field as you have shown on the field,” wrote industrialist Anand Mahindra.

The outpouring of support was not limited to India. Chand was pleasantly surprised to be told that DeGeneres tweeted in her support. She later thanked DeGeneres via Twitter for standing with her.

Chand and her partner, who are from the same village, have known each other since childhood but became involved in 2017. After an injury, Chand said, she was cared for by the woman, and their relationship blossomed into love.

Notwithstanding the support, Chand’s case also highlights the limitations for same-sex couples in India. The immediate trigger for her announcement was opposition from her family. Arranged marriages between heterosexual couples are still the norm in the country, and attitudes toward marriages for love, including interreligious marriages, are not encouraging.

Chand’s older sister, who was aware of the relationship, threatened to out her if she didn’t end it. After much deliberation, Chand decided to go public herself. While her family has vacillated over supporting her, she said, she feels confident that they will come around.

She has been careful not to reveal her partner’s identity, fearing blowback in the college where her partner is enrolled.

Chand’s village of Chaka Gopalpur, 55 miles from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha state, is made up of poor weaver families such as her own. They have received the news with mixed reactions, according to a report in the publication Mint. Some called it her personal matter. But others said they were hearing of something like this for the “first time” and called her an “embarrassment.”

But Chand has remained unfazed. Ignoring the negative responses, she said she was focused on training for the 2020 Olympics.

“Being in love is not a crime,” Chand said, “with whoever it may be.” She is “relieved” not to have to hide her relationship and hopes to have set an example for others.

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