Betu Singh, born on 25th November 1964, was a prominent queer rights activist and founder of the first registered lesbian, bisexual and transgender (FtM)-affirmative support group in New Delhi called Sangini Trust. I first came across Betu in 2017 when I stumbled upon an interview she gave to Humsafar Trust for their online series Project Bolo (Speak up) which sought to record the oral histories of twenty LGBT individuals across four Indian cities. In retrospection, as a queer woman, Betu was the first lesbian-identifying woman I had ever heard speak candidly about her childhood, relationships and activism. Her sense of humor, confidence and pride in her own identity as “a strong woman”, as she described herself in the interview, left an indelible impact on me.
Betu spoke a language of enduring freedom and broke multiple gendered stereotypes to lead a life that felt most authentic to her sense of self. She finished her college education from the male-dominated Meerut University but that didn’t deter her. She proudly added in her interview, “I didn’t go to a girl’s university. I went to Meerut University which had only 21 girls in the entire university…it (Meerut University) was considered to be a goonda (goon) university…and I don’t’ know how I became the SFI President of the University…I was a very famous woman in Meerut University.”
After college, she worked as security personnel for the Prime Minister and later started her own business in Delhi. She co-founded Sangini Trust with her former partner Cath in 1997 with the help of the Naz Foundation. The organization provided 24/7 emergency services through its helpline number to lesbian and bisexual women and trans men. In a few years, they branched out and started organizing support group meetings once a week. Betu recalled in her interview that the number of women who came for these meetings varied from one week to another. She explained this further by adding, “It’s very difficult to tell your parents (as women) every Saturday tum kahan ja rhi ho (where are you going).”
While Betu Singh was alive, Sangini also conducted workshops around issues of gender and sexuality across different educational institutions in an attempt to engage with young people. The organisation also worked towards helping trans men receive sex affirmative surgeries. Sangini overall strived to extend emotional, financial and legal support to women and trans men who experienced human rights violations.
Lesbian/Bisexual Women and the Law in India
The organisation’s work in providing legal protection to lesbian and bisexual (LB) women and couples eloping their homes is of particular significance and draws attention to the status of LB women within the ambit of Indian laws. Betu and her co-worker Maya worked towards ensuring that each LB woman who came to Sangini seeking support received legal protection.
Family members of LB couples who run away from their homes frequently file a writ of Habeas Corpus by alleging kidnapping, abduction, perjury or wrongful confinement as a means of forcing their daughters to come back home and getting them married. Even in cases where the woman is known to be an adult, the court has forced them against their will to go back to their families. Female partners of LB women, however, have failed to successfully use the same writ petition to free women from their family homes because they are not a close relative and therefore lack locus standi in a court of law.
Same-sex intimate relationships between women that exist outside heterosexual marriage and family fail to articulate themselves in a way that is considered legitimate in a courtroom. Lack of legal language and fear of criminal prosecution has prevented LB women from expressing the full extent of their relationship in court. As a result, many such histories of forceful separation have remained hidden under the sanitized garb of ‘close friendships’, frequently used as a way of describing LB relationships in legal documents.
Sangini Trust helped women, above the age of 18, prepare affidavits that mention that they left their homes out of their own volition. They also provided women with lawyers if a case gets filed against them. Further, they also assisted them in obtaining identification documents and provide temporary shelter. Once the women felt safe, they could look for jobs and places to live independently. Betu observed fondly in her interview, “…when women after a long struggle finally find jobs and a room to live in, that gives me a lot of satisfaction.” In the year 2012, when Humsafar took Betu’s interview, Sangini had helped twenty-one couples escape their violent natal families.
Lesbian/Bisexual Visibility and Creation of Queer Women’s Spaces
The 1990s was a period when engagements with issues pertaining to sexuality in the public sphere were becoming common. But most of these discussions remained limited to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Queer feminist activists like Chayanika Shah, for instance, felt the absence of lesbian issues being spoken about within women’s groups at the time. Same-sex attraction amongst women was shrouded in anonymity due to lack of space where lesbians or women who love women could gather and meet each other. Lesbian and bisexual women, therefore, straddled between the women’s movement and the sexual minorities’ rights movement for a long time. The few existing queer spaces, at the time, were dominated by gay men who failed to critique the patriarchy.
Organisations like Stree Sangam (renamed as LABIA later) and Sangini Trust were born at the intersection of these two movements. Queer activists like Betu played a formative role in articulating that lesbian women are women too, who suffer under patriarchy. Safe spaces like Sangini Trust were important for both lesbian, bisexual and trans visibility and as a space of comfort for queer women and trans men. Organizations like Sangini and LABIA posed an important critique of the dominant women’s movement which even though sought to speak for all women, remained exclusionary and therefore failed to represent the interests of women from sexual minorities.
Death and Contemporary Relevance
Betu in the documentary titled SANGINI directed by Nancy Nicole observed, “…people are coming out now. Earlier it was not there… they ended up getting married; they were not running away… a big change which is happening (now) is people are leaving their homes…”
Betu Singh died on 3rd October 2013 of liver psoriasis. She was posthumously awarded with the KASHISH Rainbow Warrior Award in 2015 for her contribution to the queer movement in India. Betu’s journey as an activist, however, was not a smooth one. There were times when large mobs violently attacked her house but she remained steadfast in her commitment towards protecting young LBT persons and couples. She recalls in the documentary how she once reassured a young couple cowering in fear as their families along with a large mob banged on their door. She told them, “Just don’t worry, nobody can touch you, let the lawyers come…till the time we are here we will not let it happen.”
The fearlessness with which Betu lived her life was an affront to every heteronormative expectation society puts on women. The value of her activism only becomes apparent when her contribution to the Indian queer movement is historically situated. She spent over fifteen years with Sangini Trust to create a safe space for LB women and trans men. She remained associated with Sangini till her final days and had plans for its future growth.
She mentioned in her interview with Project Bolo, “We (at Sangini) need a registered shelter home now plus an office… this will make it difficult for the police to (forcefully) enter.” An exhaustive documentation of Betu’s personal history can prove to be an enormous source of courage, hope, and dignity for young queer persons in India who continue to face the threat of violence at the hands of their natal families.
- (2011) SANGINI. Directed by Nancy Nicole.
- Queer Women and Law in India: The Writ of Habeas Corpus by Priyadarshini Thangarajah and Ponni Arasu
- The roads that e/merged: Feminist activism and queer understanding by Chaynika Shah in the book Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, pg: 143-54.