'If you love someone, there is no need to fear' - Dutee Chand

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

Last weekend, Dutee Chand became India's first openly gay athlete. Her announcement evoked statements of support from the entire gay community, including US entertainment personality Ellen DeGeneres.

It's a story ESPN first heard from Dutee three years ago, in April 2016, at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in India.

"I've begun to feel attracted towards girls," she had said, sitting cross-legged on the bed in Room 105 at the Pullela Gopichand academy. "It's only recently that I have begun experiencing this change within myself. Case jeetne ke baad sabhi ne mujhe bola ki Dutee, tu ladki nahi hai, Dutee, tu ladki nahi hai, kahin andar se mujhe yeh vishwaas hone lag gaya hai (After I won the case, everyone told me 'Dutee, you're not a girl, Dutee, you're not a girl'. Somewhere deep down, I have begun believing it.)"

It was three months before the Rio Olympics. The Odisha sprinter had just missed the Games qualifying cut-off by one-hundredth of a second and was still finding a way to reach her dream.

We sat in the room listening to the drone of the ceiling fan and watching the hot, white sun bounce against the window pane. Her spikes - in fluorescent green, bright pink and neon - were lined up almost in mathematical precision by the door with socks balled up at their mouths. A small mirror hung on the wall with a rack cradling a bottle of perfumed hair oil, face powder and tiny bottles of nail varnish and bright lipstick shades in red, below it. Make-up was a fairly recent fetish she confessed, suffixed with a laugh.

The landscape then was vastly different. In 2013, the Supreme Court of India had reversed the Delhi High Court's 2009 verdict of decriminalising homosexuality. This turned same-sex relationships in India illegal, attracting a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

After she made her same-sex relationship public last weekend, Dutee has been inundated with calls from around the world. She has a fresh struggle now - to say the right things. "Kabhi kuch galat bol deti hoon. Aur English bhi thik se nahi aata (I sometimes end up saying the wrong things. Also I don't speak English too well). Earlier I used to worry what people will think about me in the future when I tell them. Now that the whole world knows, I feel like a huge boulder has been lifted off my chest. I feel happy. I feel free."

Dutee's journey as an athlete went from regular to extraordinary five years ago. In the preparatory run-up to the World Junior Championships in Oregon in June 2014, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) asked her to stop over in Delhi for routine tests.

She did not make much of the unusual nature of the test - ultrasound, not blood or urine. It was followed by even more elaborate examinations in Bangalore which included gynecological tests and a karyotyping procedure, which looks at a patient's chromosome patterns.

Dutee was later told she was ineligible for participation in future competitions. Through news reports, she learnt that the tests discovered her body produced more testosterone than the normal levels found in women.

After the ignominy that followed, she may have been expected to leave the scene. Instead, she dragged athletics' parent body, IAAF, to court over its policy on hyperandrogenism (high levels of naturally-occurring testosterone in women).

In July 24, 2015, Dutee won a historic battle. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) cleared her to compete. It was the first time ever that an athlete had not only challenged an existing policy but also won a favourable verdict. Commiserations poured in and salutary editorials hailed her battle and triumph. But in the din that enveloped her, Dutee felt she was no longer the same.

"Till that episode (hyperandrogenism condition being made public), I never felt I was any different from girls of my age," she had told ESPN in 2016. "I had a brief relationship with a male athlete while I was in the sports hostel in Bhubaneshwar. I also had a crush on a fellow male athlete. But the way things stand now maybe it would be difficult for me to live with a guy. Maybe if I could share my life with a girl who understands me, we could stay together like friends."

"In love there's no gender, only companionship"

In the battle towards regaining her right to compete, friends abandoned her and relatives feigned ignorance of her existence. "I don't hang out with friends anymore," she told us then, "I'm scared to ask them to meet since parents don't want their daughters to be seen with me. Most of the other girls, I feel, are scared to be with me alone. Previously, when I visited places with a female friend, people would ask, 'Is she your friend?', now if they see me with a girl they ask, 'Is she your girlfriend?'"

The ostracism she faced from fellow campers forced her to leave the national camp in Patiala and move to Hyderabad. Under her coach N Ramesh, she began training with male athletes since there were no female sprinters who had clocked a similar timing as hers. The difference was visible in numbers. At the 2015 National Games in Kerala, Dutee set a national record with a timing of 11.76s. Less than a year later in April 2016, she set a new mark of 11.33s at the Federation Cup.

After she turned into an athlete of reckoning, acquaintances back in her village began to seek financial assistance from her. Dutee never turned them down. "If I'm in a position to help someone, I don't have the heart to say no. I'm from a poor family so I know what it's like to have no food or live under a leaking roof."

She went on to break the women's national 100m record twice in a single day - 11.30 in the heats and 11.24 in the final (Olympic entry standard was 11.32) in Almaty to qualify for the Rio Olympics, just two months before the Games. It meant precious little time for meaningful preparation.

At the Olympics, she finished seventh in her heats and 50th among a total of 64 runners. But even in her qualification alone, in her lunging, petite frame in the sky-blue vest, she had again run into history - the first Indian female athlete to qualify for the 100m event at the Olympics in 36 years.

Three years since, Dutee is back among the headlines.

The trigger for her awareness that she was gay, she says, was the public humiliation and questions over her gender. It also changed the way she looked at herself and the world.

"No guy would like me anymore after what was written about me, I thought to myself. That was where it all began. To marry a man and set up a home was no longer a dream. I began to be drawn towards people of my own gender. But then I had no thoughts or plans of how far I would take it."

In 2017, she felt herself being drawn close to a girl back in her village. There are no sexual overtones to the relationship, she says.

"We live in different cities and have never indulged in physical relations of any sort. For me, she is a support system. She offers me what I need to compete and sustain myself in sport - motivation. Pooja karti hai, mannat maangti hai mere liye (She offers prayers on my behalf). Our love is pure."

Last year, when Dutee was home on a two-month break following a fracture she sustained on her hand, her partner came over to take care of her.

"She cooked for me, washed my clothes and did everything that you can only expect from someone who's your own. It's when my feelings toward her grew stronger. Even before I did, she confessed she loved me and wanted to spend her life with me. What will you gain out of living with me, I asked her. She might want a marriage and kids of her own in the future which I may not be able to give. But she said she wanted neither to be married to a guy nor to mother kids. All she wanted was to be by my side."

Phone calls between them then grew from intermittent to regular. On September 6, 2018, a five-judge Supreme Court bench decriminalised Section 377 by unanimous decision, making gay sex legal. Dutee recalls her excited partner's call, breaking the news to her. "We can now live together, she told me. It's no more a crime."

Dutee then learned about Caster Semenya - the multiple-time Olympic middle distance champion who, like Dutee, was also at the heart of the hyperandrogenism debate - and her partner. She found pictures of Caster, in an embroidered jacket and gold breeches, from her wedding with partner Violet Raseboya in January 2017.

"I felt a wave of strength from within seeing those pictures. They looked so happy together."

Dutee's family, though, hasn't taken her orientation disclosure very well. Threats from her elder sister, Saraswati, to go public on her same-sex relationship for refusal to comply with her monetary demands prompted Dutee to speak about it last weekend. "It's my story. I felt I should tell the world about it and not let anyone else make it sound like I'm up to a crime."

Her mother, too, has expressed her displeasure. Dutee, however, laughs, like she does in the face of most problems.

"My parents are simple, innocent people. For them, only a man and woman can live together. That is the only concept of marriage they know. I don't blame them. Maybe some of their anger is also from being told by people around them that I will desert them in the future. I built a house for them in the village and take care of all the monthly expenses including the education costs of my four sisters. No matter what they say about me, I will continue to provide for them."

"Previously, when I visited places with a female friend, people would ask, 'Is she your friend?', now if they see me with a girl they ask, 'Is she your girlfriend?"

Her partner's parents, however, have so far been supportive of their relationship.

"They treat me like their own daughter. So for them it's like having two daughters now. One who has a career in sport and the other who supports her. That's what we are at the end of the day. They don't look at us as husband and wife or any of those labels that people are hurrying to give our relationship. Pyaar mein ladka, ladki nahi hota hai, sirf saathi hota hai (In love there's no gender, only companionship)."

Right now, Dutee, 23, isn't thinking of marriage. Her focus is on the competitions ahead - World University Games, World Championships and the big one, next year's Olympics.

She is hopeful that her coming out will give athletes around the world strength to fight their battles. She is not flustered by the fresh allegations from her family that come with each morning's papers.

"My sister has threatened to get me thrown in jail," Dutee laughs. "I haven't committed a murder. For everyone else like me who's following my story, if you love someone, there is no need to fear. There is no shame in love. Jab tak hum nahi badlenge, duniya kaise badlega? (Unless we change, how will the world change?)"