Dutee Chand: India’s First Openly Gay Sprinter

Dutee Chand

Born in 1996 to mother Akhuji Chand, and father Chakradhar Chand, Dutee Chand grew up in Chaka Gopalpur, a poor, rustic village in Odisha’s Jajpur district, with six siblings.

Having become the first Indian sprinter to reach a final at a global athletics event in 2013, the 18-year-old was already the national champion at 100m and 200m and an Asian Games bronze medallist.

There was so much excitement about her potential that the Sports Authority of India’s Director General Jiji Thomson described her as a “sure shot Olympic medallist” of the future. Her career was promising, and a place in a sprint final on her Commonwealth Games debut looked within her grasp.

Gender Accusations

However, less than a fortnight before the opening ceremony in Glasgow, she “failed” a test that had nothing to do with fitness or even drugs and was dramatically removed from the Indian national team.

Initially unsure what had happened, Chand discovered, like South African 800m legend Caster Semenya – in bold newspaper print – that her natural testosterone levels were higher than was expected for a woman and would typically only be seen in men. Facing “hyperandrogenism” accusations, it was declared that she had what is known as a Difference of Sexual Development, or DSD. It was not long before journalists were outside her parents’ modest home, questioning them and her six siblings as to whether Dutee was a boy or a girl.

Androgenic hormones are any natural or synthetic substance that influences the development of male characteristics – everything from the formation of testes to male pattern baldness – with the best known being testosterone.

There is much contention over the “normal” range of testosterone levels for men and women in general, but there tends to be a general agreement that, generally, there is a gap that emerges between the binary sexes during puberty.

Peter Sonksen, a professor of endocrinology (the study of hormones) at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, is far from impressed with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) work on testosterone.

“They have got it completely wrong with this idiotic rule,” Sonksen said. “It is clear discrimination.”

Dutee Chand in the gym

Sonksen’s main protest is that his research found that 16% of male athletes had lower than expected testosterone, whereas 13% of female athletes had high testosterone levels “with complete overlap between the sexes”.

In other words, the gap in testosterone between men and women in the general population does not exist among elite athletes.

This research has been embraced by a growing group of campaigners who doubt that testosterone is a significant factor in discussing disparities between the sexes’ athletic performances.

For them, men’s greater height, leaner body mass, slimmer hips and more elevated counts of oxygen-carrying red blood cells are all more influential than testosterone.

Legal Challenge

Dutee Chand was suspended from racing due to these accusations, and she missed out on competing at the Commonwealth and Asian Games in 2014. She steadfastly refused to subject herself to the “corrective” treatment (hormone suppression therapy) that was prescribed by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) – now World Athletics – and the IOC.

“I am who I am,” said Chand with a combination of defiance and sorrow at the time.

Chand became the first athlete to challenge the “hyperandrogenism rules” the following year. And an online “Let Dutee Run” campaign got 5,646 signatures, and the Indian media fully supported her.

In late 2015, she won her case, the rules were temporarily suspended for two years pending further investigation, and Chand could compete again. She went on to become an Olympian the following year. Surprisingly, that same rule challenge was rejected for Semenya, who was not allowed to compete.

Dutee Chand stretch

“I am who I am,”

Dutee Chand

Aged 19 at the time, she told the BBC, “I was completely shattered when I was banned. My performance deteriorated steadily. I was pushed to third position in the national athletics meet in Bangalore. But with the ban now lifted, I would do all it takes to reach the Olympic qualifying mark of 11.32 seconds for the 100m event and 23.20 seconds for 200m.”

For her mother lifting the ban was nothing short of a rebirth for her daughter. “She has endured a lot in the last one year. Barbs have been aimed at her; she has been called all kinds of names. But now the time has come for her to show the world the stuff she is made of.”

Her father has always supported his daughters in pursuing their interest in sports and added, “Dutee’s talent showed while she was in school. I told her if sports is what you want to do, give it your best shot – and she has.”

Thankfully, the details of Chand’s condition have not been publicised or leaked, but it is believed she was offered hormone therapy and “feminising” surgery.

The first person to publically support Chand was Dr Payoshni Mitra, a researcher on gender issues, and she helped motivate others to take Chand’s case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“We were able to convince the Sports Authority of India that these rules are unethical and need to be abolished,” said Mitra. “Institutionalised genital mutilation is just scary.”

In 2018, Chand talked about meeting Caster Semenya at the Rio Olympic Games, who made her feel like a close friend. “She told me not to worry about the case and to focus on the sport. I am glad that my battle is over, but hers is not,” said Chand.

In 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport disappointingly ruled in favour of the controversial rule, denoting that athletes with DSD would need to take hormone-limiting drugs if they wanted to compete in the 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, 1500m, one-mile races and combined events over the same distances. As a sprinter, Chand is exempt from the rule. But in a show of solidarity, she reportedly offered Semenya her legal team that worked on her 2015 appeal.

During her career, Dutee Chand became only the third Indian woman to qualify for the 100m at an Olympic Games.

Sexuality

Chand came out as a lesbian in 2019 when her older sister leaked it to local media channels without her consent, which reported that the superstar athlete was in a relationship with a woman from her hometown. This revelation came only a year after India’s Supreme Court decriminalised gay sex, and she faced public backlash from individuals in her village and her parents. In coming out publicly, she became the first openly gay athlete to compete for India. “This is the way I was born, and I don’t know any other way.”

Chand’s father described to the Times of India that his daughter’s relationship was “immoral and unethical”, and she had “destroyed the reputation of [their] village.”

Her mother added: “We belong to a traditional Odia weaver community which does not permit such things. How can we face our relatives and the society?”

Given the problems she encountered with her hyperandrogenism case, Chand was uncertain of the regulations for openly gay sprinters in her country. She soon got a call from the Athletics Federation of India president, Adille Sumariwala, who told her not to fear and assured her that her sexual orientation was strictly a personal matter and would have no relevance to her prospects as an athlete.

Understandably, this was a relief to hear at a time when she was still facing harsh backlash from family and neighbours.

She was able to race at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and come go home to the person she loves. Chand and her partner Monalisa have since been together for four years and posted a photo last month on Instagram captioned “love is love”.

In 2021, she told ESPN, “I can hold hands with my partner anywhere in public. Before I came out, we would stand on opposite ends of malls, parks, and streets. Now we travel together without fear of what people may say about us. The unexpected part has been the support I’ve received from people worldwide. My picture appeared on covers of big magazines, I was invited to a few top TV shows in India and the LGBTQ+ community has been welcoming of me.”

In terms of suggestions for others, Chand commented, “Be prepared for some criticism from those around you but let me tell you, coming out can be really liberating. I don’t regret it. In our country, culture and tradition are often used as tools to suppress people and communities. Resist it. Just like our minds, our bodies, too, are not built the same way. Love is a human right. Only you can decide for yourself who you really are, what kind of life you want to lead, and with whom by your side.”

Services to The Community

During the coronavirus pandemic, Chand decided to spend her time allocating food deliveries and sanitary pads to people in her village.

She also has goals to open an athletics school for locals and told Vogue: “I want another child aspiring to be a runner to run barefoot like me.”

In contrast to being excluded from the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Dutee Chand ran with the LGBTQ flag in the Commonwealth Games 2022 to shed light on homophobia in Commonwealth countries alongside British synchronised diver and Olympic gold medallist Tom Daley.

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