#FireStarters: Meet Jayna Kothari. The Lawyer Behind Section 377 Going Down
When you think of a lawyer, you think of someone huddled behind a pile of dusty books, adjusting their glasses as they concentrate deeply, taking in the words. Of course, when they go to court, they constantly spout the words ‘My lord’ and ‘Objection.’ Or at least that’s what the movies will have you believe. If you meet Jayna Kothari, you come to two quick conclusions. That the movies lie, lawyers are nothing like that in real life. And two, lawyers are pretty cool to hang out with. Fun, actually.
Jayna Kothari is now a known voice in the lawyer community. She’s one of the strongest, most vociferous voices that fought for Section 377 to be scrapped. And this is a cause she has felt about quite strongly.
It wasn’t a conscious decision for her though. “While I was always following the legal battle around Section 377 from early 2001 when it had just started, it was only from the sidelines. My active involvement legally started in the last 3 to 4 years since I started taking up a lot of cases representing the transgender community. I worked extensively with Dr. Akkai Padmashali, from Ondede and one of India’s foremost trans rights activist on several constitutional challenges to laws that discriminate against transgender persons. It was in 2015 that we decided to file a petition challenging Section 377 by members of the trans community since there were no transgender voices in this litigation. We filed the petition in 2016 on behalf of 3 transgender petitioners and it was during this entire process that I realised that this is indeed an extremely significant case, not just for the protection of the right to one’s sexual orientation but also for the right to one’s identity, the right to not be discriminated against on the basis of gender stereotypes, which is what the transgender movement has been fighting for.”
For someone who was so closely associated with the movement, the doing away of Section 377 was a moment of victory at a professional and personal level. Jayna was watching this closely enough to see a significant change in society’s attitudes as well.
“Now after the judgement of the Supreme Court in the Section 377 case there is a huge change in people’s views and perceptions. People I knew, relatives and family members who would never have accepted same sex relationships and transgender rights have now become open about talking about LGBT issues and more accepting. This was certainly not the case 18 years ago when even taking about sexuality was taboo. In my immediate experience with the legal community itself, I can see that there is a growing respect for taking up transgender rights work. People are beginning to realise how the trans community is discriminated and are more accepting.” She admits, however, that there is a long way to go.
It couldn’t have been easy for her. She’s not only fighting cases, but even attitudes. Jayna started practising as a junior lawyer in the Supreme Court and it wasn’t all peaches and roses in the beginning. She noticed that woman lawyers were often not treated at par with their male counterparts, even at senior levels.
“When I started practising on my own in the Karnataka High Court, I would constantly be asked by all and sundry as to who my senior was. People just could not fathom a young woman having her own practice! As a woman litigating in courts in India, it is a battle that you have to fight to get taken seriously by the judges, to get your voice heard when there are senior male lawyers on the opposite side and to get your point across. However, I have witnessed a huge change over the last few years. There are more women lawyers in Court, there are more women judges (although not enough) and attitudes have changed for the better. Judges are much more open now and way more responsive to women lawyers. You have to own the court as much as anyone else if you have to practise and work there every day.” That’s a #Firestarter right there!
She was never the kind to sit back and watch but to jump in with both feet, while juggling motherhood and career. That’s brave. How does one do it all? We ask because we could really use inspiration. She says, “It is a daily struggle because while I love my work and want to spend more time at the office and with my books, I also want to ensure that I spend time with my daughter. I try and balance these demands on a day-to-day basis. I have a really supportive partner, who is a very hands-on parent, making it easy for me when I have demanding litigation that requires me to be away from home.”
Jayna is literally the definition of a firestarter. But does she think of herself as one? She agrees, quite animatedly. “I can see no other way of being. I have never been able to sit and watch any injustice happen around me and I have to jump in and do something about it.”
Luckily for her, she has found fellow travellers and supporters in the women’s movement, the trans movements and together, they’ve been able to start some pretty big fires!
We agree, Jayna. You’ve take on some pretty big challenges and emerged a winner. You are an inspiration to all of us!