India now has an openly gay athlete, but will brands be more accepting?

A new colour of pride.
A new colour of pride.
Image: Reters/Darren Whiteside
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Dutee Chand is running on a treadmill before dozens of photographers and videographers at a product launch event in a Mumbai studio. She is probably being blinded by the flashes but it’s clear she is enjoying her run, as she slips in a smile for the cameras every now and then. Later, she is made to step on to a stage and pose with one of her feet raised up in a bid to show off the new shoe that she is promoting. Even that, she does with a smile.

Sponsor events can get exhausting for celebrities but not for Chand. For one, she doesn’t get invited to many as she does not have any long-term endorsements. Skechers India, whose new shoe she was promoting in Mumbai last week, invited her only for their product launch event.

India’s fastest woman is far down the pecking order when it comes to popularity among Indian sportspersons.

Chand’s perception among sponsors and brands may be further hit by her big revelation last month. The 23-year-old sprinter shattered a glass ceiling in India by disclosing that she is in a same-sex relationship. She became India’s first athlete, male or female, to come out.

The taboo

Despite the Indian supreme court decriminalising gay sex in a landmark judgment last September, homosexuality remains taboo in the country. While Chand has received support on traditional and social media, she faced a backlash back home. Born into a family of weavers, news of her relationship was not received well in her village in India’s eastern state of Odisha.

“Coming for such events helps reduce the stress,” said Chand, sitting in a vanity van outside the studio after the event ended. “I was recently invited for The Kapil Sharma Show (a popular Indian stand-up comedy and talk show) and it was a good break. I got a chance to engage in some comedy, had a laugh, felt good.”

Chand was thankful to Skechers India for thinking of her, even if it was for a one-off gig. As for what the future holds, endorsement-wise, she is unsure. She is, after all, entering unchartered territory.

When asked if Skechers would consider signing up Chand for a long-term association, the American company’s CEO for south Asia, Rahul Vira, said they have stayed away from such deals as a policy in India.

“Because of the vast portfolio we work with, it gets very limiting to find somebody who fits into all the genres of products that we sell. We try and find a celebrity whose personality matches the particular product that we are launching,” he said.

However, Skechers did not think twice before hiring Chand and believes it’s only a matter of time before Indian brands open up about sponsoring LGBTQ celebrities, Vira added. “If you as a brand try and be conservative in a country where a majority of the population is so young, you are seen as stiff and stubborn,” he said. “We, as a brand, are pretty open and flexible in terms of the celebrities we associate with.”

Indian brands would be willing to associate with LGBTQ celebrities provided there are enough inspirational stories to market, according to Indranil Das Blah, founding partner of Kwan Entertainment, a company that manages celebrities from the fields of sports and entertainment.

“I don’t think it’s so much a function of brands,” Blah said. “If there are enough gay icons out there, brands will use them. Dutee has been the one brave person who has come out, and it’s commendable that a brand like Skechers is actually using her to promote their products. I hope she can inspire others.”

However, Blah pointed to another key factor that works against someone like Chand: She comes into the spotlight as an athlete only during major events such as the Olympics and Asian Games.

Being gay isn’t the issue

“I don’t think it will be difficult to sell someone like Dutee because she is gay,” he said. “No matter what her sexual orientation is, fans will ultimately look at whether she is performing at the highest level consistently enough. If she performs, her personal story sort of adds to it. Unfortunately, with most Indian athletes, you only see them once every two years. They are not being consumed by the Indian audience as much as the cricketers, or badminton players,” Blah said.

Chand may not be a cricketer or a shuttler, but the lack of interest from sponsors so far is surprising considering she’s got such an incredible story. Five years before her sexual orientation grabbed international headlines, she was at the forefront of the debate surrounding hyperandrogenism, a condition where the female body produces high levels of testosterone.

In 2014, when she was only 18 years old, Chand was banned from competing by the International Association of Athletics Federations because of the condition. However, she appealed against the ban at the court of arbitration for sport in 2015 and won, clearing the way for other athletes with hyperandrogenism to also compete. Chand went on to win the silver medal in, both, the 100-metre and 200-metre races at the 2018 Asian Games.

“There are no rules for men, but for me they check the level of my hormones, body fat, everything,” Chand said. “I will just say that the bodies of all humans are not the same. The bodies of athletes from America and Jamaica are at a different level in terms of development. We [Indians] can’t reach that level.”

From hyperandrogenism to homosexuality, Chand is thankful for the widespread support she has received in India. “I am playing for my country and whatever I do it is for my country,” she said. “The support and good wishes that I have received gives me confidence to keep fighting.”