Gay in India
Activists Brace for a Long Battle
Gully, October 18, 2004
By Mike McPhate
NEW DELHI—When Raju Sharma’s
father discovered his son was gay he got a rope and hung Sharma, 23, by the
ankles from the first floor balcony of their New Delhi flat, and threatened to
kill any neighbor that tried to rescue him.
Sharma says he dangled for an hour before his dad pulled
him up, stripped him naked and tossed him into the street. He stood there
sobbing, covering his genitals with his hands, as onlookers mocked him for
lacking the courage to fight.
That was two months ago. “My father is quiet now,”
says Sharma, a slight man with a lisp and plucked eyebrows. “But the shame
is still there.”
The powerful social stigma that has long kept the
country’s homosexual minority in hiding is not only enforced by family and
neighbors, but even the local police. Last winter, as Ashu Seghal was walking
home, two local officers, stinking of rum, rolled up beside him on a
motorcycle, dragged him by the collar to a nearby police booth, lashed him
with a bamboo stick, beat his head against a wall and finally forced him to
give oral sex—to the tall one first, the one with the pot belly next, he
Seghal, a stern 26-year-old with henna-dyed hair, says
that when he tried to file a complaint, the cops’ superiors threatened to
arrest him under law section 377, which forbids “unnatural acts.” They
told him to forget about it, just consider it a bad dream.
Queer Renaissance Despite social and legal obstacles, a
nascent gay movement has sprouted among India’s middle class during the last
decade. Gay websites and hangouts have proliferated, especially in the capital
New Delhi and the southern city of Bombay. Groups working on gay issues have
grown from only two in 1994 to at least 50 today. And in the summer of 2003,
several dozen activists waved rainbow flags in the streets of Calcutta for the
country’s first queer pride parade.
“There has been a remarkable change,” says Shaleen
Rakesh, director of the gay outreach group Naz Foundation. “Ten years ago
the only option a gay person had was to go to cruising areas—to parks and
public toilets for random, discreet sex. Now there are so many venues, so many
private parties, gay night clubs,” says Rakesh.
Urban gays commonly hold “farm house” parties, for
which a large space is rented, on city outskirts. Several bars in New Delhi
and Bombay now hold gay nights, though they are not often publicized for fear
The west coast city of Bombay has spearheaded much of the
coming out. India’s first gay magazine, Bombay Dost, was launched there in
1989, and last year the city hosted the country’s first gay film festival.
The three-day event, which showcased more than 40 films, was titled “Larzish,”
an Urdu word that means “tremors of a revolution.”
While the movement has not included significant numbers
of lesbians due to the inferior status of women in this mostly Hindu country,
a handful of lesbian groups have arisen. They were spurred in part by the
conservative backlash to the lesbian-themed film “Fire” in 1998. The newly
formed Campaign for Lesbian Rights responded by spearheading an awareness
campaign, marching in the streets of the capital and releasing a report on the
plight of India’s lesbians. There are now at least half a dozen groups
working exclusively on lesbian issues in the country.
Queers and AIDS The gay movement was spurred in part by
the fight against AIDS. With over five million infected, India is second only
to South Africa in total AIDS cases. The Indian government estimates that over
80 percent of HIV transmissions in India occur among heterosexuals, but the
virus has hit gay men hard. A survey this summer in Bombay found that 20
percent of the city’s gay men are HIV-positive.
One of India’s leading gay advocacy groups, The Naz
Foundation, was actually founded in 1994 as an HIV/AIDS outreach organization.
It has grown rapidly adding services like queer support groups, a helpline,
workshops, and advocacy for the gay community.
The visibility of gay men among AIDS activists is used to
attack AIDS programs. A popular columnist, Swapan Dasgupta, last month
cautioned of a “new gay evangelism.” He wrote, “Of particular concern to
many is the possibility of the lavishly funded anti-AIDS campaign being
misused to create a gay network.”
Section 377, the 140-year old law against “unnatural
acts”, often used to harass or silence gay men like police rape victim Ashu
Seghal, is also used against AIDS workers. “It’s an absurd law,” says
Vivek Divan, a gay rights lawyer. “Distributing a condom is like aiding and
abetting a crime.”
To fight AIDS, activists found they had to fight
homophobia, including section 377. Three years ago, two AIDS outreach groups
began a campaign to repeal the law. Government lawyers argued in their
affidavit that “Indian society by and large disapproves of homosexuality . .
. Deletion of the [law] can well open the floodgates of delinquent
behavior,” they warned. In September, India’s High Court rejected the AIDS
groups petition on procedural grounds.
The groups challenging the law are now considering
whether to go to a higher court, assign other allied groups to challenge the
law, or to wait four years and challenge the law again in the same court.
Backlash Conservatives have responded angrily to the new
gay visibility. “[The gay movement] is an abysmal, absurd thing,” says
Navin Sinha, an official with the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party.
“For one thousand years in our culture, those two things you mentioned—I
don’t even want to say the words—they have not been there,” says Sinha,
referring to homosexuality and lesbianism.
Many Indian conservatives see the drive for gay equality
as an attack on the country’s soul with its deeply held traditions of
extended families and arranged marriages. Several push the theory that India
is the victim of a covert queer invasion from the West.
Homosexuality, in fact, has a long history on the
subcontinent. Same-sex relationships are described in ancient Indian texts
like the fourth-century love guide, The Kama Sutra, the classic Hindu saga,
The Ramayana, and medieval Persian and Urdu poetry.
“Homosexuality is not a fashion that can be introduced
from one place to another,” says Ruth Vanita, co-author of “Same Sex Love
in India.” She adds, “It is a facet of human existence, attested in all
societies throughout history.”
Leaders of India’s gay movement say they are bracing
for a long battle. Anti-gay feelings may have hardened for the moment, says
Shaleen Rakesh, of the Naz Foundation, but at least the subject is being
addressed. “Homophobia is better than indifference,” he says. “These
things take time.”
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