Last edited: November 29, 2004

Indian Culture Keeps Many in the Closet

Homosexuality still taboo in India, communities abroad

The Argus, November 29, 2004,1413,83~1971~2564709,00.html#

By Sarita Tukaram, Correspondent

On a quiet Friday night two years ago, “Sonia” left her husband for good. She then drove to a Bay Area nightclub and, five minutes later, left with a woman.

“For years, I had driven by this club on my way to work and always wondered what it was like inside. That night, I went in, got a girl and left,” said Sonia, who is lesbian and came out to her Indian family after being married for more than a decade.

“Don’t use my real name or anything that will identify me,” she said, agreeing to speak only if her name was changed. “My life’s on the line here. If my family learns that I spoke to a journalist, they will be outraged.”

The Indian government warns of life imprisonment for homosexuals, and Indian society shuns them. Support groups have sprouted in big cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, but homosexuality is still taboo in India and among the Indian community abroad.

“This makes coming out a very difficult choice (for homosexuals) because it brings with it a lot of discrimination and social stigma,” said Prabha Nagaraja, programs manager at TARSHI, a Delhi-based telephone help-line that offers counseling on reproductive and sexual issues.

Sonia first realized she was different when she was 12 or 13. Growing up in a middle-class Punjabi family in Northern California, she did not dare to discuss.

“How could I? I am Indian,” said Sonia.

“You’re not supposed to have these feelings.”

Sonia is typical of the many homosexual South Asian Indians living in California, or in America, for that matter. The 2000 Census puts the state in second place after New York with 451 gay couples, indicating the race of the main householder alone.

But the real number is probably higher, given many are closet homosexuals. Despite living in the shadow of San Francisco, many suppress their desires and grudgingly bow to cultural norms, while others come out and court rejection.

Sonia did both. Convinced she was being a “good daughter” by keeping her homosexuality a secret, Sonia agreed to a marriage her family had arranged. “There was no question of marrying a woman, so I married this man,” she said. “I thought I could live with him, have children and do all the things most Indian women did.”

She did all of that—cooked for her husband, kept the house and had children, but “he just did not seem happy with me.”

One night, she decided to leave him. After having hidden her sexual preference for years, Sonia decided to come out to her family—parents, husband and in-laws. “I was really tired. I didn’t want to hide it anymore,” she said. Her family’s response did not shock her. “They just did not reply. Not a word. It’s like it never happened.”

That’s a battle Hrishikesh Sathawane seems to have won.

“My parents have come around now,” said 30-year-old Hrishikesh, an Indian-born homosexual who came out five years ago. “Initially it was very difficult to get them to understand who I was and what I wanted.”

Hrishikesh, a Bay Area resident, first realized he was gay during his undergraduate years in India. “But I did not have the courage to accept it,” he said.

It was only after he came to the United States to pursue a master’s degree that Hrishikesh came to terms with his sexuality.

His sister was the first to know and “was very supportive.” But his parents did not take the news well. “They felt it was a phase that would pass,” he said, “and even suggested I was possessed by a spirit.”

His parents also tried to emotionally blackmail him into marriage.

References to not being able to have his own children were repeatedly made. But he learned to respond to his mother in the same vein—through blackmail. “What if I had a partner who was not Indian?” he would ask. “Or worse, what if I had no partner?”

Yet, the pressure to marry persisted, stemming only from the need to bow to social norms.

“After marriage, you can do what you want. The girl will adjust,” she had said. But Hrishikesh refused outright.

“Life in India, unlike in the U.S., is very rigid and set. You study, grow up, get married and have children.

“Step out of this line, and the society pounces on you,” he said. “It’s different here in America.”

Junoon doesn’t quite agree. “Before I came to the U.S., I had heard it was a culturally diverse, very accepting country, but I have found this to be just big talk,” said the Nigerian-born Junoon, who is a transgender and performs as a drag king. Junoon Walla, meaning The Passionate One, is his stage name.

This country, too, has a long, long way to go, he added, referring to the many instances of discrimination he has faced in America. “There is a lot of talk and support for gays and lesbians—the L’s and G’s,” he said. “One never hears about the B’s (bisexual) and T’s (transgender).”

Growing up in Pakistan, Junoon, a biological woman, spent most of his time playing with boys, refused to dress like a girl and insisted on cutting his hair short.

“I’d be miserable in a salwar-kameez (a traditional dress for girls),” he said of the few occasions he was forced to dress like a girl. “When my mother stopped cutting my hair as I grew older, I would cut it myself, and this upset her very much,” he added.

When he decided to come to America in 1997 to pursue a master’s degree, Junoon hoped these pressures would end. But they did not.

“The U.S. has been a disappointment,” said Junoon who now works in the Bay Area. “Often, people (who know I am transgender) snicker when they walk past me.”

Using into a restroom is a nightmare for Junoon, who looks and dresses like a man. I say hi’ or make some stupid remark when I enter a restroom so that other women can hear my feminine voice and feel reassured, said Junoon.

Tired of fighting this discrimination, Junoon plans to settle in Canada, which he believes is more accepting. “I know the cost of living is higher there, but I’d forgo a few dollars for some peace of mind,” he said.

For others such as Sonia, who are fighting against their cultural identities and traditions, moving to another country may not solve their problems. “I am tired of being the good daughter and feeling miserable,” Sonia said. “I just wish I (weren’t) Indian.” 

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