Last edited: January 02, 2005

Closet Drama

Far Eastern Economic Review, October 3, 2002
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Caught between harsh laws and cultural conservativeness, Indian gays often lead lives of frightened secrecy. But now hopes are high they may be on the brink of a legal breakthrough.

By Jason Overdorf

NEW DELHI—"How do i look?" asks Prafulla, a 24-year-old Bengali man. He is wearing a red skirt garlanded with purple nasturtiums and a gold silk shirt, beneath which a black bra is clearly visible. He has wrapped a black headscarf around his head in a turban unlike any Sikh’s, and around that he has tied a fluorescent print headband. Doubt furrows his brow. "Are you sure you are comfortable with this?" he asks me.

Tonight’s underground party on the outskirts of New Delhi is one of the rare places where it is safe for Prafulla (who asked not to be identified by his real name) and his three friends to dress in drag. Spraying himself liberally with perfume in a beauty parlour in one of city’s poorer districts, he explains that the four homosexual men always wear dresses when they go to Delhi’s gay parties. "It is our only opportunity," he shrugs.

Homosexuals are still liable to prosecution under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits "unnatural offences" or "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." The penalty for the offence is a prison term of between 10 years and life. Consenting adults are almost never taken to court; there have been fewer than half a dozen cases, and most of those were before India won independence. But the threat of prosecution and exposure makes for rampant police abuse, say activists. That not only causes India’s estimated 50 million gay men to live in fear, it also hampers the fight against Aids. Nearly 4 million Indians were HIV-positive as of 2001, and Aids still claims more than 100,000 new victims a year, according to India’s National Aids Control Organization.

"We noticed . . . that there was a lot of harassment . . . by goondas—that’s professional hoodlums—as well as by the police," says Shaleen Rakesh of the Naz Foundation, a group that has been working with gay men to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids since 1994. "That was a problem for us, because when we’re talking of HIV/Aids work, then we need spaces where we can talk about these issues without fear, spaces where the community does not feel vulnerable." Documented cases of harassment include not only extortion but also illegal detentions and physical and verbal abuse by police. Naz, which means "pride" in Hindi, also found that police and hoodlums were harassing their own outreach workers: In one case police even jailed workers from another organization for promoting so-called unnatural sex.

"The law is the law," says Dr. Kiran Bedi, joint commissioner of training for the Delhi police. "The police do not have discretion." On the other hand, she adds, "The police have no business asking for money."

But culpable or not, officers have little reason to fear disciplinary action as long as the men they target remain afraid to lodge complaints. Which is why Naz last year petitioned the government to amend Section 377 to legalize consensual homosexual sex between adults, arguing that the law violates articles of the Indian constitution that guarantee the right to life, privacy and free speech. The government has been stonewalling, but the court has proven to be encouragingly sensitive on the matter, says Rakesh, coordinator of the division of Naz that brought the petition. On August 26, India’s High Court refused to accept the state’s argument that changing the law is inappropriate because homosexuality goes against "the morality in society as a whole." Saying that the issue "could not just be brushed aside," the bench instructed the government to file its response to the petition by November 27, the third and last such deadline.

Those comments from the judiciary had "an enormous impact on morale" in the gay community, says Rakesh, and made Naz hopeful that it could get a final ruling by as early as next year. That would be lightning speed for India’s slow-moving courts. Legal experts warn, though, that the court is unlikely to rule on the petition before it receives a response from the state, even if that means extending its supposedly final deadline. Still, all acknowledge the importance of this incremental step, which demonstrates the court’s commitment to a resolution and which gay activists see as a hint of sympathy with their cause.

India owes its anti-sodomy law to the British. Indeed, many other former British colonies in the region—Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka—still have pre-independence anti-sodomy laws in place. In India, though, Hinduism’s treatment of sexuality was traditionally more nuanced. The friezes on some of the country’s important old monuments are homoerotic, and though there are proscriptions against homosexuality in the Hindu texts, "they are much milder than those against inter-caste marriage," says Saleem Kidwai, who co-edited Same Sex Love in India, an anthology of homosexual writing.

But modern Hindu fundamentalists and Indian society at large vehemently oppose homosexuality. Until that changes, gay men and women who are persecuted will have little recourse to redress. The Naz Foundation has already lodged a formal complaint on behalf of one member of the community with the National Human Rights Commission, only to be told it is impossible for one body of the government to guarantee rights to individuals whom another body considers criminals.

The effects of the repressive atmosphere are evident at the party that Prafulla and his friends are attending on New Delhi’s outskirts. The group of 20 or so organizers are used to dealing with the authorities, but tonight they are especially worried. To hold a party for as many as 200 guests takes a serious investment, in this case an outlay of 60,000 rupees ($1,250) to hire a venue and buy food and drink. Normally the police are satisfied with a nominal bribe, sometimes as little as a bottle or two of booze. But tonight someone has spread the word via anonymous text-messages that there is to be a raid by the media and police. Local journalists have already arrived unexpectedly, carrying press-release-style invitations that were mysteriously faxed to them.

Inside the iron gates, drag queens greet each other with enthusiastic air-kisses and younger men at relative ease with their sexual nature chat casually around the swimming pool and dance floor. But 40-year-old men with the moustaches, paunches and polo shirts that distinguish India’s conservative middle class stand awkwardly on the party’s fringes. It is a future that few of the younger set wish to contemplate. The older men represent the reality of life for the vast majority of Indian homosexuals: Only a tiny minority of Indian gays express their sexual nature openly, say activists, and most are compelled by their families to marry and raise children.

For gays living in the countryside or in impoverished communities, life is still harder. There is little access to information about homosexuality and few opportunities to establish even a furtive gay lifestyle. Many turn to prostitution or join forces with bands of eunuchs. Some even submit to castration. Lesbians face as great or greater obstacles.

Prafulla’s experience indicates the impact that access to information can have. "Until I joined Naz, I thought I might have some disease. I didn’t know what I was. Now [the meaning of] gay is very clear to me," he says.

"But still my family doesn’t know. The day my parents decided I had to get married, I sat up all night worrying, thinking I should run away." Naturally, he had serious reservations, but in his case marriage turned out to be less difficult to manage than he’d feared. "I had the misconception that I wouldn’t be able to keep my wife happy, both physically and mentally. But I am finding it quite easy. My wife doesn’t know about me, either. I want to tell her. She’s my life partner."

By 2 a.m., the party is jumping and the police have arrived. This time, perhaps because of the unknown saboteur’s faxed publicity campaign, it is impossible to put them off. Someone overhears a policeman discussing a false report of shots fired. One of the organizers gives the order to cut the generator, so that the revellers can slip away in the dark. Some of the men who have stripped down to their underwear and jumped in the swimming pool now scramble over the walls half-naked, running and hiding like the criminals that they are under India’s law.

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