No more queer pressure, only gay abandon.
July 27, 2003
This movement is gaining support, finds our correspondent Georgina L.
A gorgeous young sardar dressed in tight lycra shorts, leather boots and a
black tank top, displays his taut midriff. A diaphanous beaded chunni,
attached to his pagdi, sways with him to Kaanta Laga. His buff friend (he
could well be a promising catch for any Punjabi kudi) encircles his waist and
whispers something that draws peals of laughter from our queen.
Meanwhile, a cute butch-dyke, dressed in the ‘traditional’ black shirt
and trousers, has convinced her ultra-fem girlfriend to dance. As they move to
the music, one forgets that this party is bang in the heart of Mumbai’s
conservative Lower Parel mill area. Unimaginable perhaps a few years ago,
today it’s very real. Pubs and discotheques in Delhi and Kolkata are not far
behind. Many have ‘gay nights’ at least once a week.
The lycra leg-shaking is of course the more flamboyant side of gay
visibility. The more down-to-earth picture includes years of public
demonstrations, lobbying and seminars by the community, which is estimated to
make up four per cent of the population.
‘Mother figure’ Ashok Row Kavi, founder member of Mumbai’s Humsafar
Trust, the first queer organisation recognised by the government, reasons:
“It’s not like the gay population has increased! We’re just more visible
now. We will always be a minority.” But it’s now a minority with a louder
voice. Many have chosen to break their silence and have taken to the streets
to demonstrate for their rights, like last month’s Walk On The Rainbow march
in Kolkata, to commemorate Stonewall, the pathbreaking 1969 protest in the US.
No longer camera shy, marching drag queens posed happily for the media.
Others, like Mumbai journalist Nitin Karani, have come out several times on TV
and in mainstream publications.
“The overall language has changed from being just about sexual minorities
to talking about sexuality rights,” says Delhi-based Pramada Menon of CREA,
an NGO working on sexual rights issues.
Of course, it’s still illegal to be gay in India—Section 377 of the
Indian Penal Code says ‘unnatural intercourse’ is a punishable offence. We
are obviously far from pathbreaking legislation like the recent Lawrence vs
Texas ruling, affirming gay privacy.
But the media has been foregrounding queer visibility a lot recently. Be it
a serial on TV, like Will & Grace, or films like Fire, Mango Souffle,
Summer In My Veins, Ashq, Gulabi Aaina or even a front-page news item on Goa-based
designer Wendell Rodrick’s commitment ceremony after 20 years with his
partner Jerome, all reaffirm a queer presence.
The Internet is another tool that has opened up new spaces for sexual
minorities. A virtual space that lends itself to networking, it has been a
boon to the queer community. Just the number of websites itself is a sign of
encouragement—www.gaydelhi.com, www.gaybombay.cc, www.bombay-dost.com,
www.sangini.org and email@example.com—to name a few.
These websites balance serious issues with trivia, art, agony aunt columns
and chat groups on everything from films to lingerie. They serve the purpose
of a virtual community that gives newcomers anonymity until they’re ready to
If one were to go by the recent launch of author R Raj Rao’s book, The
Boyfriend, one would say that even mainstream spaces are opening up to the
queer crowd. The event, at Mumbai’s trendy Oxford Bookstore, was attended by
the likes of top model Milind Soman (who got many hugs from doting gay boys)
and theatre person Dolly Thakore who expressed their support for Rao both as a
writer and a gay activist. The book itself—a frank and unpretentious
narrative of a gay man’s life in Mumbai—is a breakthrough for gay
literature. “It could be a day in the life of any one of us,” said
Mohammed Yunus, co-ordinator at Humsafar.
Pune’s Rao has Saturday afternoons reserved for the Queer Studies Circle
where friends gather to discuss gay literature. Often members travel all over
the country and abroad for seminars and discussions on gay issues.
“We’ve had Thomas Waugh, who is a professor of film studies at
Concordia University, Montreal, Canada give us a ‘queer’ interpretation on
Ketan Mehta’s Holi, about a boy who was sexually different,” says Rao,
adding that Indian critics who’d analysed the film had glossed over the fact
that the boy, who takes his life in the end, was ragged because he was
Delhi-based Sangini Trust has also made its initiation into films, its
latest venture being the financing of Kashish, a queer film made by directors
Meenakshi and Vinay Rai. The movie deals with the discovery, denial, and
finally, acceptance of love between two women, played by Deepti and Meenakshi
Rai. The film will soon be screened in Mumbai and Pune.
Activist Shalini, one of the founder members of Stree Sangam, believes that
politically, the film Fire was a break-point for the queer movement in India.
“When the Shiv Sena banned the film in 1998, it generated much debate all of
which was well reported in the media,” says Shalini, who has actively
lobbied for gay rights since she came out to her parents in ‘93.
“Importantly, it was not just people from within the community who were
registering their dissent but everyday, middle-class folk,” she adds.
Alok Gupta, a lawyer and activist, points out that so far the dissent that
has been registered is mainly of a privileged class. “India can no longer
assert rights with a handful in the open speaking on behalf of hundreds. We
have to take that extra step towards exposure,” he says.
And Sangini has been making that extra effort by spreading the message to
the south and the east.
“Kolkata’s historical and political context seems to have created a
more conducive environment for sexual identities. In fact, the oldest gay
group in India—the Counsel Club—is based in Kolkata,” says Maya Shanker,
co-ordinator for Sangini. “Lesbian organisation Sappho, active since ‘99,
has a strong membership. They even advertise themselves as a support group for
lesbians,” says Betu Singh, honorary director of Sangini.
Some educational institutes are now open to talk about sexual politics, but
they’re still cautious about homosexuality. Prof P G Jogdand, head of
department of Sociology, University of Mumbai, believes “one shouldn’t
barricade homosexuals from coming out”. He adds, “Our society only accepts
things that are convenient and suit its way of thinking and functioning.”
Others like M G Shirhatti, principal, Lala Lajpatrai College of Commerce and
Economics, Haji Ali, Mumbai, go further. “If someone comes to me with a
dilemma regarding coming out, I’d explain the pros and cons but leave the
final decision to him/her,” says Shirhatti.
Retired Pune-based Assistant Commissioner of Police, Sharad Awasthee, would
beg to differ. “Homosexuality is 100 per cent against nature. It is a
momentary pleasure-seeking device and there is no need for it.”
Still others like Nazrul Islam, (DIG, West Bengal police), who take a more
neutral stand say, “According to the law, it is a punishable offence. As a
policeman, if I get a complaint against a couple of people indulging in gay
activity I’ll have to take action. But personally, I am not anti-gay. If two
people reside somewhere together and do not create a law and order problem,
why should the police disturb them? It’s a decision made by two consenting
adults and society should not interfere in it.”
While non-interference is a desirable reaction, denial isn’t. Despite
‘coming out’ several times in the media, including on a show on Sony TV
called Open House and despite being featured in a Mumbai tabloid, Karani
finds, “Until now, my parents pretend no one really understood what I said
on TV or in the news. None of my relatives are dying to tell me how they read
about me being gay—it’s like don’t ask, don’t tell. But I won’t let
people sweep the issue under the carpet.”
Twenty-seven-year old Sabha faced a different kind of denial. “It took me
a long time to admit that I’d fallen in love with a woman. I’ve been in
love with men and never really thought about the possibility of being
bisexual,” she says. But that was until she met Chatura Patil, her partner
who currently runs the Hamjinsi helpline at the Human Rights Centre in South
Mumbai. Now though she doesn’t talk about it, it’s a relief to know her
parents are aware of her choice.
As part of a Hamjinsi and GayBombay outreach programme, Chatura went to
leading universities in Mumbai to speak to students about the diverse ways in
which love is experienced and expressed. “We went with pamphlets, postcards
and badges and the response was amazing! Most of the students felt everyone
was entitled to be themselves, as long as they did not violate anybody
else’s rights,” she says.
Artist-activist Tejal Shah, who has based much of her work on her
experiences of being queer, believes that while ‘mainstreamising’ is
important for the community, “Queer relations don’t fall into the center
of heterosexual binaries. Our lifestyles are different and one has to keep
that in mind when lobbying for rights. We don’t need to duplicate mainstream
acts like marriage.”
- With inputs from Suman Mishra/Delhi, Sabyasachi; Bandhopadhyay/Kolkata,
Sweta; Ramanujan/Mumbai; and Preeti Raghunathan/Pune
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