India’s Gays See Small Improvement in Cultural Outlets
Tribune, September 10, 2003
435 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60611
Marriage-conscious society mostly frowns, but
homosexuals are finding a club here and a movie there that accepts them.
It’s a ‘sea change,’ says one.
By Vanessa Gezari, Special to the Tribune
NEW DELHI—Under purple strobe
lights, a man in a sleeveless T-shirt with “Daddy” on the front
slow-dances with a long-haired guy in a tight seersucker blouse. At the bar, a
slender man in a tie-dyed shirt whispers into the ear of his muscular friend,
who wears iridescent green sunglasses despite the darkness of the room.
In shadowy corners, under the stairs and behind the
half-open door of the women’s bathroom, men embrace, taking advantage of the
relative safety of the Indian capital’s only gay nightclub to meet and
flirt. Others, unable to forget the stigma attached to homosexuality in India,
sit alone at tables, eyeing the men on the dance floor with a mixture of
admiration and anxiety.
“If my family knew I was here, they’d kill me,”
said Samir Agarwal, a 25-year-old businessman who attended the weekly gay
night at Pegs N’ Pints, a New Delhi club, recently. “In India, if a family
knows their child is gay, it creates a big chaos. Gays and lesbians are not
acceptable. It’s a matter of shame, a matter of embarrassment.”
In traditional India, where marriage is life’s most
important event and no family is complete without children and grandchildren,
homosexuality is rarely acknowledged, let alone accepted. But increasingly,
gay Indians are meeting in Internet chat rooms, organizing marches, hosting
parties and showing up at support groups, generating a wave of activism that
is bringing the gay community into public view.
“It’s been like a sea change,” said Shaan Thadhani,
25, a fashion designer who returned to India recently after several years in
Britain and attended the gay dance session at Pegs N’ Pints, which is a bar
catering to heterosexuals six nights a week and a gay club only on Tuesdays.
“Before I went to London, we never had this. We had one support group. The
scene here is very new.”
In the last year, the Bombay-based Indian film industry,
known as Bollywood, has released several movies featuring gay characters,
including “Mango Souffle” in which two male characters skinny dip in a
Activist writes novel
“The Boyfriend,” a novel published this year by
Indian college professor and gay activist R. Raj Rao, offers what may be the
most detailed account yet of gay life in Bombay, exploring the relationship
between a journalist and his lover, who is an untouchable, a member of
India’s lowest caste.
Neither the films nor the book have generated the level
of controversy that surrounded “Fire,” a 1998 film about two women falling
in love that drew angry protests from the Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu group.
Lesbians are even less prominent than gay men in India,
in part because of the “basic inequalities” that hamper women in most
aspects of life here, said Geeta Kumana, chairwoman of Aanchal Trust, a
lesbian group in Bombay.
In June, about 35 men, many wearing jewelry and lipstick,
took part in a rare gay pride march in Calcutta. The Internet, which is easily
accessible in India, has given the gay community a relatively safe way to
connect, while at the same time exposing young people to the more permissive
cultures of the West.
“The Internet has changed so much for the gay
community,” said Shaleen Rakesh, an activist with Naz Foundation Trust, a
Delhi-based group that works on HIV/AIDS and sexual health issues. “The way
society, even in Delhi, has changed in the last four or five years, people are
so much more open to the issue of sexuality, and it’s so much easier to talk
about sexuality and being gay.”
Activists from Naz, which runs a clinic for people with
HIV and AIDS, recently went to court in an attempt to repeal India’s law
against homosexuality. Under the law, enacted by the British in 1860,
“carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is punishable by life
imprisonment or up to 10 years in jail and a fine.
In India, where there are an estimated 4 million people
with HIV and the number is expected to surge in the years to come, police have
used the law to justify harassment and detention of AIDS outreach workers. A
report by New York-based Human Rights Watch said “police abuse” has
sometimes prevented workers from handing out condoms and information to
sexually active gay men.
The Humsafar Trust, a gay non-governmental organization
in Bombay, offers workshops in how to hide condoms “because if you’re
caught with a condom by the police at night, you can be badly beaten up,”
said Ashok Row Kavi, chairman of Humsafar’s board. “We teach men to hide
them in socks, in wallets.”
Rakesh said the court appears to favor getting rid of the
law against homosexual activity. But on Monday, the government submitted a
strongly worded affidavit suggesting that efforts to repeal the law should be
directed at parliament, not the court, and that the law should remain in place
because “Indian society by and large disapproves of homosexuality.”
“Deletion of the [law] can well open the flood gates of
delinquent behavior and be misconstrued as providing unbridled license for the
same,” the affidavit said. Naz activists have three months to file a
Gay activists say that many gay men in India are married
and have children. Yadavendra Singh, 27, said that although he is committed to
leading a gay life, the pressure from his family to marry has been too strong
to ignore. When he told his sister he was gay, she said it was “not
possible” and advised him to meditate, he said.
Drum beat to marriage
Soon afterward, his family began pressing him to marry,
sending the relatives of single women to meet him and arrange a match, as is
commonly done in India. Singh sought help from a gay-rights group in Delhi,
which suggested an alternative: he could marry a lesbian, placating both their
parents and allowing them freedom to pursue relationships with others.
Through gay support groups, he met a young woman who
agreed to the plan. They are to be married in March.
“I told my parents it was a love affair, and that I had
been with the girl for the last four years,” Singh said. “Now my mom is
OK, [and she says] ‘My son is not gay. He’s marrying a girl.’”
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