Last edited: December 05, 2004

India’s Gays See Small Improvement in Cultural Outlets

Chicago Tribune, September 10, 2003
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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 pool.

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 response.

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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