BBC News – Fear and Loathing in Gay India May 23, 2005Posted by qmediawatch in BBC News, English, Homophobia.
BBC Series – Soutik Biswas
Throughout South Asia, homosexuality has been a taboo subject. There are signs in some areas that gay people are now becoming more open in their behaviour. In the first of a series of articles from the region, the BBC’s Soutik Biswas looks at gay life in India. She is a qualified computer professional and works in a government job, but has been forced to live a double life for many years now.
At work, she uses her true name. Outside, she uses a nom de guerre, heading a support group for lesbians, bisexuals and transgender communities. She lives with her partner – who lives a similar double life – in an apartment in the eastern city of Calcutta they bought together with a bank loan after fighting for one for six years.
“When we went to the bank for the first time to get a loan, I was told I could not put down my partner as a co-applicant. It had to be a spouse. Finally, last year, the bank relented. I put down my partner as a friend,” says Malobika, 41.
It has been a long, strange trip towards coming out of the closet for lesbians like Malobika in conservative India, where same-sex relationships are illegal and almost blasphemous. The 145-year-old colonial Indian Penal Code clearly describes a same sex relationship as an “unnatural offence”.
| These days, there is a greater openness about the gay community in the big cities. But homophobia is still pretty rampant
Rafiquel Haque, gay activist
In a largely patriarchal society, lesbians bear the brunt of social ostracisation and the law more than gay men. In many states, lesbians have taken their lives after facing harassment at home and outside.Malobika and her friends have been luckier – “We are educated and have a class advantage,” as one of them says.
Born to a mechanical engineer father and a homemaker mother, Malobika discovered her sexuality when she was 17. Some 18 years later, when her parents were frantically looking around for a suitable groom, she finally told them the truth.”My mother said she did not understand what I was saying. It took some time for the whole thing to sink in,” she said, sitting in a smoky teashop in downtown Calcutta.
Five years ago, Malobika along with five other lesbians started up a support group called Sappho named after the Greek lyric poet.They run a helpline, publish a magazine and take up cases of human rights abuses.
The helpline has become their window to the dark world of Indian lesbians. Most of the women who call in say they have been forcibly married off by their parents. When they tell the truth, they are thrown out of their homes by their spouses, parents and relatives. Most of these hapless women suffer from extremely low esteem and say that something is gravely wrong with them. “Am I normal? Am I like other women? Tell me please,” asks an anguished caller on the Sappho helpline.
A panicky man asks, “My wife says she is a lesbian. Can you please cure her?” Sappho has a psychiatrist on the line, who counsels these panicky women – and men. Homophobia, say support groups, is acute in India. Malobika says when parents find out – or the girl tells them – the truth, they run to the doctor.
“The doctor typically tells the girl to swim, cook and knit. ‘That way she will become a girl again,’ they say.”The parents then usually take the girl home and shut her up, cutting her off from the outside world.” Many girls from the villages escape to the big city after being thrown out of their homes.
Malobika remembers one 28-year-old girl who ran away to Calcutta to be with her partner and take up a job in a beauty parlour. Four years later, her estranged parents came to visit her – and since then have accepted the relationship. In big cities like Calcutta, there is slightly more acceptance of same sex relationships these days. As in other parts of the world, India has seen a growing gay and lesbian movement.
“These days, there is a greater openness about the gay community in the big cities. But homophobia is still pretty rampant,” says Rafiquel Haque, 31, a theatre actor and gay rights activist.This means that when bright, young men like Rafiquel decide to come out of the closet and begin talking to the media, they lose some friends. One reason is that gay behaviour is also regarded as sexually predatory.
Rafiquel says he was friends with a “liberal” artist couple and their only son – till they saw him on a television show on gay issues. “The moment they came to know I was gay they stopped talking. They stopped their son from meeting me. His mother told me, ‘If my son becomes like you, I will commit suicide’.” Coming out of the closet, however, is easier now: the eastern West Bengal state alone has some nine gay and lesbian support groups.
Rafiquel, who was instrumental in setting up one in 1993, says they reached out to 5,000 gay men in the state within three years.Two years ago, he organised a same sex mardi gras in Calcutta. Since then it has become a regular yearly event. Plays on gay issues are staged, members debate community issues, and books and journals are sold at this merry fortnight-long carnival.
It climaxes with a colourful march through the streets of Calcutta – last year as many 300 gays, lesbians and transgender people participated in the march.But life is still not easy even for a gay man in India – he usually faces derision at work, and struggles to find a partner. Most gay men usually cruise darkly lit streets and unkempt parks and often get picked up by police looking for bribes.
“It’s not easy to meet a partner. I still don’t have a lasting partner. It can be very lonely sometimes,” says Pavan Dhal, 36, who heads a support group. “There’s also a lot of risky sexual behaviour. Its not a very happy situation that way”.