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The business of Desire – September 9, 2007

Posted by qmediawatch in Sexuality & Gender, The Hindu, Transgender.

The Business of Desire – Nilanjana Biswas , Sunday Sep 09 2007 

In a world where the inequities of globalisation are often countered by a hardening conservatism, female-to-male transgenders are forced to hide their inclinations. An NGO in Bangalore offers them the chance to be themselves.

It is a rain-whipped August evening in Bangalore. In a public auditorium in the heart of the city, five dancers are on stage. The one in the centre holds a burning lamp. The words of the song, playing to a packed audience, assume a special significan ce as a gust of wind blows in, threatening to extinguish the flame.

Silsila yeh chaahat ka, kabhi bujhne na diya… (This business of desire — I didn’t let it die…)

The song fades, and the lamp still burning brightly, the dancers strike a final pose. The applause is deafening.

What is remarkable about the performance is that all five dancers are transgender people. What is remarkable about the programme is that for the first time in Bangalore’s history, lesbian women, bisexual women and transgender female-to-male people are speaking out to break the silence surrounding their lives. In a society marked by intolerance and stereotype regarding sexuality and gender, they are publicly claiming their right to live with pride and dignity.

Much-needed support


The hosts, LesBIT, a support group for lesbian/ bisexual women and female-to-male transgender people, organised the event to also announce the LesBIT telephone helpline, a multilingual, confidential service open to all women who love or desire women and are confused about their gender or sexuality identity.

If you consider recent trends, the helpline undoubtedly represents a signal service not just for Bangalore but for the entire South. In the last six months, the media in Tamil Nadu reported four cases of lesbian suicides and Kerala has recorded more than 30 such cases in the last 10 years.

According to LesBIT representatives, in the male-dominated Indian society marked by gender violence and discrimination, women have little space to make autonomous choices. When every decision, be it on career, marriage or general conduct, is taken by others, where is the question of a woman expressing her sexual choice? In the context, a woman’s sexual preference for another woman invites swift and often violent reprisal. Families react by either forcing the woman to undergo psychiatric treatment, often involving extreme measures such as shock treatment, or into marriage with a man to “cure” her deviance.

“When I was in school, I fell in love with another girl,” says Gayathri, introducing herself as a lesbian, “When my parents came to know about our relationship, they forced me into marriage with a man. In three months time, the man had started torturing me. After seven years of violence, I ran away.” Today, the abusive marriage firmly behind her, Gayathri is an employee of Sangama, a community-based sexuality rights NGO in Bangalore that supports LesBIT.

While people of so-called alternate sexualities often flee small towns and villages seeking refuge in the anonymity of big cities like Bangalore, here too they face a host of problems. Transgender people encounter particularly high levels of hostility.

Everyday challenges


“We look different,” says Christy, a female-to-male transgender member of LesBIT, “There is a stereotype about how men ought to look and we don’t fit that image. As a result, basic things become a challenge: finding a house or a job or even entering a bus.”

Female-to-male transgender persons are biological women who identify themselves as men and may undergo surgery to change their sex. Their names however often continue to create gender ambiguity. Dressed in men’s clothes, Sonu, a female-to-male transgender person, explains: “My certificates carry a girl’s name and so I am questioned all the time.”

After years of ridicule and repression in her village in Kerala, Sonu ran away to Bangalore to escape the intense pressure to conform. “I am often asked why I am different,” says Sonu. “I don’t know. I only know that I too eat, drink, sleep and work just as all human beings do. I too have a right to be recognised as a human being. Accept me as I am.”

Conflicting expectations of role and reality manifest themselves in the form of growing anxiety, stress, sleeplessness and other psychological symptoms. This is in addition to a growing list of physical disorders because the expression of alternate sexuality consigns people to the margins of society and often to a life of poverty.

Julie, a lesbian from Kerala, fell in love with a girl in school. The families found out and for seven years the two were separated. Unable to tolerate the separation, they decided to elope. The families then lodged a complaint with the police and also filed a court case. When the judge ordered their separation, the two attempted suicide by jumping off the roof of a tall building. They survived and the case came up again before the court. This time, however, the ruling was in their favour. But living together was far from easy.

“We were reduced to a beggars’ life,” said Julie, “Our families had disowned us and we took shelter wherever we could — under parked lorries and on street pavements. We faced absolute poverty, health problems and mental instability.” Finally, a friend intervened and brought them to Bangalore where, with Sangama’s help, they could start a new life together.

Will to survive


To Lysander’s observation that the course of true love never did run smooth, a modern-day Hermia might add: “Too same to be engaged to same”! In testimony after testimony, however, what stood out was the expression of an indomitable will to survive and the refusal to yield to hostile circumstances.

The hostility to alternate sexualities, LesBIT activists say, is a modern phenomenon. Evidence of lesbian, bisexual and transgender relationships can be found in Vedic literature, tantra, Sufi poetry, and in the ancient sculptures o f Konark and Khajuraho. The criminalisation of gay, lesbian and transgender sexuality is, however, a product of the Victorian morality of British colonialism. What is interesting is that while homosexual marriages are today legally recognised in the United Kingdom, they continue to be criminalised in India.

Silencing difference


The cultural representation of sexuality minorities in the media is also far from sympathetic. Barring a few instances, newspapers generally ignore their everyday struggles, picking up only sensational cases such as suicides or elopement. This, together with the routine valorisation of heterosexual intimacy in films and advertising, works to shame, exclude, marginalise and silence sexuality minorities.

While the response to sexuality minorities is gut-level discomfort, some argue that such prejudices are only increasing in the growing climate of intolerance of every type of difference: religious or cultural. The role of the Rightwing as a self-appointed moral brigade is particularly worrisome. In fact, as globalisation creates inequalities across countries, regions, communities and sexes, the counterforce is alarmingly the global hardening of fundamentalisms that prescribe strictly traditional roles for the sexes, treating any departure as intolerable deviance. Women’s sexual autonomy, whose control feminists believe lies at the heart of gender exploitation, is placed firmly in chains.

While the challenges before lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are multiple and must be continually addressed, no doubt an important first step has been taken — the breaking of an oppressive silence.

The Bangalore-based LesBIT telephone helpline works for two days in a week: Saturdays (11.30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and Sundays (11.30 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Contact LesBIT at 080-23439124.






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