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Lesbians forced to live in anonymity in India April 29, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in Lesbian, Television.
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http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/story.aspx?id=NEWEN20080048221

Shai Venkatraman

Tuesday, April 29, 2008 (New Delhi)

In the US, lesbian talk show host Ellen Degenres created history as the country’s topmost television star.

But in India, in Tamil Nadu, transgender athlete Shanthi attempted suicide because she was constantly humiliated about her sexuality.

In a more progressive Kerala, lesbian suicides continue to be on the rise but their police still write them off as ordinary deaths. To this day, sexual minorities in India, especially women are outcastes, shunned by
society even their own families.

In the anonymity of our cities, they still find spaces to blend in. But in rural India, coming out means violence, brutality and even death.

Travelling from Gujarat to Karnataka NDTV heard stories of transgenders, bisexuals and lesbians – some visible, most invisible.

Julie met Rekha when she was thirteen years old. Both of them belong to lower middle class families of a village in Kerala. They were classmates and good friends.

Over the years their relationship grew stronger. What was a sturdy emotional bond was spilling into lust and longing.

Feelings they were unable to fathom. Until one day Julie wrote her heart out in a letter and gave it to Rekha.

But even as teenagers they instinctively knew that nobody would understand. So, they kept meeting as friends. Until Julie’s mother stumbled upon the truth.

”One day my mother saw us sharing the same cup of tea. Later she saw us making love. She found our love letters under my mattress. She beat me up, accused my partner of trapping me. We could not bear to be parted, and we ran away from home,” said Julie, NGO worker.

An NGO called Sangamma in a lower middle class Muslim neighbourhood in Bangalore gave shelter to Julie and Rekha in March 2005.

”Our prime focus has been lower middle class, poor men and women who are not educated. Class definitely gives a certain privilege when it comes to making a choice. We have reached out to people who don’t even know who they are when they come here,” said Sumati, Activist, Sangamma.

Sangamma’s special women’s wing LesBIT reaches out to lesbians – women who love women, bisexuals, women who are attracted to both men and women and female to male transgenders, who are born women but wish to be men.

Many of them want to undergo sex change surgeries. But each surgery costs nearly Rs 10 lakh. So, they dress and act as men.

*Another touching story*

Twenty-two-year old Christy was an abandoned girl child who was adopted by a eunuch. From an early age, she felt more comfortable with boys preferring to dress in pants and shirts.

A choice she never questioned until she fell in love with a hijra – a male to female transgender, who was her mother’s friend. She was just twelve.

She fought her feelings, deeply confused and tormented.

”I had so many questions. Am I alone? Are there others like me? I tried to suppress these thoughts. It was only later when I came to Sangamma I realised I that there are others like me. I accepted myself,” said Christy, activist.

But his family has rejected him. His mother, a hijra despite her struggles with her own sexual identity has kept no contact with him.

”My mother knows I am here, but she has made no effort to get in touch with me,” said Christy, activist.

One day Christy hopes he will have enough resources to undergo a sex change surgery.

Stories of Julie, Christy and Rekha are the stories of the voiceless gender in India.

They are branded as imports of the morally lax West, a refuge of urban minds with too much money and education.

A perception that groups working for sexual minorities in India had to fight even within the larger women’s movement.

”Five years ago there was this programme to hold a woman’s rally on March 8. All women’s groups were supposed to march, including lesbian groups. But the bigger groups like AIDWA said no you cannot take your banner and march because that will kind of divert people’s attention from the real issues we want to focus on,” said Menaka, lecturer.

A mindset, Maya Sharma, set out to challenge when she began working on her book, *Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India*.

The book through one-on-one interviews documents the lives of ten working class lesbian women in northern India.

”What I found was that women had created spaces for one another. The women I interviewed had met during marriages, or while celebrating festivals like Holi or even while travelling. Of course they were under pressure for different reasons like no state recognition. So they cannot live together. But that women are invisible and therefore unhappy, well there is another side,” said Maya Sharma, author.

*Accepting oneself*

To openly choose alternate sexuality often means exposing one’s vulnerability to the world.

But it’s a risk Mala, a female to male transgender, who lives in a town in south east Gujarat, chose to take. Orphaned when she was eleven years old, Mala was raised by her grandmother.

She always felt attracted to women but kept it a secret because she knew her family would not accept it.

But when she turned sixteen, she found a job and became financially independent. It was time her to come out to the world.

”I wanted to be independent, a woman who could do whatever she wanted and experience the freedom my grandmother had never allowed me. I wanted to express the man inside of me,” said Mala, auto workshop supervisor.

Today, Mala is 22 and works as a supervisor in a two-wheeler workshop. At home, her grandmother constantly pressurises her to dress like a girl and get married. And at the workplace she has had to face worse.

”A customer came to the workshop. He thought I was a boy. My co-worker told him. ”Don’t you know, it’s a girl you are talking to”. And the customer said, ”Is that so? I must check her now”. I was shocked, speechless. But I could say nothing because he was a customer,” said Mala, auto workshop supervisor.

They encounter anger, pain and shame even in big cities where there is greater access to anonymity and private spaces.

”There was once a note from some guy which was slipped under my door. It kind of said he would like a different kind of woman to be in his and his wife’s relationship. I mean why do you think I would want to be part of this and secondly how did he know I was queer? He didn’t want me to sleep with him but with him and his wife!! It was unnerving. I was scared because I live in this area. I started thinking, are people watching me? How many people know this about me? It was very unnerving,” said Sheila, researcher.

”When a couple comes out in open, then there are questions asked when they want to rent space. Kids knock on your door in the middle of the night and harass you. I know of a couple who had to move house three times because of repeated harassment,” said Teena, journalist.

Many women in urban India prefer to be invisible while speaking about their sexuality. Most same sex couples, which have been forced to come out, are from low-income families where women have far fewer choices, thus their lives are open to greater scrutiny.

So, they can be pushed to a corner where the only way out is to either expose themselves or attempt suicide.

*Childhood lovestory*

Childhood sweethearts Charu and Gayathri were growing up in Erode in Tamil Nadu. But then the families found out about their relationship.

They were forced apart and married off, marriages that turned out to be unhappy and violent.

After seven years, Charu decided to walk out with her daughters and return to her mother’s home in Erode. Gayatri was living here with her husband and children.

”Charu and I started meeting each other often. My husband became very suspicious and we started fighting more than usual. Charu and I were fed up. We decided to walk out,” said Gayathri, NGO worker.

Thirteen years after they fell in love, Charu and Gayathri are finally living together.

But the life of their dreams is haunted by nightmares. They have little access to their children who live with their grandparents in Erode.

”When I saw my children the last time I had short hair and I was wearing pants and shirt and my daughter did not recognise me. At that moment I felt like killing myself for the choices I have made,’ said Charu, NGO worker.

For Charu and Gayatri settling into the relationship was even harder, Charu use to dominate Gayatri and she struggled to break free. Ironically, mirroring the relationships both of them were seeking an escape from.

”When we were married, our husbands dominated us. So when we came away, we decided we would not be like that. But that changed. Our egos took over. Things became worse when she was briefly attracted to someone else. My worst instincts surfaced and there was violence,” said Charu, NGO worker.

”Charu does not treat me like a partner, but like a wife. For me it’s very important to be treated as an equal, but Charu does not think that. And it creates conflict,” said Gayathri, NGO worker.

Charu and Gayathri are now seeing a marriage counselor.

According to activists, their experience with each other fit a pattern seen in same sex relationships where in the absence of role models of two women in an intimate relationship some unconsciously emulate heterosexual relationships.

”What I see is that a lot of homosexual people really do not have models or alternate ways of living and we really haven’t explored that. Of two women living together, having sex and being friends and lovers. For us if two people are having sex there has to be a gendered role, there has to be a man or a woman,” said Sumati, Sangamma.

There are others who argue that support is vital in relationships.

”There is huge myth that queer relationships don’t sustain. But one has to see why that is the case. People think we are in it only for the sex. But sex is important in all relationships isn’t it. So one has to see why queer relationships don’t last. It’s because there is no support,” said Sheila, researcher.

”There is also this fear that if I lose this person then who else? Where do I find another person? If I don’t have family or friends, then I want to hold onto that one person even if it’s not working out,” said Menaka,
lecturer and activist.

Fighting fear of losing each other and maintaining their self-respect in front of the world is not an easy task for these women but they have been squabbling with odds and proving everybody wrong.

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