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Fire in their hearts June 3, 2008

Posted by qmediawatch in Indian Express, Lesbian, Suicides.
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Fire in their hearts
Saturday May 31 2008 06:07 IST

Ranjitha Gunasekaran

After Deepa Mehta’s controversial movie, Fire, the word fast became a synonym for lesbianism. On May 18, 2008, as Christy and Rukmini lay scorched in their final embrace, Mehta’s choice of words seemed vindicated.

Christy and Rukmini of Chennai were lovers for 10 years. Their poignant end, according to activists, brings the number of reported lesbian suicides in Tamil Nadu up to eight in the past five months. This comes in the backdrop of Delhi High Court hearing a petition seeking the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises sexual activity by same-sex partners.

Limited as women are to the realm of the home in a patriarchal society, lesbian and bisexual women, unlike their male counterparts, lack access to public spaces where men have the opportunity to express their sexuality and in doing so come into conflict with Section 377 and risk being harassed by police.

“With men the issues are mostly related to blackmail or harassment by the police — issues related to the legal structure and the section that criminalises homosexuality. With women, the effects of the law are more indirect as they do not have access to this space anyway,” explains Ponni Arasu, a researcher with Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore.

Christy and Rukmini were not pushed to suicide because of Section 377, rather because of the oppression and repression of lesbian women as a result of societal norms. “The pressure for women to marry is immense. If you are lesbian, then a straight marriage can be hell,” says Shalini, a 20-year old bisexual woman that I met online. “Space is a major problem for us, but the pressure to marry makes it worse,” she says.

“That is the gendered component of the issue. Lesbians face double discrimination in society — first because of their sex and then because of their sexuality. As women, lesbians face more pressure to get married,which few are empowered to resist. Further, these women have limited access to public services and resources that could help them,” says Padma Govinda, a founding member of the Shakti Center in Chennai, which deals with issues related to sexuality.

Smitha, a housewife in Andhra Pradesh, who claimed to be bisexual, responded to a query I made in a lesbian chatroom — one of the few spaces where, protected by anonymity, lesbians can express themselves freely. Having had lesbian relationships in her college days, she regretted the constrictions of her marriage. However, when told about the suicides in Chennai, she says, “We must go along with society and what it wants of us.” Smitha said that she didn’t mind being married, but admits to continuing affairs with her female friends when her husband is away.

Smitha is lucky. Rex Watts, the director of Sangama, a shelter for lesbians in Bangalore, points out that most married lesbians live in intense repression as they rarely get to meet others like themselves, let alone have affairs. “The lack of space to express their sexuality causes lesbians to suffer both oppression by a patriarchal society as well as repression of their own sexual needs and desires while conforming to social norms,” he explains.

Women also do not have the option of casual sex,which is enjoyed by gay men and aravanis (transgenders), even those who are forced to live a “straight” life. “The infidelity of men, while not exactly condoned, is not considered as wrong as that of women. Thus, women lose that option as well,” Padma adds.

For a woman, the problems of marriage are compounded by the reality of needing to have sex with a man. “Women are not only unable to express their sexuality, but also forced to go the entirely other way in living with someone they don’t want to and having a sexual relationship with that person,which in many instances could also become issues of marital rape,” Rex points out.

It is this stifling reality that people such as Deepa Vasudevan of Sahayatrika, a helpline for lesbian women in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, and Rex deal with on a daily basis. “Educated and slightly well-off women are able to deal with things, because they can go away to work or study and, therefore, enjoy a degree of freedom. However,women who come from poorer backgrounds have no alternative but to get married, or are forced to run away from home,” Deepa says.

Kerala, she feels, is particularly constrictive for lesbians. “It’s hard for a woman to live alone in Kerala, let alone be a lesbian. Many of the women who come to us either want to escape marriage or say their relationship has been found out by their families and they are either being kept apart or are subjected to some sort of violence,” she explains.

Activists point to more than 35 cases of lesbian suicides in Kerala over the past 10 years. Sahayatrika refers the ones who escape the situation to Sangama for shelter. However, poor levels of education and limited mobility holds many women back. “A man can come away from his family and even sleep on a railway platform, but the same freedom does not exist for women,” Rex points out. The Sangama director says that the average age of the women who come in is 24 years.

“They are handicapped by the lack of knowledge of the local language or English,which makes employment a problem. In some instances, those who had jobs have been sacked because of an overtly masculine way of dressing. Once the employer assumed that the girl was a man and thus when they discovered her true sex, they fired her,” he recalls. While women are not directly affected by Section 377, (some like Shalini don’t even know the legislation exists) they are often subject to harsher laws. “We have found that the laws most often invoked against lesbian women are kidnapping by the parents of one of the partners when they try to elope, or if a couple were to attempt suicide and a partner to survive, then it would be aiding and abetting a suicide or in some instances even murder,” Ponni explains.

She adds that the repeal of Section 377 would represent a symbolic victory. “There have been extremely rare instances of the law being used against lesbians,” she says. With more immediate issues at hand, the psychological turmoil that individuals might face while coming to terms with their sexuality is heightened for women.

As Swarnalatha says, not having the opportunity to even know if there is someone else like you can make life much lonelier. No wonder then that Christy and Rukmini held on to each other even in a fiery death. When you find someone to love, you shouldn’t have to let them go.

Coming to terms with being different

Swarnalatha is that rare individual — someone who had the courage to come out to her family, though she wouldn’t advise it for everyone. “They don’t need to know unless they have to,” she points out. There is another difficult aspect of being a lesbian that she speaks about — coming out to yourself.

“I realised I was lesbian when I was finishing my undergraduate course. I was always having crushes on women. Then I realised that there was something more intense about my relationship with my best friend, though she didn’t know I was lesbian,” she says.

“However, it was really difficult to come to terms with it. I don’t think I really did until I went abroad and made friends with a gay guy who was really cool with the whole thing. That made such a difference — to know that there were others like me.

That is one thing I wish could have been different — it would have made such a difference to me before if I had known there were others like me,” says Swarnalatha.

Limited support

The limited resources available to lesbians make life more difficult for them. A random search of support organisations for the LGBT community in India turns out a huge number of organisations for the Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) community offering counselling and awareness and support services across the country. Most of this is motivated by the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS among the community — the organisations are generally supported by funds from groups funding work in the area.

Lesbians, however, are a lower risk group and support and counselling services are more limited. While metros such as Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai have at least two or three options for lesbian and bisexual women, further south the options dry up — activists who met in Chennai to discuss the suicides of Christy and Rukmini pointed out that the city does not even have a helpline for lesbian women. “Lesbians are a lower risk group for HIV/AIDS and, therefore, there are extremely limited funds to support services for the community.We get funds from human rights groups,” Rex says.

Such services are important, as Swarnalatha Mishra, a 25-year old lesbian, points out. “I did not face a lot of the problems that less educated or less affluent women face, but I did go through extreme confusion after I realised and accepted that I was attracted to women. I didn’t know anyone else like me. I didn’t even know if they existed and it was a terrible phase for me. I tried the helplines — the first time I hung up without even saying hello, but then when I finally got the nerve to speak, it helped me so much!” she recalls.




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