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Old and helpless in hetero India June 23, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in Gay, Personality, Times of India.
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From The Sunday Times of India, 22 June 2008:

 Old and helpless in hetero India

22 Jun 2008, 0014 hrs IST, Vikram Doctor,TNN

It could be called the WHW factor. It comes up when gay men or lesbian woman in India announce their intention of leading their lives on their own terms. Which may or may not mean being open about their sexuality, but usually does mean not doing the heterosexual-marriage-and-kids thing. Such a declaration to friends and family is met with a deep sigh and the question: “Well, maybe that’s OK now, but What Happens When you grow old, fall sick, don’t have family to take care of you?”

What Happens When (WHW) applies, of course, to all those who choose not to marry and have kids. But it’s never invoked as strongly for straight people probably because friends and family always retain a residual shred of hope that they will someday find the right person, and perhaps even have kids. But saying you’re gay or lesbian seems to close that door (not quite fairly, given the many gays and lesbians who want to adopt and raise kids) and condemn you to a bleak, lonely old age. “The middle age of buggers is not to be contemplated without horror,” wrote Virginia Woolf (a married bisexual herself).

In less lurid terms, that sentiment is repeated at forums like the support meetings for the parents of gay people organised by the Gaybombay group. Parents say they can accept their children’s sexuality, but worry what will happen when they are no longer around since their children won’t have families of their own to take care of them. Their children counter that many straight people also end up single, which is correct, but shifts the problem rather than solves it. Shyam, who’s 33, admits he often discusses it with gay friends: “Most have a great career and are earning well. I suggest that we pool funds and design a building where each member gets an apartment. So we live together but not in each other’s face.”

Something on those lines is now being proposed by Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla. Gohil’s open admission some time back that he was gay caused a huge controversy in Gujarat and even made news around the world. But this did not deter him from working with his Lakshya trust to support sexual minorities in Gujarat, and it was in this connection that the idea of an old age home came about. “Old age is a fact of life,” says Gohil. “Those of us likely to be single need to plan for it.”

The actual impetus for the home, though, came not from a gay man, but a straight one. He goes by the name Trijayananad, an NRI, originally from Gujarat, who had gone to Canada to make his fortune but decided to retire back home. He always intended to start an old-age home, but after speaking with Gohil decided to make it a gay one. “He was influenced by his time in Canada,” says Gohil. “He saw the freedom homosexuals have over there and the problems we have here.”

 

Trijayanand donated two acres for the home, and Gohil is lobbying with the government for more land. He doesn’t think there will be problems from local people because Lakshya will sensitise them to gay issues: “We have found that once you remove misconceptions that people have about homosexuality, they don’t have a problem with it.” Beyond this, there are no firm plans: “We must consult the gay community to see what it wants.”

The gay men we spoke to had mixed responses. “I would love it if such a scheme is implemented everywhere in India,” said Shyam enthusiastically. Bala, who’s in his 40s, is dubious about old-age homes: “Being only among other old people would be reason to die soon… better to have gay community-living where gay people of all ages live together.” Sachin, who’s 32, says real estate developers might be interested if shown how to market to the gay community, but notes that the differences among Indian communities, which override gay identity, will pose problems: “Our culture is not homogeneous. This makes Florida-style mass condos a questionable success.”

Whatever the problems, Gohil deserves credit for highlighting an increasingly important issue for gay communities around the world. In past generations the few who were out were usually affluent enough for old age to be less of a problem; other just got married, as many still do in India. But starting from the ‘70s abroad, more gay men started coming out, and that first generation (those spared by AIDS) is now dealing with the problems of ageing. The New York Times recently wrote of how many, after years of standing up for their rights, now find themselves facing discrimination again in regular old-age homes-which, now older and enfeebled, they find hard to fight.

That this would likely happen here too was shown when this writer tried raising the issue of gay senior citizens with a lady who pioneered campaigning for senior citizen rights and creating old-age homes in India. Her instant, embarrassed response: “I don’t think our members would be comfortable discussing that.” It’s an indication of how much a project like Gohil’s is needed.

(vikram.doctor@timesgroup.com)

 

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