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Bangladesh eunuchs to vote in first elections December 29, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in Marginalization, Online/New Media, Sexuality & Gender, Transgender.
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From Google News/AFP (Also published in Times of India’s print edition):

DHAKA (AFP) — Among the millions of new voters in Monday’s Bangladeshi elections will be some 100,000 hijras — cross-dressing, pre- and post-operative transsexuals — allowed to cast ballots for the first time.

The male-to-female transsexuals are among 32 percent of the impoverished nation’s 81 million voters for whom participating in the elections, the first since 2001, will be a new experience.

Hijra social worker Joya Shikder, herself a transsexual, said the move spelled a positive change for the conservative Muslim country.

“We’ve always been overlooked in previous elections,” Shikder said. “It’s exciting to be given this recognition but the authorities have stopped short of acknowledging us as a third gender.”

The move to give hijras the vote has been applauded by human rights activists but has caused a headache for Election Commission officials who create separate lines for male and female voters at every polling booth.

“You just cannot just class us into men and women by looking at our faces, bodies and expressions,” Shikder said.

Election Commission spokesman S.M. Asaduzzaman said officials were still trying to figure out exactly how hijras would cast their votes on Monday.

“It’s a difficult one for us. We have only two queues, one for men and another for women,” he said.

“We thought long and hard about it but eventually decided that hijras must go to the line that we think suits them best. The more feminine ones will be in the ladies’ line while the ones who seem more manly will be in with the men.”

Monday’s election will end a two-year rule by an army-backed government.

The current regime has pushed through electoral reform during its tenure, including creating a photo identification voter list which has eliminated some 12.7 million fake “ghost” voters.

Commentators say the election will be the fairest in the notoriously corrupt, impoverished South Asian nation. Around 200,000 observers, including 2,500 from overseas, will be watching Monday’s vote.

Among those who will also be voting for the first time are more than 40,000 Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to Bangladesh from the majority-Hindu Indian state of Bihar after the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 but before Bangladesh — then East Pakistan — gained independence in 1971.

A Bangladesh court ruled in May that the Biharis, long considered refugees but never welcomed by either India or Pakistan, were full-fledged citizens.

Tens of thousands of floating gypsies and more than 50,000 prisoners have also been given voting rights for the first time in this election.


The year we really came out December 27, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, LGBT, Live Mint.
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From Live Mint:

This was the year in which the sheer volume of conversation around queer India finally broke through to the mainstream, and sexuality became a topic that was literally on everyone’s lips

Parmesh Shahani

The past two decades have seen tremendous progress within the queer rights movement in India. The battle has been fought on several overlapping activist fronts, through organizations such as Sangama (Bangalore), which follows a human rights-based approach, and the Humsafar Trust (Mumbai), which focuses on health-based intervention. This has run in parallel with the continuing legal struggle for the modification of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which effectively criminalizes same-sex relationships. Alongside the activism, there has also been a great deal of social change, especially in cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore. The Gay Bombay parties, Delhi’s Nigah Media Festival and Bangalore’s Gay Running and Breakfast (GRAB) club are just the tip of the iceberg—all big Indian cities today have vibrant, active and diverse queer scenes, the listings for which are easily available on the Web, or in some cases, in the local TimeOut. While developments such as these have taken place at a steady pace over the past two decades, 2008 could be considered the tipping point.

This was the year in which the sheer volume of conversation around queer India finally broke through to the mainstream, and sexuality became a topic that was literally on everyone’s lips.

This year witnessed queer pride marches held in four different cities. New Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata simultaneously held pride marches on 29 June, while Mumbai followed with its Queer Azaadi march, held symbolically on 16 August, one day after Independence Day. The several hundred participants in each city also included a large number of straight supporters— parents, friends and colleagues of queer people who marched to show solidarity for the cause. For the people who marched, they were empowering experiences, the chance to be a part of and connect with a larger queer community. For the casual observers who witnessed the marches, it was an indication that queerness exists in India, and not just on TV shows or the op-ed pages of newspapers.
It was also the year that the case filed to modify section 377 finally drew to a close in the Delhi high court, eight years after its original filing.
Developments were closely tracked by activists and the media throughout 2008, and this included the various arguments for the modification of the law made by the lawyers speaking for the petitioners—Naz Foundation India and Voices against 377—as well as the opponents, including the government. The government’s contradictory stance on the issue was well documented.
The pre-release hype around one of this year’s biggest film releases, Dostana, and the conversations that the film sparked post-release served the queer cause immensely. In my book, I talk about how, while waiting for political or legal changes, we often fail to notice that real change is already happening all around us.
Dostana tapped into this current. Even though the film itself was comic, its release provided India a serious opportunity to talk about queerness at workplaces, colleges and homes. Priyanka Chopra’s matter-of-factness, Kirron Kher’s accepting mother character, the dramatic kiss between lead actors Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham and the film’s ambiguous ending are landmark Bollywood moments. The film’s acceptance by the general public is an indication that queerness, like other differences, can be comfortably imagined within the Indian context.
There was, of course, a lot more, and it is heartening to see how the media took up the queer cause and ran with it, throughout this year. The nuanced nature of the coverage was impressive, whether it were well-researched stories that appeared on Tehelka covers, sensitive NDTV reports on the problems queer students face in school, or announcements for the Rajpipla prince Manvendra Singh Gohil’s plans to set up an old age home in India for gay men.
To acknowledge and honour the media’s support, the year witnessed the first Queer Media Collective Awards.
The year also witnessed several progressive institutional on-the-ground changes. For example, in May, Tamil Nadu became the first state to grant recognition to the transgendered in its official documents. Applications for admission to educational institutions, government hospitals and ration cards in the state now allow one’s gender to be designated as M, F, or T.
All this is very feel-good, but I want to be guarded as we enter into 2009. The problems of harassment, blackmail and discrimination continued in 2008. In February, the Mumbai police, accompanied by television cameras, raided a gay party in Thane and made several arrests. In March, a homophobic mob in Kolkata attacked and critically injured three kotis who were peacefully walking in the locality. In November, the police in Bangalore arrested, victimized and mistreated several hijras and Sangama activists. These incidents and hundreds of other unreported acts of physical and emotional violence against queer people, remind us that despite all the hoopla, perhaps the queer struggle is only just beginning in our country.
Parmesh Shahani is the editorial director of Verve magazine and the author of Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India (Sage Publications, 2008).

Hatred hurts just as much as hate crime December 26, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Homophobia, LGBT.
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From DNA:

Humaira Ansari

Thursday, December 25, 2008  03:00 IST

While a 28-year-old, lesbian woman was assaulted and gang raped in an instance of hate crime in San Francisco, here in India, the lesbian gay bisexual transgender (LGBT) community is still grappling to find acceptance.


Recently, many homosexuals have ‘come out’ but this has not reduced the homophobia in our society. “Anyone who is not in the mainstream is not accepted,” rues Shaina from Labia, an NGO working for lesbians.

She feels, the belief that LGBTs in our country are less traumatised than in the west is a myth. “Many women from this community  undergo violence at home. They are also subjected to street harassment  If the law in our country calls a person unnatural, then it is obviously difficult for that person to walk into a police station and report harassment.”

Nitin Karani, trustee, Humsafar Trust, an organisation working for LGBTs  admits that incidents of harassing homosexuals are common and recurring. Citing the example of a student who committed suicide on being ousted and teased, Karani says, “It is not just harassment on the streets, but violence at home is also common. Many are beaten and locked up.”

Advocate Anand Grover feels hate crimes are not largely prevalent here but harassing LGBTs is not a rarity. “Any woman who is harassed, whether lesbian or straight, is protected under the same law. Our laws are very limited.”

While the gay pride parade held in August this year witnessed overwhelming participation from LGBTs, section 377 of the IPC still criminalises unnatural sex. And the discriminating attitude of people, combined with lewd comments and insensitive remarks, only adds to the community’s woes.

Geeta Kumana, chairperson, Aanchal Trust, says, “If a female does not look like a ‘typical girl’, she obviously becomes an easy target.”

Even as the LGBT community make efforts for equal rights, “The solution lies in tolerance and larger societal acceptance of the fact that people are different; we should take them for what they are,” concludes Shaina.

Ripples on the big screen December 23, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Movies.
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From The New Indian Express:

By Chameli 

First Published : 13 Dec 2008 11:35:00 AM IST
Last Updated : 16 Dec 2008 12:25:12 PM IST


Bollywood films with gay themes depicting alternate sexuality with copious amounts of negative connotations and sleazy stereotypes are on the rise and the audience is lapping it up!

Even when movies are made with a specific gay theme (Fire, Girlfriend or Mango Souffle) it remains a depiction of an entire society and its interactions with itself and with those it considers on the outer periphery. To think that these niche films only portray the adventures of a few characters is being silly. These films and more mainstream flicks before them (Rules: Pyar ka Superhit Formula, Out of Control, Muskaan, Kal Ho Na Ho, Main Hoon Na and more recently, Fashion and Dostana) go to show how Bollywood wants to come out of the closet but crawls right back in.

Watching Fashion, I realised that a “realistic” filmmaker like Madhur Bhandarkar in his quest to do things differently, flounders with a simple concept — ‘behaviour’. His research would have revealed that majority of gay people don’t necessarily have a pansy lisp (Designer Vinay Khosla) and not all of them are effeminate. I agree that some gays or lesbians can take on traits of the opposite sex but to constantly berate them with sleazy advances and devoid of any masculinity is insulting.  

Madhur Bhandarkar also conveniently uses the backdrop of the fashion world, again falling prey to the stereotype that most designers are gay. It is true that we have quite a few Indian designers who are gay, but the same can be said of a mechanic or a corporate honcho! There is no sect that specifically nurtures or attracts gay people. They can be from any and every walk of life. For example: Ellen Degeneres (TV host), Ashok Row Kavi (writer), Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil (royal heir, social worker), Chris Morgan (powerlifter), the list goes on.

Sometimes the effeminate portrayal of gays is forced into the story to cash in on trends and tickle the funny bone of the layman. Priyanka Chopra’s friend (Rohit) in Fashion did not have to be gay and so girly. It was so manufactured. Nor did Abhishek Bachan in Dostana have to be effeminate in some scenes. Indian audiences don’t attach any significance or value to these characters and identify them as chakkas. The catcalls in the cinema theatre are just an indication of how men cringe and women either love or hate them. Tarun Mansukhani, director of Dostana however feels “It is very important for any character in a film to have a journey. The journey in Abhishek’s case was that of perceptions and beliefs. He is not homophobic but unintentionally when representing himself as a gay man portrays himself as he imagines them. His view too is stereotypical. But as his character progresses in the film he finds out he has been wrong. His perceptions towards the gay community change. Thus completing his journey.”

A movie like Girlfriend, promoted as a lesbian-themed film shows one of the characters (Isha Koppikar) as a muscle-wielding toughie who can tear a man apart when he asks her on a date! Why can’t gay men or lesbians be seen as any other man or woman? Do gay men have to be effeminate and slap on litres of foundation and cross-dress? And do lesbians have to be out of the ordinary masculine women with tom-boy hair-dos?  

You can find a man like Akshay Kumar or an Arnold Schwarzenegger who is gay. Yes, I do agree that gay men can be effeminate but not all are. And not all lesbians are butch. Using gay communities as just comic-relief is demeaning to those who strive to be themselves, and to all those activists who toil to combat prompt governments to amend legislation.

Bollywood  pigeonholes alternate sexuality as a sleazy man sleeping with another man and a desperate woman unhappy in her marriage seducing another woman for gratification. This is unfair. Just the act of sex doesn’t define homosexuality. We love our long walks, visit places of worship, take a position on politics, and aspire for top-notch jobs. The only difference is gay men prefer another gay man to connect with – both mentally and physically.

Here is what they said:

Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha MP

It is appalling to see the negative portrayal of alternate sexualities and especially transgenders in our cinema. Our filmmakers should be more progressive and reflect reality and not pigeonhole these communities as being flamboyant or sleazy.

Ranvir Shah

Theatre and Arts Enthusiast

Dostana completely utilises the queer concept to insult innocent hetero-sexual bonding in our country. Madhur Bhandarkar with Fashion has reached the lowest ebbs of film-­making by being racist (when Priyanka is shown in bed with a black man) and makes a parody of all the known and unknown personalities from the fashion fraternity and paints their characters through a skewed lens. I would like to know why the censor board let scenes like these pass.

Karti P Chidambaram

Member, Indian Youth Congress

From the little I notice,  cinema does reiterate stereotypes of all kinds. I am sure alternative sexualities also suffer from this portrayal. Sensitivity is the need of the hour.

Soundarya Rajnikanth

Film Producer

I think it’s great for the film industry to explore new genres and scripts never attempted before in Indian cinema. I congratulate the film­makers of Dostana and Fashion, for handling such bold subjects. I think the very success and acceptance of these movies speak for itself.



Films like Fashion and Dostana help one discuss the topic of homo­sexuality. Aesthetically made films, whatever the concept, are welcome.

A gay Muslim, tested by faith and family December 18, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Lesbian, Online/New Media.
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From the LA Times:

Aliyah Bacchus returns home to offer a choice: Accept her sexuality — as she has — or lose her forever.
By Erika Hayasaki
December 17, 2008
Reporting from New York — All she has left of the person she used to be is contained in a 5-by-7 photo album with “Aliyah Bacchus” written in blue pen on its cover, each picture inside tucked beneath a slip of clear plastic.

There she is at 17, barely 90 pounds, smiling sourly on her wedding day in Queens, N.Y., dressed in hijab — a pearl-toned princess bridal gown shimmering with beads, her slender hands dipped in sleek white gloves, a veil attached to a white qimar, or head scarf, fastened snugly around her face. The man her father chose for her stands behind Aliyah wearing a black bow tie, his hands resting on her bony shoulders.

That was before. Before she walked out on the marriage. Before her Guyana-born Muslim family discovered she was gay. Before she fled.

Aliyah is 22 now, still hovering at 90 pounds, the dark skin of her Indian roots hugging bone, a boyishly feminine lesbian with cropped black hair gelled into a tussle atop her head, long eyelashes and sharp cheekbones.

She has traded her abaya, which she wore throughout middle and high school, for an ankle-length black trench coat and sunglasses with metallic frames. She has one piercing in her left ear, four in her right, a metal rod bridging the cartilage in the ear’s upper rim, a ring in her bellybutton, another in her nose.

Aliyah is Muslim. It’s a part of her identity she can’t shed, like her sexuality, like her last name — Bacchus, as in the Roman god of wine and merriment — and like her ink-stained flesh: the angel tattooed between her shoulder blades, the dark dragons on her lower back, the polar bear on her stomach, the dying rose on her right wrist.

She knows that in some Muslim sects, homosexuality is considered a crime punishable by death. But Aliyah lives in America, raised in low-income housing projects 20 miles from Manhattan’s West Village, where police raided the Stonewall Inn in 1969, setting off riots that sparked the beginning of a national gay rights movement.

In America, Aliyah knows, it is acceptable to be gay. But how, she wonders, can she be true to who she is while also adhering to her family’s faith? How does she reconcile both sides of her existence?

The pictures, faded and fragile, show Aliyah hugging her little sister, standing next to her father, laughing with her brother — a smiling tribe living in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens. The photographs remind Aliyah that she used to belong to a family.

On an evening this spring, the sun sets as Aliyah sits on a park bench in the West Village, police sirens blaring around her. Police show up to break up two drunken men fist-fighting a few steps away. Aliyah is calm, nearly oblivious to the urban chaos around her.

Sneezing and stuffy with a cold, she is lost in thought, eating a piece of raw chocolate. Aliyah fell in love recently, and the woman accepts her as she is. “For at least one person,” Aliyah says, “I seem to be enough.”

It is enough to convince Aliyah to go home for the first time in over two years. She will tell her family to accept that she is gay, or lose her forever.

The angel is rising out of flames.

The tattoo represents Aliyah’s mother who, at 15, had an arranged marriage. She was 19 when she gave birth to Aliyah, her third child after two boys. She died in a fire two months later.

Unable to raise three children alone in the Guyanese town of La Bonne Intention, Aliyah’s father turned child-rearing duties over to his sister, an Islamic studies teacher married to an imam. Aliyah came to love her aunt as she would have loved her mother. In her aunt’s household, Aliyah became immersed in Islamic tradition, learning to read and write in Arabic and memorizing portions of the Koran.

Her father remarried. Aliyah split her time living with her father’s new family on a chicken farm, and at her aunt’s home. When she was 10, her father decided to relocate the family to New York. Her aunt moved here too.

In Queens, her father ordered her to dress in hijab every time she went in public. She enrolled in IS 53, an intermediate school, as the only abaya-wearing Indian student in her class, on a campus of black and Latino students. After school and on weekends, Aliyah taught the principles of Islam to her Muslim peers in the community.

By 13, suitors began coming to her father’s door, asking for Aliyah’s hand in marriage. When Aliyah argued with her father, he threatened to make her marry and drop out of school. Aliyah stopped paying attention in class. What was the point if her life was destined for marriage and kids, with no hopes for college or a career?

Aliyah was 16 when Muslim terrorists attacked New York in 2001. From her 19th-floor apartment windows, she watched smoke billow from the burning towers. In the weeks that followed, she continued to wear the ankle-length abaya to school. A Muslim friend asked her to stop, saying it was unsafe. She kept wearing it, as if daring the world to take her on.

Her anger and disillusionment stewed. During Aliyah’s senior year, she enrolled in a yearbook class. The teacher was young and full of idealism. Aliyah daydreamed about her and spent lunch periods in her classroom. Aliyah would not admit it to herself until years later, but she had a crush on her teacher. She pushed her romantic thoughts aside.

Aliyah’s father suffered from heart problems and wanted his daughter to be taken care of after his death. He gave his blessing for her to marry a 23-year-old Guyanese Muslim.

She met him in June 2002. They were married in a religious ceremony in August, after her high school graduation. They took wedding pictures in the rain in a botanical garden in Queens, before heading to the reception in his family’s backyard. That night, she lay beside her husband, thinking: What the hell am I doing?

The couple moved into a studio. Aliyah did everything she believed a wife should do: She cleaned and cooked his favorite pastas and West Indian dishes. When she visited her aunt, Aliyah told her she did not feel attracted to her husband. Eyeing her suspiciously, her aunt asked: Are you attracted to girls?

I’m not attracted to anybody, Aliyah remembered telling her.

Attraction, her aunt told her, would come with patience.

Aliyah wondered.

She quarreled with her husband. She chopped her waist-length black hair into a bob. She started seeing a therapist recommended by a former high school counselor.

One night, Aliyah became agitated after missing a therapy session. She needed someone to talk to. Instead, Aliyah argued with her husband, and this time he grabbed her. She pushed back, jabbing her elbow into his throat. After that, he left her alone.

Ten weeks into her marriage, Aliyah moved in with family and told her father the marriage was over.

Her therapist gave her information about the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. Aliyah had never met a lesbian. She showed up at the center to attend a meeting, and immediately the other women adopted her like a little sister. She began attending dance and movie nights, and weekly meetings and seminars.

It all made sense, Aliyah thought. Her infatuation with her high school teacher, her lack of interest in men: She was gay.

“It wasn’t an epiphany,” Aliyah remembered. “It was more like, ‘OK, time for me to grow up, time for me to face reality.’ It’s either that, or you live your life lying to yourself.”

Inside, Aliyah felt relief. But she knew her family would never accept her as a lesbian. She decided she would live two separate lives, one as a lesbian, the other as a devout Muslim daughter.

Aliyah turned 18 in October. Six months later, her father died of heart failure.

Aliyah mourned, weeping into the dark over his death, while feeling thankful he never found out she was gay. Aliyah continued to keep her secret from the rest of the family.

She took a job at a real estate agency operated by a family friend and moved into her own apartment. Aliyah’s boss snooped into her life, one day asking if she was a lesbian. Aliyah told her yes. Her boss told her aunt.

Unaware that she had been outed, Aliyah called her aunt. Aliyah remembered her aunt telling her: If you’re going to tell me you’re a lesbian, I cannot and will not be associated with you. Her aunt hung up. Aliyah sat on the steps outside her apartment, staring at her phone. Not long after, she received an e-mail from her brother saying something similar.

Aliyah left her job. In January 2006, she packed her belongings and headed to northeast Pennsylvania with a friend from the LGBT center.

‘It firmly states in the Koran: ‘Ye without faults will be replaced. But those that commit sin, repent,’ ” says Aliyah, sitting on a shaded patch of grass in Manhattan’s Union Square one afternoon. It is her day off as a security guard. Since returning to New York in September 2007, she has been living meagerly.

“Allah doesn’t want you to be perfect,” she continues, pulling on blades of grass. “He doesn’t want you to be without faults, he doesn’t want you to be without sin, he just wants you to repent. And if you are without sin, you will be replaced by someone who commits sin.”

But is homosexuality a sin?

Aliyah knows the story of the city of Lot in the Koran, which is often pointed to as an argument against homosexuality. “It’s the whole story about the city being destroyed because they were gay,” she says. It is the same text as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which has been used to condemn homosexuality in Christianity and Judaism.

“I am living an upright life. I try to be charitable,” she says. “But who decides what is sin and what is not? It’s not for man to decide.”

She knows her family would allow her back into their lives if she repented, and renounced her homosexuality.

“I want to be a part of my family,” Aliyah says. “But what is the price that I have to pay? Honestly, I would rather die than go back to that person I was.”

One evening in February, Aliyah stops by the LGBT Community Center, which is holding a seminar on hypnosis. She notices a young woman, bundled up in a scarf and coat, walking in front of her to sign in. The clerk asks the woman’s name. She replies: StellaStella.

That’s a beautiful name, Aliyah says.

Stella turns to thank her. All Aliyah sees are green eyes. Once inside, Aliyah strikes up a conversation.

Stella Zagori, an artist, is four years older than Aliyah, and grew up in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, moving to the U.S. when she was 14. Stella has known since she was 9 that she was gay. Like Aliyah, during her adolescence she wasn’t interested in dating. Where she grew up, being gay was not accepted either.

With each day, their connection deepens. They fall in love.

Two months later, Aliyah decides it is time to pay a visit to her aunt.

It is a gray and drizzly 50-degree morning in April. Aliyah is wearing her black trench coat, a blue collared shirt and a black necktie. Her hair is gelled, and her eyelids are coated in sparkly silver-purple eye shadow. She left home in such a nervous rush that she forgot her cellphone.

The brick building where her aunt lives is down the block from Rockaway Beach. “This is it,” Aliyah says, lingering at the front doors. Inside the lobby, she presses the elevator button.

Her aunt’s fourth-floor apartment smells like West Indian spices. Her aunt, who has prepared a beef dish, looks shorter and rounder than Aliyah remembers. Her aunt glances at Aliyah, and says she looks like a boy.

Sitting down to eat, her aunt immediately asks if Aliyah has dealt with her problem. Aliyah acts as if she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

They hurry through the meal, and Aliyah says she wants to get some air. Her aunt drives her to the boardwalk and parks her blue minivan on a bare wind-swept road. Gusts of sand swirl outside the windows as they sit in tense silence.

Aliyah tells her aunt she is in love with a woman, who is not a Muslim.

Her aunt does not understand. She tells Aliyah she is too intelligent to be gay. It is the influence of the shaitan, she says, the devil.

Aliyah seethes. She realizes she will never change her aunt’s mind. She could return, behaving as her family dictates, belonging to a family in which love comes with conditions. But that life is not hers anymore.

Aliyah opens the van’s passenger side door and stomps off to the boardwalk, her fists stuffed inside the pockets of her trench coat. Her aunt follows, wearing a veil and an unzipped blue hooded sweat shirt over her long black hijab. They stand side by side behind a rail, staring into the violent ocean. Their black coverings billow in the heavy wind, as the sky breathes mist against their faces. Aliyah swivels to leave.

Her aunt reaches out for her as she walks, touching a hand on Aliyah’s shoulder. She wriggles away.

“You know my number,” her aunt says. “It goes both ways.”

Aliyah says nothing.

Salam o aliukum,” her aunt tells her. May the peace and blessings of Allah be with you. I’ll pray for Allah to forgive you, she tells Aliyah, before getting into her van.

Aliyah nods, and turns away. She does not look back.

In the morning, Stella and Aliyah will board a plane for Arizona.

The couple fasted during September for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. By October, both quit their jobs in Manhattan. Stella’s mother lives in Arizona, where they are headed to begin a new life, away from the grip of the city and the memories it holds.

Six months have gone by since Aliyah visited her aunt. The two have not talked since. Stella is her family now.

The two women have a full journey ahead of them. Sitting on a bed next to a vase of wilted lilies on a nightstand, Aliyah stares at what is left to pack: Stella’s books of art, drawers of clothes, two bottles of Russian red champagne. Aliyah opens a box filled with diaries. On top sits her family photo album.

For a moment, she thinks about leaving it behind.

She decides not to. Aliyah closes the box and tapes it shut, safely sealing the album away.


When will gays win their rights? December 10, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Section 377, Times of India.
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From The Times of India:

When will gays win their rights?

9 Dec 2008, 0000 hrs IST, PRATHIBHA JOY , TNN


Over the past several months, several arguments have been made in the Delhi HC for and against the repeal of the archaic Section 377 of the Indian penal Code

The section calls for up to life in prison for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. And now, with all hearings concluded — including the centre’s counsel, Additional Solicitor General (ASG) PP Malhotra’s statement that the judiciary had no right to legalise gay sex — it’s time for a verdict.

In the months leading up to the verdict — for which a date has not been set yet — the home ministry has fought fiercely to keep the law intact, even as the health ministry called for a more progressive approach in dealing with the issue.

And though ASG Malhotra stated that the court is not the authority to decide what should be the law and that that function rests with parliament, gay rights activists have not lost faith in the power of the judiciary.

“In India, the Constitution is supreme. The government may think it is supreme too, but it has to stay true to and work within the parameters of the Constitution. In the present scenario, we’re looking at a law that violates fundamental rights like the right to equality, right to live with dignity and right to freedom of expression. And we are building the case based on the violations. ASG Malhotra’s argument questioning the power of the judiciary to legalise gay sex doesn’t hold water, because the court has the right to adjudicate if a law is constitutional or not,” avers gay rights activist Arvind Narrain of the Alternative Law Forum, who doesn’t think the centre’s arguments will be a setback to the pro-homosexuality movement.

Activist Ashok Row Kavi of the Humsafar Trust wasn’t surprised hearing the centre’s argument, “This is a country where it’s mandatory to reveal who your sexual partner is to undergo an HIV test. The home ministry is bent on opposing the repeal of Section 377, but we believe the court can do anything, including eliminating a rule that violates fundamental rights.”

But whatever the outcome of the court hearing, activist Vinay Chandran believes it would just be one step in the battle against homophobia. “The statements made in court on behalf of the government are ploys to stall for time or to ensure the judiciary doesn’t respond to it and put the whole issue on the backburner. But this isn’t the end of the battle. It won’t free us of homophobia. Those are battles that have to be fought continuously,” he remarks.

But what activists are hoping for is that the courts put the citizen at the forefront of its decision. “We hope that a decision will be taken after looking at the case in terms of its effect on fundamental rights,” adds Arvind.

East India’s gay rights guru December 10, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Online/New Media, Personality, Section 377.
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From xtra.ca:

Fighting for decriminalization of gay sex
Kaj Hasselriis / National / Tuesday, December 09, 2008

At only 40 years of age, Pawan Dhall is already known as a godfather of India’s gay rights movement.

In the ’80s, he came out to his parents while he was still in high school. In 1999, he marched in Kolkata’s first Gay Pride parade, along with only 15 others. And now, he heads up East India’s branch of SAATHII (Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India).

I was truly honoured that he invited me to share a chai with him in his Kolkata office. Greying at the temples and speaking with an endearing lisp, he explains that India’s main gay rights goal is to abolish Section 377, which criminalizes homosexuality. Activists first raised the idea with politicians in 1994, he says, but their cause was ridiculed. So, since 2001, they’ve been taking their case to the courts.

Dhall says that gay rights groups, led by India’s Naz Foundation, finally feel like they’re making progress. They recently cleared a major hurdle — convincing children’s rights groups to drop the language in Section 377 that compares homos to paedophiles.

According to Dhall, decriminalizing homosexuality would make his HIV/AIDS job a lot easier. Currently, it’s hard for the organization just to distribute condoms — especially in prison. And NGOs like SAATHII face the burden of tracking the country’s many gay bashings, since police don’t acknowledge the problem. If Section 377 were abolished, Dhall could also stop locking the doors at SAATHII’s office.

“Our library is so full of stuff that, technically, I should be meeting you in prison,” he says.

The rate of HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men in India is higher than any other population in the country. Dhall says it’s estimated that 7.4 percent of the country’s gays are infected, compared to less than 1 percent of the population as a whole. As of 2008, 2.4 million Indians have HIV/AIDS, the third highest number in the world after South Africa and Nigeria.

India’s laws prevent groups like SAATHII from targeting men who have sex with men directly in their campaigns. “In the public psyche,” Dhall says, “male to male is just fun, not sex.” Many guys still don’t know how to use condoms.

Dhall is encouraged, though, by the steady rise in the number of people willing to march in India’s Pride parades. This year, almost 500 took part in Kolkata, he says, and contrary to reports in the Western media (which I regretfully repeated in my first column), “Just a handful of people wore masks. Everyone else was out and about.”

Surprisingly, says Dhall, parade-goers were left alone, even during the post-march speeches. “We spoke to our heart’s content,” he says. “Police are supportive of the walk, but not the rest of the year.”

Dhall himself is currently single, though he’s had boyfriends in the past. Like most Indian men — even those who are married — he still lives in the same house he’s always shared with his parents. When he came out, he says, “I got enough support in the sense I wasn’t thrown out.”

But when it comes to picking a bride, as all Indian men are expected to do, he adds, “People in my extended family only stopped harassing me five years ago.”

Dhall is confident that Section 377 won’t exist much longer. India’s last two health ministers have actually come out against it. But once homosexuality is decriminalized, he’s reluctant to fight for same-sex marriage.

“There is no guarantee that marriage means happiness,” he says, especially in a country that still forces most of its couples together in arranged unions. “I would encourage everyone to question marriage and focus on relationships.”

Before I leave, Dhall tells me about a groundbreaking gay movie from India called My Brother Nikhil. It turns out that Bollywood is starting to discover gays in a big way. But that will have to wait for next week’s column.

Alternative destination December 3, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Gay & Lesbian.
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From India Today:

Alternative destination


And, ladies and gentlemen, the Oscar goes to Hyderabad. Even the Titanic received only 14 Oscar nominations and won 11. But Hyderabad, India’s second largest city today, has won more than 15 all-India firsts in the INDIA TODAY-AC Nielsen ORG MARG sex survey, 2008, thus confirming that it is unarguably the sex capital of India. Dubious distinction or not, the other Indian cities are sure to feel sexless by comparison.

Let’s take a look at some of these Sex Oscars. Hyderabad leads India in the following sexual arenas: highest incidence of adultery, wife-swapping, sex with prostitutes, sanction and practice of homosexuality, use of sex toys, practice of underage sex, role-playing, different positions, sexual adventurousness, bisexuality, heterosexual anal sex, overall use of pornography, overall partner use of pornography, video pornography, and even the making of one’s own porn videos!

What I have always suspected but have never been able to prove has finally been validated. But though all this might be news to many of us, Hyderabad’s legendary sexuality has already been chronicled in books like Asian Homosexuality, With Respect to Sex and Sexual Sites – Seminal Attitudes.

During the reign of the Nizams (circa 1724 – 1948), Hyderabad was prosperous, and with prosperity, quality of life matters like sex get an undue share of attention. Sex was celebrated in this time, and polygamy and alternate sexuality, including homosexuality and paedophilia were accepted as a part of life. Hijras, castrated eunuchs who guarded harems, often doubled as homosexual partners. There is even a record of two of an erstwhile Nizam’s sons stabbing one another over the love of a beautiful Hijra named Rehman.

The migration of people from elsewhere in Andhra Pradesh to Hyderabad brought in aspects of feudal and Devadasi sexuality. It is not surprising, therefore, that so many Hyderabadis patronise prostitutes, swap wives, practice adultery, try multiple positions and use sex toys. More recently, Hyderabad’s booming prosperity has attracted many young men and women from faraway places, many of whom are ready to mingle, whether married or single. The tolerant and permissive sexual ethos of Hyderabad has also made it a favourite LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-sexual) destination. Many young men and women live alone and this provides great LGBT opportunity. A disturbing downside to all this is that Andhra Pradesh has the highest numbers of HIV-AIDS-afflicted. Another worry is the recent spurt in homosexual sex crimes and killings.

The eye that looks carefully will see LGBTs everywhere. The parade grounds and public gardens are gay havens after sundown. The Yahoo! chat group, Gay Hyderabad, ranks among the top 10! There are gay bars, gay groups like Saathi (now extinct) and Mithrudu, and we even have our own Ashok Row Kavi, Hoshang Merchant, who is the author of Yaarana: Gay Writing from India, and other books.

Acceptance is important and the real reason why Hyderabad tops gay lists is because it is sexually a very tolerant and accepting place. I would even say ‘evolved’. It is perhaps the least homophobic of all Indian cities. One sees men holding hands, or walking with an arm over another man’s shoulders or waist, walking on the streets with the obvious body language of gay men, and nobody gives them insomuch as a second glance. The same is true of lesbians.

There is another reason. Let me illustrate. Californian law is homophilic. Therefore, many homosexuals move there, and San Francisco, for example, has a truly higher homosexual population than many other cities in the USA. By contrast, Indian law is homophobic, and gays can and do face a lot of public ostracism and opprobrium. In the absence of legal sanction, societal sanction and acceptance become extremely important determinants in such matters. By this analogy, it may be stated that Hyderabad is like the San Francisco of India because the population here is more liberal and many gays therefore choose to move here. The city is the LGBT headquarters of the nation at a time when a campaign is on to recognise alternative sexuality.

The writer is an andrologist, sexual medicine expert and author of Sex is Not a Four-Letter Word

Straight from the heart December 3, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Gay & Lesbian.
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From India Today:

Straight from the heart

377 arguments, 4 voices December 3, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Indian Express, Section 377.

From The Indian Express:

Vinay Sitapati Posted: Nov 23, 2008 at 0335 hrs IST

It makes no sense. Corporate lawyers in India are paid upward of Rs 12 lakh a year; American law salaries (even post-Lehman) are close to a crore. And these are just starting salaries. Why, then, should India’s brightest young lawyers—the world at their feet—be working at minimum wage, even free, arguing for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India? It just makes no sense.The case itself is more straightforward. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, drafted in Victorian India, criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. This has been interpreted to include sodomy, effectively criminalising homosexuality. A century-and-a-half later, the law is being challenged in the Delhi High Court. The petitioner, Naz Foundation, has challenged it on medical grounds, arguing that it prevents India’s 23 lakh gays, many of whom are at high risk from AIDS, from receiving treatment. The other group challenging the law, ‘Voices against 377’, relies more on human rights, contending that Section 377 violates the constitutional rights guaranteed to homosexuals. The court’s judgement is expected anytime now.

The jury might still be out, but there is no doubt who the better lawyers are. “You seem to have gathered much medical evidence that homosexuality is not a disease,” Chief Justice A.P. Shah told the petitioners while hearing the case, “unlike the (other side’s) lawyer, who argued in court that ‘homosexuality is a matter of fun’.”

This asymmetry in the legal arsenal is no coincidence. A team of highly educated young lawyers has committed its time to this case. These young lawyers, four of whom are profiled here, are only a small slice of India’s horde of activist lawyers, many of whom have fought for years against Section 377.

Even these four have disparate stories. One is a hard-nosed Supreme Court lawyer, driven to the case by the constitutional obviousness of the cause. The others are more activist: a gay lawyer who wants to help his community, a feminist driven by middle-class guilt and pleasure, and a small-town girl hoping to empower herself and the world around her. But what links these stories is that all four could be anywhere else, earning far more. The global options available only highlight the choice they have made. The socially conscious lawyers of the 1970s fought on passion and belief. Version 2.0’s passion is matched by rigorous legal skills. This is their story.



‘The argument for decriminalising homosexuality is a mainstream one’


When Vasuman Khandelwal was growing up, he had no idea what homosexuality meant. “The first time I was exposed to the idea was when I saw the Hollywood film Philadelphia (in which Tom Hanks plays a gay HIV victim).” But even then, he didn’t really understand. Then Vasuman went to law school in Bangalore, where Australian judge Michael Kirby came visiting. Justice Kirby is openly gay, and a gay advocate. “It set me thinking,” says Khandelwal, “since Justice Kirby was so brilliant, and so respectable, homosexuality couldn’t really be a perversion, could it?”

Khandelwal chose to study law at a time when the word “lawyer” conjured up images of sleazy black-suits shouting “Rs 300 for divorce” outside police stations. But when Khandelwal graduated from National Law School Bangalore, in 2004, and SOAS (London) in 2005, he had the pick of jobs to choose from. But this Delhi boy was always interested in the Indian Constitution, and the drama of the court room. “I always wanted to engage with Indian public institutions,” he says. It is this fascination for constitutional rights that drove Khandelwal to become a Supreme Court lawyer. It is this fascination that made him work on the 377 case, as junior to the eminent lawyer Shyam Divan. “The Constitution also protects homosexuals against discrimination,” he points out, “they deserve to live lives and build relationships—so essential to fulfilling life’s goals.”

Khandelwal is very much a mainstream lawyer, sharpening his legal skills working on corporate and tax matters in the Supreme Court. He rejects the “human rights” lawyer tag, terming it as “bad slotting”. “But the argument for decriminalising homosexuality,” he contends, “is very much a mainstream argument.” Is his family shocked that he is representing the gay community in court? “Not at all,” he says, “they understand that so much around them has changed; that gays have rights too.”



‘Why is it the state’s business to regulate love?‘


Having studied law at Columbia University. Mayur Suresh could be billing $250 an hour in lower Manhattan, or charging Rs 7,000 an hour in Nariman Point. Instead, he spends a typical day taking an auto to Delhi’s Tis Hazari, representing some of India’s most marginalised. Suresh is a lawyer for ‘Voices against 377’, a coalition of NGOs that is fighting to decriminalise homosexuality in the Delhi High Court. Hailing from a medical family in Bangalore, he graduated from National Law School Bangalore in 2004, and from Barack Obama’s alma mater in 2005. He is using this legal arsenal to work in Delhi as a litigator, and is currently combating what he terms “one of India’s most unjust laws”—Section 377, which holds homosexuality to be illegal in India. Suresh has a personal stake: he is homosexual. “There is a wider movement in the country fighting for the rights of the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT). For the gay community, whose very identity is condemned as illegal, lawyers play an important role,” he says. “I’m only doing my bit.”

Suresh finds that his skills as a lawyer help him to “take a bunch of facts, cut out the faff, and present a legal argument that will stand scrutiny in court.” But he is also wary of how the legal story of homosexuality has cut out a large part of the human element. “We are able to make a medical argument and a human rights argument in favour of decriminalising homosexuality. But what about love? Why is it the state’s business to regulate love?”

Though Mayur has never personally faced police harassment or discrimination, he points out that many in the gay community experience everyday fear. As he puts it, “So many of my friends are blackmailed, beaten up, and abused.” Suresh’s identity as a homosexual also makes him identify with others who are marginalised: “slum dwellers, for example” or “others who face the brunt of state harassment”. “That’s why I became a human rights lawyer. My identity makes me empathise with others who face the brunt of state abuse.”

Suresh recently told his middle-class parents that he is gay. “I was initially scared of telling them,” he says, “because I’ve heard horror stories about how some parents react. But my parents were very supportive. I guess that’s what real love is all about.”



‘We’re not just activists. We are first and foremost lawyers‘


“After studying law, I spent five months in Gujarat, helping riot victims file FIRs,” says Shivangi Rai. “It was painful, but also empowering. People looked up to me and I felt responsible for them. I realised then that this is how I could empower myself, and those around me.”

Power is important to Rai. Growing up in Patna was “stifling for a woman, so patriarchal,” she says. “My parents and school were liberal islands in this stifling world. They showed me that another world was possible.” It was this belief in another world that took Shivangi to study law at Indian Law Society Pune, where she graduated in 2005. She initially trained in corporate law, as “corporate law can be really empowering for women; we can earn so much on our own. That money buys us freedom.” But post graduation, Gujarat changed that.

For the last three years, Shivangi has been working with the HIV-AIDS unit at the NGO Lawyer’s Collective in the areas of women’s rights, public health, and the rights of HIV-positive people. “HIV/AIDS affects the most marginalised: sex workers, drug users, and Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). We can use law as a tool to create a more enabling socio-legal environment.” As a lawyer for the petitioner Naz Foundation, she is fighting Section 377 in the Delhi High Court on the grounds that “Section 377 violates the fundamental right to privacy, right to dignity and right to health of homosexuals”.

Rai values her legal training. “We are not just activists; we are first and foremost lawyers,” Shivangi points out. “So we use our legal skills to make a persuasive case in court, not just shrill rhetoric.”

How does her family react to her human rights activism? “My family respects my work,” Rai replies. “But I know that my family would want me to get a job in a regular law firm, earn more money and settle down. It reflects the fact that our society measures success only with money, not by the quality of work one does.”



‘As a feminist, I understand the sheer wrongness of Section 377‘


As a child, Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh, daughter of a senior MNC executive, remembers growing up in sheltered colonies. “But even then, I was driven by a sense of wrongness, that things were just ‘not fair’ in the world,” she says. She spent five years at National Law School Bangalore, where this inchoate sense of justice was politicised. “I was appalled that boys and girls were being treated differently, or that the university staff was illegally kept contractual.” She graduated in 2003 and did her Masters at Birkbeck College, University of London, graduating in 2006. “I was sure I would come back to India,” she says, “and work on women’s rights and human rights law.”

A practising lawyer in Delhi, she is associated with ‘Voices against 377’, fighting for decriminalising homosexuality. Why homosexuality? How does the case concern her? “I think that as a feminist, I understand the sheer wrongness of Section 377, and how it stigmatises an entire community. Discrimination on the basis of identity is something that feminists can easily relate to.” She also points out that “it’s not just about gay people—sexuality is everybody. Section 377 technically makes many heterosexual acts illegal as well—it’s just a violent, archaic, incoherent law that needs to go.”

Ghosh also works on cases involving domestic violence and manual scavenging (a petition on which is before the Supreme Court). Taking up such issues “allows me to have a direct conversation with the state. I can be in the thick of action,” she says. But she also finds the legal process limiting: “Its demands do not allow me to think in any depth about the issues.” So she also does legal research for many organisations—on state impunity, custodial torture, and livelihood issues arising out of the Supreme Court forest bench. She feels that her privileged position as an upper middle-class woman gives her the ability to make choices that aren’t available to everybody. “But, I’m no heroine,” she insists, “I’m doing this because it makes me happy, because it gives me satisfaction. Part of it is middle-class guilt of course, but part of it is sheer pleasure.”