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Blog Posts – Pride – 377 and after July 10, 2009

Posted by qmediawatch in Online/New Media, Section 377.
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A list of blog posts from the Indian blogosphere on the issue

























Orissa’s gay rally for their pride June 27, 2009

Posted by qmediawatch in Online/New Media, Pride 2009, Pride 2009 - Bhubaneswar, Sindh Today.
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Bhubaneswar, June 27 (IANS) Nearly 150 gays and lesbians form different parts of Orissa Saturday “came out of closet” and participated in a rally here to press for their rights.

Are you gay? Wanna be straight? No problem! February 7, 2009

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Gay, Hindustan Times, Marginalization, Online/New Media.
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From HTBlogs (The Delhiwalla):

Mayank Austen Soofi

Other than gonorrhea, syphilis, impotency, ‘night discharge’, the city’s legendary gupt-rog clinic (discreetly) claims to cure gay men of their homosexuality.

Sablok Clinic, in its own words, is one of the “oldest and most authentic sex clinic.” Established by Mr Hakim Hari Singh Sablok in 1928 at Lahore, it shifted to Delhi after the Indian partition.
Straight and happy (Photo by Mayank Austen Soofi)

Straight and happy (Photo by Mayank Austen Soofi)

Since then by advertising itself with pictures of happy-looking straight couples, Sablok clinic has grown to be a part of Delhi’s landscape.

One afternoon I met sexologist Dr Vinod Sablok (FRSH, UK), the late founder’s son, in his slickly designed first floor clinic at Daryaganj and introduced myself as a gay man tormented by man-to-man orientation. I said that my approaching wedding is making me nervous since I like having sex with men, not women.

Dr Sablok immediately asked me to unzip.

After examining my you-know-what with a magnifying lens, the venerable doctor assured me of full recovery. I was told that at the end of a month-long treatment, costing Rs 5,500, I would start desiring women, not men.

It happens only in India? Not really.

Not in India alone is homosexuality perceived as an illness curable through medicines and therapy sessions. It was only 34 years ago that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Pentagon continued with that classification as late as 2006 when it moved the ‘illness’ to a list of conditions ranging from bed-wetting to fear of flying.

Delhi’s Dr Sablok shares the distinguished rank of those crazed medical practitioners worldwide who have been tirelessly attempting to cure the homosexuals of homosexuality.

In the 1920s, medical researchers in Germany implanted testicles from corpses into the bodies of gay men. Electric shocks and hallucinogenic drugs were other popular treatments. In contrast, Dr Sablok’s remedy is pretty painless-one-month expensive medication and every gay in town could strut his stuff for a girl.

“It’s all bogus,” says Mr Rahul Singh, gay rights activist who works with the Naz Foundation at Kailash Colony. “People want to cash on to the insecurity of gays who are socially uncomfortable with their identity”, he says.

I also talked to Mr Ashok Row Kavi, UNAIDS Consultant and perhaps India’s most famous gay rights activist. “There is a whole branch of psychiatry in India that still believes that homosexuality is curable through ‘aversion therapy’,” he says. “Gay men are given electric shocks after showing them pictures of naked males and subsequently given chocolates/mithai after being shown photos of naked women.”

This whole ‘therapy’ is driven by market sources where parents bring in their single male children to the ‘mental health specialist’, say a couple of months before marriage, when the son complains that he is not sexually aroused by women.

Mr Kavi noted that one has to be careful with quacks as so many are homosexual themselves. “One such man eloped with the handsome patient he was supposed to cure,” he says.

Whether Mr Sablok himself is homosexual is something I cannot claim with confidence. His face remained expressionless when I took out my you-know-what.

I could never find true love in India: Prince of Rajpipla February 7, 2009

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Gay, Online/New Media, Personality.
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IANS story on Thaindian:

London, Jan 14 (IANS) British princes aren’t the only royals making news here: a gay Indian price told television interviewers Wednesday he could never find true love in India.Manvendra Singh Gohil, crown prince of the former princely state of Rajpipla in Gujarat, has been hitting the nightlife of Brighton, a British seaside resort, as part of a BBC series that invited three princes to go under cover in search of a soulmate.

The two other royals participating in ‘Undercover Princes’ are Prince Remigius of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and Prince Africa Zulu, a 30-year-old bachelor from Zululand in South Africa.

“I don’t think I could have found love in India because people who were attracted to me were more attracted by my princely fortune or princely status,” Gohil told BBC news Wednesday.

“I was undercover here, so it was easier – a litmus test – whether a person is genuinely in love with me.”

Gohil, who took on the name of Mani and worked at menial jobs, said he found life in Brighton difficult – not least because the size of his bedroom was about the size of his bathroom back in Rajpipla Palace.

He also had to make do without his retinue of domestic help: electricians, plumbers, gardeners, personal attendants, a butler, chauffeur and his own set of maidservants.

The Indian prince, who doesn’t know how to make tea let alone cook, had to do his own shopping.

“I never handle money. This was the first time I went to a supermarket. I have never done shopping in my life,” he said.

“It was a difficult situation in the beginning to get adjusted to a different culture.”

Gohil revealed that his openly gay status didn’t go down well with the African prince, who objected very strongly.

“He said that if he had known about it, he wouldn’t have come for it [the television serial].

“He took out the Bible and read it to me, that it is a sin to be gay. There were issues but we sorted it out through conversations.”

But he said the experience was worthwhile: “I did many things for the first time in my life, like shave off my moustache, shopping, wash dishes, flirting, dating.”

And at least one of the three princes finds love in the forthcoming serial, said the BBC.

Change the archaic law against homosexuality February 4, 2009

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Online/New Media, Section 377.
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From Merinews.com:

Attitudes towards homosexuality have shifted slightly and there is greater openness in cities but homophobia is still rampant. It’s time the archaic laws are reformed and Section 377 scrapped. Now, the issue has reached the Delhi High Court.

CJ: omi , 3 days ago Views:172 Comments:1

THE WORD – gay was a taboo in India once upon a time, not any more. Zamana badal gaya hai mere yaar, homosexuality is no longer considered a psychological disorder or abnormal. With time, things have changed for better. The gay parades held in the year 2008, bear testimony to the fact, yet there’s miles to go ahead. As the fight for the right goes on, many urban Indians are coming out of the closet to speak and stand up for their rights.

In 2005, Prince Manavendra Singh Gohil publicly came out as a gay. Since then many Indians have dared to be who they are. In a country where sexuality in any form is rarely discussed openly and sex is still talked about in hushed tones, the minority group (gay) has made their voice heard. Bollywood has been of great help in eradicating the myths and misunderstanding towards gay.

The first Big Bollywood G (gay) success was ‘My Brother Nikhil’. The movie redefined the meaning of gay and the common man learnt man to man love was not just about cross dressing and transgender. It was about handsome hunks too. Interestingly, ‘Fashion’ and ‘Dostana’ also dealt with the gay world.

Madhur, the undisputed king of realistic film says, that ‘Fashion’ is not about two gay designers. We agree but one can’t deny they play a vital role. ‘Fashion’ would be incomplete without them. And the much touted, supposedly gay film ‘Dostana’ tantalises the taste buds as John shows bubble bum. How can one forget Kiron Kher accepting John as the beloved of her laadla (Abhi)?

Attitudes towards homosexuality have shifted slightly and there is greater openness in cities but homophobia is still rampant. People are more individualistic and as live-in relationships are approved, the gays in India look towards the future with hope. It’s time the archaic laws are reformed and Section 377 scrapped. Till then being gay is an uphill task. Now, the issue has reached the Delhi High Court where the de-criminalisation of homosexuality will be debated. We can say, picture abhi baaki hain….

BMA Recognizes The Contributions Made by Gay, Lesbian Doctors to NHS February 4, 2009

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Gay & Lesbian, Online/New Media, Workplace.
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From MedIndia.com (pg 1 and 2):

Category: General Health News

Sunday, February 01, 2009 at 12:36:29 PM

To mark February 2009’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) History Month, the BMA has produced a report which describes the experiences of LGBT doctors and medical students working in the NHS.

Co-chair of the BMA’s Equal Opportunities Committee (EOC), Dr Justin Varney, said today:

“Societal attitudes towards homosexuality have changed over the years. There was a time when homosexuals were imprisoned as criminals and treated with electroshock therapy to ‘cure them of their disease’. The 2004 Gender Recognition Act was a major step forward and at last offers legal protection to homosexuals.

“Like the UK, the NHS has come a long way in recognising sexual and gender equality since it was founded in 1948. Many of the stories in the report show that LGBT doctors are out and proud at work and this is brilliant news, however, there are still accounts of discrimination which shows we still have a long way to go.

“The doctors who have spoken out in this report have been incredibly honest and brave and I hope their accounts will inspire other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender doctors to be proud of their contributions to the NHS and to patients.”

Here are some examples from the report:

“In the past, I was fearful of coming out and kept my work and private life entirely separate. However, it’s much easier when you are ‘out’ and don’t have to worry. I was pleased to be appointed knowing that the ‘gossip’ had reached the appointments committee in advance. Luckily, I no longer have to come out at work, as everyone knows, and the majority of my colleagues are entirely blasé.” – Dr Bewley, London.

“When I was training to become a doctor there was only one ‘out’ LGBT GP in the area. Now there are hardly any straight white male GPs. That’s what I call progress!.” – Dr Paddy Glackin, London.

“I have been with my partner for seven years and we are like any ‘normal’ couple and enjoy the many same things as our straight friends who are married or in a relationship. I have recently started working towards my partnership in General Practice and everyone at work has been brilliant. My partner and I are treated just like everyone else and this is how it should be.” – Dr Nitesh Mistry, Birmingham.

Repeal of India’s Sodomy Law January 23, 2009

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Online/New Media, Section 377.
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From Ego magazine:

By Yuvraj Joshi*

Drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1860, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—India’s sodomy law— criminalizes ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. The law has been called ‘archaic and brutal,’ ‘the colonial era monstrosity’. In 2000, the Law Commission of India in its 172nd report concluded that it should be repealed. Nevertheless, Section 377 continues to be used to target sexual minorities and violate their rights and well being. There is a debate among human rights advocates and the political and religious right concerning whether legal reforms are necessary to protect sexual minorities. This article surveys the main arguments of that debate. The international human rights community has largely overlooked the plight of sexual minorities in India. However, as this article will illustrate, the abuses that occur under Section 377 are serious violations of the rights of sexual minorities and should draw the attention and concern of state and non-state actors.



On 4 January 2006, the City of Lucknow police arrested four men under Section 377 for allegedly having sex in public. An independent investigation later found that the men were not having sex in public and that the First Incident Report filed by the police was false. The police had arrested one of the men after learning that he was a homosexual and coerced him into providing information concerning the others. The Lucknow incident illustrates that the person who appears likely to commit sodomy is the target of the sodomy law, whether or not he commits the act. Even when the law is not being used to prosecute sexual relations, its existence operates to legitimize practices that violate the rights and well being of sexual minorities. Hijras and kothis have been raped during police investigations involving Section 377. The statute has also been used to intimidate lesbians into ending their relationships. NGOs working with the queer community face the threat of being found culpable for aiding and abetting a crime under Section 377. Section 377 is currently under challenge at the Delhi High Court. On 7 December 2001, the Naz Foundation, an AIDS NGO based in New Delhi, filed a writ petition before the High Court challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377 (Naz Foundation v Govt of N.C.T. of Delhi & Ors [2001]). The petition asks the Court to read down (not repeal) Section 377 by decriminalising private consensual sexual relations, which would allow its continued use against child sexual abuse. Until a separate child sexual abuse law is created, Section 377 remains the only recourse to justice for male victims of child sexual abuse. On 2 September 2004, the High Court dismissed the Naz petition without considering its constitutional challenge. It found ‘no cause of action’, declaring that ‘just for the sake of testing the legislation, a petition cannot be filed’. On 3 February 2006, the Supreme Court of India overruled the dismissal and ordered the High Court to consider the petition based on its merits. As of November 2008, the appeal is once again being heard at the High Court.


Main Positions

The first position theoretical and political position concerning the repeal of the sodomy law is the conservative view that Section 377 should not be repealed or read down. India’s political and religious right has articulated this view in response to calls for overturning Section 377. The conservative position defines homosexuality as ‘not Indian’, equating national identity and citizenship with heteronormativity. The second position is the liberal view that calls for the decriminalisation of particular sexual relations. through an appeal to the legal rights of sexual minorities. At the core of the liberal position stands a distinction between public and private realms. According to this view, private consensual sexual acts should be protected from interference by the state. The conservative and liberal positions represent the two most commonly held views in the mainstream of the sodomy law debate. The third position comes from feminist and queer dissenters and responds to the liberal position. While dissenters strive toward positive social change for gender and sexual minorities, they criticize the reliance on the legal rights discourse and identity-based politics that is required by the liberal approach. There is also a further debate within the queer community concerning whether any legal reform is useful for creating positive social change for sexual minorities. While some maintain that the law is the most powerful means for creating significant change, others contend that legal reform impedes more radical efforts. Finally, I want to present a fourth position. This position calls for the repeal (not reading down) of Section 377 and the simultaneous creation of a law prohibiting the sexual abuse of children. While I am sympathetic toward the concerns raised by the feminist and queer dissenters, their criticisms do not diminish the case for overturning Section 377. It is difficult to envision a safe condition for sexual minorities in India that involves the existence of Section 377 in any form. While there is no doubt, however, that the repeal of the sodomy law by itself cannot relieve the plight of sexual minorities, it will help to create conditions that are conducive to positive social change. Archana Parashar’s claim, made in context of the struggle of Indian women, applies to Section 377 as well: ‘…instead of dismissing law reform as a means of achieving equality… it is more productive to realise the limitations of law and have appropriate expectations that law reform by itself will be insufficient to change society’


Arguments for Repeal

Rights advocates argue that Section 377 violates the fundamental rights of sexual minorities in a number of ways. On one level, Section 377 indirectly leads to rights violations by allowing stigma and discrimination toward sexual minorities. It engenders prejudicial beliefs and legitimizes discriminatory practices by both state and non-state actors. On another level, Section 377 directly requires state actors to violate the legal rights of sexual minorities. The police, for example, may arrest any person suspected of engaging in ‘unnatural’ sexual relations, whether or not the act has been committed. Therefore, state actors violate rights through the ‘proper’ implementation of Section 377. Section 377 also directly contradicts the legal rights guaranteed to citizens under the Indian constitution. Rights-based arguments have garnered considerable support, yet they are not without some limitations. Feminist and queer dissenters argue that such arguments exclude those individuals who do not or cannot conform to limited notions of sexual identity. For example, hijra is an indigenous gender identity regarded as a ‘third sex’ that is neither man nor woman. It, therefore, defies the notion of binary sexes that is implicit in both heterosexual and homosexual orientations. Some also argue that libertarian ideals may not carry the same moral appeal for Indian judges as their counterparts in the United Kingdom. Therefore, a critical evaluation of the limitations of legal rights discourse in the Indian case is imperative. The Naz petition manifests some of these limitations. First, recall that the petition asks the court to read down and not to repeal the law to allow its use against child sexual abuse. Feminist and queer dissenters argue, however, that reading down the law seems to require leaving existing sexual categories untouched. Consider secondly the use of the right to privacy argument. As the law stands, two men cannot have private sexual relations because homosexuality cannot be conducted within ‘the right kind of privacy’ of a heterosexual marriage. Naz calls for the inclusion of homosexual relations among those privileged private relations that are protected under the constitution. The feminist and queer dissenters respond that once the notion of privacy is understood in its broader social context, it becomes clear that sexual minorities cannot even hope to enjoy the benefits of privacy. Gautam Bhan illustrates that since the homes of hijras are perceived as public ‘brothels’, police can walk in without even a warrant. Therefore, questions concerning who can afford and who is afforded privacy in India merit critical attention. Naisargi Dave’s analysis of the Naz petition captures the essence of the feminist and queer dissenting standpoint: ‘[Naz’s petition] has been critiqued by advocates as an anti-woman, and even anti-poor, political compromise to safeguard certain forms of newly respectable sexual behavior’. The author sees Naz’s efforts to secure privacy for homosexual men as opposing the feminist struggle to challenge the private sphere, which holds several women captive and protection through which remains a fantasy for several others. More generally, the feminist and queer dissenters see the inclusion of gender and sexual minorities into a hetero-patriarchal legal regime as reason for concern. Section 377 also renders it difficult to target HIV/AIDS interventions to sexual minorities and violates their right to life. Due to the threat of prosecution under Section 377, homosexual men do not seek the health services that are necessary for HIV prevention, which makes them vulnerable to transmission. Health service providers also are discouraged from reaching out to the queer community, which diminishes accessibility of services. Section 377 undeniably violates the rights and well being of sexual minorities, even if there is a debate concerning the usefulness of legal rights discourse. This article now turns to arguments against the repeal that have been put forward by the political and religious right in India.


Arguments against Repeal

The standard politically conservative response to the plight of sexual minorities in India has been to deny formal discrimination under the law. The Government of India, in a counter affidavit to the Naz petition, provides, ‘[Section 377] has only been applied on the complaint of a victim and there are no instances of its being used arbitrarily’. Alok Gupta astutely observes that rigid evidentiary requirements have obscured Section 377’s impact on sexual minorities. Since trial proceedings are not recorded, cases that went to trial under Section 377 and were not appealed remain unreported. Gupta recommends a reevaluation of evidentiary requirements as well as notions of harm, cause and injury ‘to fully understand the impact of anti-sodomy laws’. To undermine the plight of sexual minorities, the Government emphasizes the use of ‘neutral’ language in the statute: ‘Section 377 of the IPC does not make any distinction between procreative or non-procreative sex. It only provides punishment for carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. However, although Section 377 does not mention an offense of sodomy, the case law of Section 377 testifies that the state in fact applies the statue in ways that targets sexual minorities. A second argument against the repeal provides that homosexuals are not an Indian minority at all. The Government argues, ‘[there has not been] any history of persecution of MSMs [men who have sex with men] in this country, hence gathering, organising and publicly campaigning for ‘equality’ for such a group has no justifiable rationale’. This argument presents a dilemma for right advocates concerning the use of identity-based arguments. On the one hand, the use of identity categories such as gay and lesbian in legal discourse is inherently exclusionary and generally oversimplified. On the other hand, recognition as sexual minority group is critical within legal discourse that does not recognize equality claims unless they are made in reference to the normative standard of heterosexuality. A third related argument against the repeal posits that Indian society does not tolerate homosexuality. Citing the Law Commission’s 42nd report released in 1971, the Government argues, ‘Indian society by and large disapproves of homosexuality and disapproval [is] strong enough to justify it being treated as a criminal offense even where the adults indulge in it in private’. Since the Law Commission’s more recent 172nd report recommends that Section 377 should be repealed, this argument relies on a false appeal to authority. The more problematic part of this argument, however, is its reliance on majoritarian morality: ‘The public… have shown tolerance of a new sexual behavior or sexual preference but it is not the universally accepted behavior’. Legal reform does not necessarily reflect and may lead to changes in public opinion. The Indian Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, for example, did not reflect the outlook of a male-dominate public sphere. Furthermore, homosexuality is neither ‘new’ to India, nor a ‘western’ import. There is also at least some tolerance of and ambivalence toward homosexuality in contemporary India. Therefore, public opinion concerning homosexuality is not as monolithic as the Government makes it out to be. The public tolerance of homosexuality is itself extraneous to the deliberation of the rights of sexual minorities. The Government seems to be arguing for Lord Devlin-esque conception of legal moralism that is problematic both from a philosophical standpoint and also by appeal to constitutional rights. The harm principle condemns legal moralism, and it is possible that the harm principle and other appeals to liberty play some role in Indian jurisprudence. The Hindu right is another politically conservative group that argues that homosexuality is against Indian values, where ‘Indian’ is code for ‘Hindu’. Besides delineating ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ sexual relations as per usual, the right also distinguishes between ‘modern Indian’ values and ‘western’ values. Since homosexuality is defined as necessarily ‘western’, there is no place for homosexuals within the Hindu state. The leaders of the Hindu right occupy important political positions and influence legislative decision making in India. The courts, however, are relatively distant from their pervasive influence and are more open to secular liberal political voices. The law, therefore, is an important site from which to engage in a political struggle for sexual minority rights. These arguments against the repeal are flawed and cannot justify the prolonged existence of Section 377. A critical analysis of the conservative position reveals that it is against the fundamental rights of life, liberty and equality that are enshrined in the Indian constitution. In the end, these arguments strengthen rather than weaken the case for overturning Section 377.



Based on this article’s discussion of arguments for and against the repeal of Section 377, I want to propose three directions for legal reform. First, a law dealing with the sexual abuse of children should be created. Child rights advocates have campaigned for a separate law that addresses the needs of abused children, which are currently overlooked due to Section 377’s emphasis on ‘unnatural’ acts. The creation of a law dealing with the sexual abuse of children will eliminate the dilemma of deciding between child and sexual minority rights. Second, Section 377 should be completely repealed and not only read down. While legal reform sometimes impedes more radical efforts toward achieving positive social change, that is not the case here. By recognising the limitations and possibilities of legal discourse, rights advocates could and should use legal reform to improve the status of sexual minorities. There is no doubt that the repeal of the sodomy law cannot by itself relieve the plight of sexual minorities. Nevertheless, it may be a significant part of the solution. Third, there is a need for a broader conceptual shift in the understanding of sexuality and sexual assault under the Indian law. Rather than moralistic laws that maintain the hierarchy of natural and unnatural, there is a need for laws that recognise sexuality as a positive aspect of human life. There also needs to be a shift in the aim of sexual assault laws from the protection of the ‘modesty’ of women and children toward a consent-based approach. While some advocates are rightly skeptical about the creation of positive laws that will protect gender and sexual minorities, conjecturing legal possibilities is imperative for creating positive legal change in India.


 * LL.B. Candidate (University College London, United Kingdom), B.A. (University of Toronto, Canada). For inquiries, please e-mail yuvraj.joshi@gmail.com.


Published January 15, 2009




Eunuchs move SC seeking quota in jobs January 21, 2009

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Marginalization, Online/New Media, Transgender.
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From NDTV.com:

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.

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.