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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 May 2005, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Fear and loathing in gay India

Throughout South Asia, homosexuality has been a taboo subject. There are signs in some areas that gay people are now becoming more open in their behaviour. In the first of a series of articles from the region, the BBC's Soutik Biswas looks at gay life in India.

Gays in India
Indian laws say same sex relationships are "unnatural"
She is a qualified computer professional and works in a government job, but has been forced to live a double life for many years now.

At work, she uses her true name. Outside, she uses a nom de guerre, heading a support group for lesbians, bisexuals and transgender communities.

She lives with her partner - who lives a similar double life - in an apartment in the eastern city of Calcutta they bought together with a bank loan after fighting for one for six years.

"When we went to the bank for the first time to get a loan, I was told I could not put down my partner as a co-applicant. It had to be a spouse. Finally, last year, the bank relented. I put down my partner as a friend," says Malobika, 41.

'Unnatural offence'

It has been a long, strange trip towards coming out of the closet for lesbians like Malobika in conservative India, where same-sex relationships are illegal and almost blasphemous.

The 145-year-old colonial Indian Penal Code clearly describes a same sex relationship as an "unnatural offence".

Rafique
These days, there is a greater openness about the gay community in the big cities. But homophobia is still pretty rampant
Rafiquel Haque, gay activist

In a largely patriarchal society, lesbians bear the brunt of social ostracisation and the law more than gay men. In many states, lesbians have taken their lives after facing harassment at home and outside.

Malobika and her friends have been luckier - "We are educated and have a class advantage," as one of them says.

Born to a mechanical engineer father and a homemaker mother, Malobika discovered her sexuality when she was 17. Some 18 years later, when her parents were frantically looking around for a suitable groom, she finally told them the truth.

"My mother said she did not understand what I was saying. It took some time for the whole thing to sink in," she said, sitting in a smoky teashop in downtown Calcutta.

Five years ago, Malobika along with five other lesbians started up a support group called Sappho named after the Greek lyric poet.

They run a helpline, publish a magazine and take up cases of human rights abuses.

Anguished world

The helpline has become their window to the dark world of Indian lesbians.

Gays in India
The new openness often masks the frustrations within

Most of the women who call in say they have been forcibly married off by their parents.

When they tell the truth, they are thrown out of their homes by their spouses, parents and relatives.

Most of these hapless women suffer from extremely low esteem and say that something is gravely wrong with them.

"Am I normal? Am I like other women? Tell me please," asks an anguished caller on the Sappho helpline.

A panicky man asks, "My wife says she is a lesbian. Can you please cure her?"

Gay march
The gay march in Calcutta has become an annual feature

Sappho has a psychiatrist on the line, who counsels these panicky women - and men.

Homophobia, say support groups, is acute in India.

Malobika says when parents find out - or the girl tells them - the truth, they run to the doctor.

"The doctor typically tells the girl to swim, cook and knit. 'That way she will become a girl again,' they say.

"The parents then usually take the girl home and shut her up, cutting her off from the outside world."

Many girls from the villages escape to the big city after being thrown out of their homes.

Greater acceptance

Malobika remembers one 28-year-old girl who ran away to Calcutta to be with her partner and take up a job in a beauty parlour. Four years later, her estranged parents came to visit her - and since then have accepted the relationship.

Pavan Dahl
Pavan Dhal is worried about "risky sexual behaviour" among the gays

In big cities like Calcutta, there is slightly more acceptance of same sex relationships these days. As in other parts of the world, India has seen a growing gay and lesbian movement.

"These days, there is a greater openness about the gay community in the big cities. But homophobia is still pretty rampant," says Rafiquel Haque, 31, a theatre actor and gay rights activist.

This means that when bright, young men like Rafiquel decide to come out of the closet and begin talking to the media, they lose some friends.

One reason is that gay behaviour is also regarded as sexually predatory.

Rafiquel says he was friends with a "liberal" artist couple and their only son - till they saw him on a television show on gay issues.

"The moment they came to know I was gay they stopped talking. They stopped their son from meeting me. His mother told me, 'If my son becomes like you, I will commit suicide'."

Coming out of the closet, however, is easier now: the eastern West Bengal state alone has some nine gay and lesbian support groups.

Carnival

Rafiquel, who was instrumental in setting up one in 1993, says they reached out to 5,000 gay men in the state within three years.

Two men dance together in nightclub in Bombay
The government says public morals need to be protected

Two years ago, he organised a same sex mardi gras in Calcutta. Since then it has become a regular yearly event.

Plays on gay issues are staged, members debate community issues, and books and journals are sold at this merry fortnight-long carnival.

It climaxes with a colourful march through the streets of Calcutta - last year as many 300 gays, lesbians and transgender people participated in the march.

But life is still not easy even for a gay man in India - he usually faces derision at work, and struggles to find a partner.

Most gay men usually cruise darkly lit streets and unkempt parks and often get picked up by police looking for bribes.

"It's not easy to meet a partner. I still don't have a lasting partner. It can be very lonely sometimes," says Pavan Dhal, 36, who heads a support group.

"There's also a lot of risky sexual behaviour. Its not a very happy situation that way".


The following comments reflect the balance of views received.

The real issue in India when it comes to religion, caste, sexuality etc is the battle between the older guardians and the new generation. For society to progress as a whole, grassroots mobilisation on each front can help raise awareness amongst the people. However, many activists become victims to violence and cannot fall back on the law for protection. It seems like a vicious cycle.
Layla Rao, USA

As a gay man living (and also having been born and raised) in California, I recognize the huge gift I've been granted by having myself, my life and my style for the most part accepted by the American community at large. Do not get me wrong, there are struggles the gay community here in the USA still face, particularly since the fundamentalist right-wing found their voice and vehicle for articulation in George W. Bush. However, recognition of and a keen interest in the struggle of all gay peoples across the globe needs to take place. Perhaps one day Calcutta and Mumbai will mean to South Asia what San Francisco and New York mean for North America.
Elliott, California, United States

I think its great that things are getting better for homosexuals in India. But like every other thing that is 'taboo' in India, there is hardly any discussion about it. Until people start to talk about it more, change will be slow. In a country that can't even deal with the Aids issue as it should and dispense sex education as it should, homosexuals have a long, long way to go. Also, Dr Subramaniam, hiding behind the wall of 'we need to sort out other issues' will not work.
Sonali, USA/India

It's unfortunate that the opposition to giving rights to homosexuals in countries all over the world is so rooted in culture. Homosexual rights are an incredibly pressing humanitarian concern and it is rather disappointing that we cannot grant these rights due to people's deeply held cultural beliefs. It is not right to interfere with someone's culture, yet it is also not right to allow such rampant homophobia to exist. Which do you choose?
Emily Rutherford, USA

It is evident from the Kamasutra and the sculptures at Kajuraho that ancient Hindu India recognized and probably accepted homosexual practices. It was only the advent of the intolerant puritanical Islamic and Christian conquerors of India that has brought Indians to their present despicable state of intolerance of homosexuality and for that matter anything that is not orthodox. Hinduism is a tolerant religion but Indians are not a tolerant people.
Kishore, USA

My heart goes out to every young Indian, male or female who is not permitted the full expression of individual sexuality and personal rights in general. The erotic nature of Hindu stories and depictions has left me quite confused as to the prudishness about sex in general among Indian Hindus. Is it just Victorian nonsense or something deeper? There is no contradiction between a desire for an end to social inequality, especially uprooting the stubborn caste system, and acceptance of homosexual civil rights, which essentially lay out the right to be left alone and protected from the worst forms of repression. A tolerant society is more in keeping with India's establishment as pluralistic state.
Steven Dornbusch, Los Angeles, California, USA

I am happy to see Indian gays fighting for their rights. I am gay and live in France. Being gay is not very easy here, either, but compared to India or other countries like that, we live a very enjoyable life.
Antoine, France

It's a pity that the Indian so called society rules so much on personal lives. As a matter of fact a straight man cannot have a straight girl of choice, the system decides. Its the pseudo-prudish hypocritical society and the rules which are not totally based on history should be changed. A man has his own right to live, act and perform in his life, and no other man, in any utopian situation has a right to comment or criticise his behaviour.
Rakesh, India

Living as a child in Madras (Chennai) in the 1980's I remember being surprised at all the men holding hands. I had never seen anything like this in the US and wondered why there were so many gay men. In fact, I saw many more men holding each other's hands than women with men. Eventually I guessed that men were holding hands as a substitute for the affection and touching that did not exist, at least publicly, between men and women. I still find it ironic that while both man - woman public affection and homosexuality are practically disallowed, man-to-man public affection is accepted.
John Miller, USA

I think that India should try to deal with its ethnic and caste problems first, before dealing with a unnecessary and unimportant issue of gay rights! With language and caste discrimination at its height the punitive issue of gay rights is a waste of time.
Dr Karthigeyan Subramaniam, USA

I live in Spain and my government will legalise same-sex marriage very soon. Homosexuality is in the centre of the political agenda right now but the most important thing is that all parties agree gay people should have the same rights that heterosexual people have. A few years ago, the situation in Spain was absolutely different. When I read about what is happening in India, I want to encourage Indian gay people to fight because change is possible and it is possible very soon.
Ignacio, Spain

All the comments here make everyone believe that this issue is only in India and not in the Western world. Western countries are still caught up with the same sex issue and finding it difficult to find direction to move forward. There is greater understanding in the Western world compared to countries such as India. We need to understand that India has a centuries old culture and tradition. It is not easy to change the situation quickly. I believe more education is very important at this point.
Yogi Selliah, Canada

It is difficult being gay in India. The pressure to get married comes from everyone around you - starting with your parents right to even work colleagues. Indian society dictates that getting married is the ideal way of life, so being gay is an uphill struggle. It can be also a mental torment trying to fit into everyone's way of thinking. I was brought up in Bombay but have managed to be myself as a gay in the UK, and 20 years later my folks are still trying to find a wife for me. It never stops and I wonder how long it will be before the thinking changes. From my last visit to Bombay, there seems to be vast changes on an economic level but attitudes towards gays still have a long way to go for even being accepted.
Sajan, UK

Homosexuality has been richly portrayed in ancient Hindu texts and temple drawings, it is even visible in the Bhagavad Gita and the like. Successive colonisations led to the Victorian morality which gave way to the subject being taboo. Also, the comparison between England and India on this level of openness makes no sense because cultural paradigms are poles apart in the two countries. Yet, I think we are making great progress compared to other developing countries in tackling extremely sensitive issues. We are building a open and absolutely free democracy albeit slowly.
Monika Kochhar, India

I welcome your coverage of this issue and encourage you to continue and expand its scope. Like many others, I am happy to read of India's emergence as a world economic power after its recent history. I applaud it as the world's largest democracy. In that context it is duty bound to acknowledge the rights of its sexual minorities and give them the full protection of the law, nothing less.
William Roche, France

If India wants to take strides with the rest of the developing countries, it will need a broader acceptance for different kinds of people. This means gays, lesbians, minorities of all kind, races, languages and philosophies. That's the way cookie crumbles in developed, educated democracies like the US and UK. My take is that 5-10 years down the line when India achieves 100% literacy, things will get better for all of who are being oppressed, unheard or misunderstood. br />CJ Vasani, New York, USA

I went to India and was shocked at how gay people were seen and treated. I thought that we had a problem in the UK with anti-gay feelings, but it appears that we are light years ahead of our friends in India.
Frank Hindle, Manchester, UK

Richard Jones of Sweden may not be a 'homophobic threat', but his view that there is something 'unnatural' about homosexuality is indeed homophobic, on two levels. First, homosexual behaviour is frequently observed among animals as diverse as ducks and monkeys. Secondly, human beings engage in unnatural behaviour every day. What could be more unnatural than taking aspirin, flying in a aeroplane, or using a computer to read the news? Homosexual behaviour cannot sensibly be regarded as unnatural, and nor can 'unnatural' behaviour be necessarily classified as wrong.
Lee Jones, Oxford, UK

As a gay boy myself in a Chinese university, I don't feel much social pressure imposed on me, because there are also some other guys who are homosexual on my campus. Some of us know each other well and develop some very normal friendships. We exchange views on life and help each other solve some of the psychological problems. We don't try to expect social acceptance for us, but try to establish a soothing environment among ourselves.
Danny, China

Having just returned from five weeks in India, my view is that the problem is far worse than described here and suppression of relationships is not restricted to gays. In Mumbai at least moral policing means that displays of affection, even simple holding hands is rarely seen. A kiss in public will cause widespread disbelief. This has led to abuse, with tales of couples being harassed by police for bribes and recently a young girl of 14 being raped by a policeman after being pulled up for supposedly behaving indecently with a boy, this was in broad daylight. For gay groups to make real and lasting progress, I feel that need to broaden their agenda and make the message to India's non-gay youth that they too are also being heavily suppressed.
Barry B, UK

So disheartening to hear people say things like "choose to be gay". Are you kidding? Would we risk losing jobs, family, friends and security and, often, face violence, death and imprisonment for a lifestyle choice? Please accept that being gay is an identity. It varies in nature and expression but it is fixed and real. We've moved on from thinking that black people have smaller brains; that women are incapable of logical thought. One day this planet will be enlightened enough to realise that love is all that truly matters and that gay people are real, valid and deserving of their fellows humans' respect.
Danilo, London, UK

It's a good thing to show these type of things on the net, it creates awareness in people, especially people living in rural areas in India.
Amrinder Singh, Ireland/India

More and more articles like these should be published so that common people become aware of the situation, which would eventually help society to accept these people.
Manav, Afghanistan

People in all over world need to understand that being gay or lesbian is not a prank! I am not gay, but I think we need to mull over the issue and understand things from others point of view, rather than our old traditions.
Harpreet Singh, London, UK

Being an Indian I understand the culture and the various restrictions there are. I face up to a lot in my life with my parents and relationships outside. In my opinion people should do what they feel is right for themselves. However this causes so many problems with families who end up breaking apart. People should accept each other for who they are which shows development in understanding. I don't exactly agree with gay relationships but I wouldn't judge anyone because every one is different and the sooner that every one accepts this the happier people will be. Places like Indian are too culture bound and I feel they need to expand their horizons and not be afraid of true reality.
Gurjit, England

Why is it in all of the discussions about gay people those who don't quite have the same point of view as the gay groups are called homophobic or "aren't enlightened or educated"? I have nothing against people who choose to live as gay and I have worked for many years amongst people who are gay, but this intolerant attitude towards people who think that it is not natural to be gay is another form of "viewpoint fascism" and here in Sweden it is getting so bad that it is even damaging the chances of people accepting gay people into everyday life. I can accept and associate with people who are gay but its my personal opinion that homosexuality is not in agreement with natures order, but this does not make me a homophobic threat.
Richard Jones, Sweden

Having spent some time in Calcutta last year, I experienced many encounters with other gay men. Although I was not looking for a partner at the time I was approached quite openly and propositioned in the street. My status as a Westerner no doubt contributed to this, but even clubbing with Calcuttan friends I was treated just the same as my straight friends, if with a little more interest. I think there is no doubt that homosexuality is a huge issue in India, but it's a Western desire to assert one's identity as one thing or another that is upsetting the balance. There is no gujurati word for 'gay', for instance, and I had a relationship with a man in Delhi who though dismissed by his colleagues as 'not normal' was nonetheless accepted, along with his open sexuality.
Charlie, England

This is very disheartening. People should be allowed to have their own private matters since it is not something illegal.
K Hong, Singapore

I am a gay man of 20, I have not yet been able to tell my family in India of my sexuality due to the immense misunderstanding they have of homosexuality. in England it is better, but still there is prejudice to overcome, especially from members of the Indian community.
M Brahmbatt, UK/India




SEE ALSO
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Gay Bombay comes out
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'Girlfriend' causes India storm
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Smashing India's sexual taboos
29 Oct 02 |  Entertainment
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29 May 01 |  South Asia
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