On one of those lazy afternoons at a Mahim seafood joint, after a delectable meal, the talk invariably turns to politics and religion. Not in the polarizing sense that has come to characterize the popular discourse, but more in allusion to their impact on the communities to which we belong.
My friend, Karl Carvalho (name changed), and I can often be spotted on such culinary expeditions, talking about visual projects that would attempt to draw out the queerness that is so impenetrably hidden in the world around us, and view it in the light of prevailing social customs.
Faith features big in our chats, more so in the context of his strict Catholic upbringing. Carvalho has an uncanny eye for subtext. When it comes to ‘queer’ photography the usual staple is the beefcake calendar with its unclad men staring vacuously into the distance. We wanted to subvert that premise. Our photoshoot wouldn’t be just a sun-and-sand folio, but would encompass, in a nutshell, a complete cultural merry-go-round, if only to highlight how much a gay man is an inextricable part of his local heritage, and how his sexuality does not really detract from the role he plays in such a milieu. It could also reflect the kind of rootedness that he would have to forsake if he were to emerge from the closet, and the religion that hinders his personality from flourishing in what should essentially be his comfort-zone, however ironic that may sound.
Some settings: a scene depicting our subject playing football with local lads on a beach; or in his best formal attire waiting to attend Sunday Mass with his family; or enjoying fish and wine at a riverside restaurant on a particularly sultry Goan evening - all infused with, and lent character by, the implicit (and enriching) complexity that a man’s sexuality brings to his picture-postcard existence. How to achieve that texture in still frames wasn't really discussed, but we had lived through it in our own lives so we knew it was real.
“Religion is much more of a ritual in a small town. Everybody comes out for church on Sunday, so there is much more conformism to what becomes the dominant culture,” says Subhashim Goswami, a stage professional who has researched masculinity in close-knit Catholic communities. He feels that self-expression, especially for closeted gay men, can become problematic when what is private extends itself to a larger sphere, “since everybody knows everybody, unlike in bigger cities, where there is a degree of anonymity, and public space isn't as intimate.”
Though, in a Mumbai that is fast morphing into a constellation of suburbs, that isn't entirely true anymore. A casual look at the Facebook timelines of Catholic (and gay) friends on my list reveals a whirl of social engagements closely linked with faith - parish functions, christenings, weddings, choir sessions. Swamped with the obligations of living through a musical chairs existence that demands an interactive participation that becomes your primary identity, it isn’t hard to see why a large proportion of these men, some of whom are now in their thirties, haven’t come out to anyone. In sections of the Catholic community, being gay is still equated with ideas of eternal torment, and the hourglass seems to be running out of sand as queer men and women spend their lives keeping up appearances, and bearing the unearned guilt of having failed their parents somehow.
The Biblical references to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by God, are still cited by those who want to justify the relegation of homosexuals to the margins of society. Nolan Lewis, a 26-year-old tarot-card reader, says, “Being gay shouldn’t be such a bone of contention, when so much in the centuries-old code of conduct for Christians is clearly outmoded.” Lewis is this year’s Indian delegate to Mr Gay World, and his candidature for the July pageant, has already raised murmurs of discontent in his parish. He isn’t completely perturbed, “At the end of the day, no one can call me a bad Christian. For as long as I can remember, I was a Sunday School regular. I read at Mass, was among the most diligent altar boys, and sang in the choir.”
The out-of-turn resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, resulted in jubilation in some quarters. Liberals, gay or straight, men or women, religious or otherwise, disagreed with him quite vehemently because his position has been very conservative. In December, he is reported to have said that gay marriage offends human truth, and threatens justice and peace.
Outside of the Vatican, it isn’t all gloom, there are stories of affirmation. The more positive and compelling story is that of Steve Chalke, the Baptist leader in the UK, who in January openly batted for committed same-sex marriages, in fact, marrying them in his church. That has created ripples everywhere, but as he said, “I have formed my view, however, not out of any disregard for the Bible’s authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously.”
That kind of liberal mindset has been part of the Indian ethos, which is why alongside the spectre of the closet, are growing numbers of gay Catholics who are openly gay and have been accepted by their families. The most celebrated example is that of fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, who famously got married to his French husband, Jerome Marrel, in 2003, in what was dubbed the country’s first gay wedding. Rodricks’ comfort in his own skin as an openly gay man, has a lot to do with the support of his family. In an interview to a website in September last year, when his memoir The Green Room was released, he responded to a question about why he hadn’t dealt with his coming out in the book by saying, “Unlike other gay men, there was no need to come out to family or friends. I was open from the onset. In a natural way, they accepted the way I am. Everyone in my family, friends and industry saw who I was with. It was not some phantom list of one-night stands.”
This sentiment is echoed by other young men who have come out to their families in their teens, much before the dogma of conditioning could get hold of them, perhaps. Jason Cardoza, (24), actor, says, “It was more than just accepting or being tolerant, my parents were overwhelmingly affirming about who I was.” His experience with his own liberal Catholic family notwithstanding, he warns, “Although there are many gay people who have come out, it is still an issue with parents when it’s their own children involved.”
“The pastor is the one they go to first as they think it is the act of Satan,” says Edwin Daniel, who runs the queer retail brand Booty and the Brain. “My parents have never spoken to me about sex or sexuality. I found my own answers. I didn’t turn to religion as I considered it too flawed for a logical and sensible person.” Daniel may not be following the religion anymore, but his parents are still devout Catholics. “Being born Catholic hasn’t affected me ‘negatively’ certainly. But it hasn’t made it easier. I am certain that when I tell my parents, religion would play an integral part.”
Ultimately, Carvalho’s proposed photo-shoot didn’t quite take place along the lines we had envisaged, and instead of the outdoors of Goa, we settled for the upholstered interiors of a Bombay queen’s residence. Taking a cue from the work of 2Fik, a French-Morrocan performance artiste from Montreal, who creates elaborate photo tableau in which he acts out all the roles in different costumes, several frames from a young Catholic man’s life were coalesced together to give us a layered snapshot of his life (imagined or otherwise). The final result, which was printed in Bombay Dost magazine, wasn’t perhaps as edgy as the inspiration, but it worked to mirror the complexities of some gay catholics, struggling to come to terms with their ways of longing and belonging.
The writer is a playwright who runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions, and frequently writes on queer issues. Some names have been changed in the article to protect the privacy of those concerned.