Over the past two decades, India has witnessed a kind of slow-burning gay movement (if it can be called that), and although we are not yet at a point where queer people are no more second-class citizens in the world’s largest democracy, we have experienced acceleration in the process of change over the last few years. One positive outcome has been that being gay is no longer considered as something lurching in the underbelly, but as part of a vibrant culture in its own right, that enriches society at large.
Being aligned with the queer movement is now the cause célèbre that attracts celebrities by the hordes. It wasn’t always so. In the 1990s, before the Internet boom, the only talk about alternative sexuality in the media was via the audacious quotes of outspoken stars like Pooja Bhatt in interviews to glossies like Stardust. The supermodel, Milind Soman, was also rather blasé about bisexuality in his interviews, and he became the first bonafide ‘big name’ attraction at a gay event, when he launched R Raj Rao’s book The Boyfriend in Mumbai. This was in 2003, the same year Leela Seth openly talked about her son’s bisexuality in her book, On Balance. There was muted coverage in the media then, and it was only in 2006 that Vikram Seth himself came out strongly for the gay cause with his open letter to the government, and his co-signatories included a host of public figures from Soli Sorabjee and Captain Lakshmi Sahgal to Arundhati Roy.
All of this engendered some drawing-room discussion and an op-ed or two, but it wasn’t till 2009 that queer issues captured the imagination of a mainstream press. In March that year, Celina Jaitley, former Miss India, re-launched Ashok Row Kavi’s Bombay Dost magazine in the Oxford bookstore in Mumbai (several TV and film actors had turned down the offer). While the paparazzi were more interested in the little black number she wore to the event, she was brazen in her support of gay people.
Somehow, this harnessing of popular culture, through its readymade icons, was proving beneficial to the cause. Ms Jaitley came upon her cause through the extenuating circumstances of having unrequitedly loved a gay man, which she talked about in a cover story to Stardust. The experience didn’t make her bitter, instead it allowed her to embrace an entire community. Cynics may consider this a ploy to rescue a floundering film career by staying in the news, but there have been other 15-minute celebs that have tried to hitch on the bandwagon without much success because they lacked the personal investment Jaitley came with.
All that murkiness is a thing of the past, as more and more celebrities lend their name to gay community events, although there is also the hidden agenda of trying to unearth the power of the mythical pink rupee. But at face value, much has changed.
An A-list actor like Imran Khan can now feature on the cover of a gay magazine (last year’s Bombay Dost) without much compunction, which is more than can be said about Dostana star John Abraham, who rode the coattails of progressiveness when he was selling his movie, but now features in a homophobic ad for Philips which peddles stereotypes (that ‘real’ men aren’t gay).
Elsewhere, Chitra Palekar has been an indefatigable spokesperson for parents of gay children in India and Shyam Benegal has lent his gravitas to the debate on gay rights on many occasions.
None of this has taken away from their credibility as accredited cultural icons of the mainstream. They continue to pave the way for the changes that will allow gay people to take their rightful place in society.
(The writer writes on issues affecting the queer community)
Queer Azaadi Mumbai (QAM) celebrated the third anniversary of the Delhi High Court Verdict yesterday. QAM celebrated this event with the theme "Raise your Rainbow", which was held at The Humsafar Trust , Drop In Centre at Vakola between 6 pm and 9 pm