Published: Nov 30, 2011, 10:52 IST | Vikram Phukan |

Even though there is some recognition creeping in about the power of the pink vote, we still have a long way to go before an openly gay person contests elections at any level in India

Even though there is some recognition creeping in about the power of the pink vote, we still have a long way to go before an openly gay person contests elections at any level in India

In April 2009, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in the South Mumbai constituency, one of the fresh-faced independent candidates, Meera Sanyal, decided to solicit an audience with what was assumed to be the city's burgeoning queer population. This was a couple of months before the historic Sec 377 verdict. A meeting was arranged with Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) representatives at Blue Frog, a plush upmarket lounge bar. Given the progressive plank on which she was contesting the elections, this was one of the ways in which she could underline her forward-thinking agenda. Although she did ultimately lose her deposit, it was one of the first times a politician (albeit a ing �nue of sorts) acknowledged that gay rights could be an electoral issue as legitimate as the price of onions or the state of city roads. In possibly more cynical terms, perhaps this was an acknowledgement that a 'pink vote' (as is much beloved of Democrats in the US) exists and needed to be leveraged. Although dismissed as tokenism, Sanyal's overtures went a long way to exhibit some progress in a country that still demonstrates a parochial mindset on many counts.

Lactose Tolerent: Harvey Milk

One of the realities of urban queer existence is the power of intra-community networking. For someone new to the city, the extended queer network is something to hook into to meet people and establish contacts. You can find flats or flatmates, or get help publicising a new business, or arrange book-readings. However, the network is not something that is organised or unified, it is much more nebulous than one would like. Scattered groups who don't always have a common agenda typify even the relatively smaller world of LGBT activism. Business and politics in India are governed by affiliations more pre-determined than just one's sexuality, which a large proportion of the queer population is in denial of anyway. To have any electoral clout, the queer community would need to be mobilised in ways that hasn't ever taken place in the past.

In 1977, Harvey Milk was the first gay man in the US to be elected to public office. His biographer had then noted that "broader historical forces" were fueling his campaign. His election was from San Francisco's Castro District, which had witnessed a steady influx of gay men in the '70s; almost like it were a chosen land. The mobilising of this contingent of gay constituents was arguably an important factor in getting Milk elected, and such a parallel doesn't really exist in India, where the closet governs most facets of gay life so that even in so-called liberal cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, such openly alternative hospices are not likely to mushroom (although for the purposes of underground gay courtship, some suburban areas of Mumbai are anecdotally considered to be 'gay havens').

This is why it will be a long time before we see openly gay candidates (like activist Ashok Row Kavi) in the electoral fray, unless they are propelled by larger political concerns and a broad-based appeal that actually wins them a mandate. There will never be a gay constituency in this city (or anywhere else), where the gay population is so rarefied and dispersed. In Nepal, Sunil Babu the first openly gay South Asian politician, won an election by contesting as a candidate from a communist party, much before his sexuality made him a poster-boy for the gay rights movement in South Asia. Being just one of seven members from his party in Parliament (as part of a provisional legislature) his participation in the passing of several pro-gay legislations in Nepal was likely more incidental than instrumental. Closer home, the election of Shabnam Mausi to the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly in 2000 wasn't because of scores of hijras voting en masse. She won on a development plank from Sohagpur, one of the most under-nourished districts in the state. Most gay people do not consider their sexual identity to be akin that of transgenders (despite being clubbed together under that giant LGBT umbrella) so although her election was significant for the hijra community, it wasn't ever considered a definitive victory for gay and lesbian people. 

Of course, there are always murmurings about active politicians who might be gay. Those secrets are closely guarded, much like in the film world, where too much is at stake to risk over such a matter as being open about one's sexuality. It won't be anytime soon that an Indian politician would come 'out' because there is always the fear that such a disclosure wouldn't go down too well with the public. Of course, it would be wonderful for the gay movement, because of the airplay it would receive at the hands of the sensation-hungry media. In one fell sweep, the elephant in the room would suddenly make its enormous presence felt and how. This is wishful thinking. Even those who have made the right noises in the past about gay issues have faced censure. For example, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, the Health Minister in the previous government, did a lot to ignite the debate on Section 377 and why it was unconstitutional and how the demonising of gay men was a massive stumbling block in the stemming of the AIDS epidemic. For his services, he was replaced by the notoriously homophobic Ghulam Nabi Azad, whose pronouncements on homosexuality this year resulted in a public outcry and a subsequent retraction by the minister.

Recent books on Nehru and Gandhi have sought to highlight bisexual episodes in their lives -- Nehru's persuasions hinted at in Stanley Wolpert's Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny, Gandhi's love for a German body-builder is discussed at length in Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul. In the books, these disclosures are treated as details not quite relevant to their stature as monumental national leaders. However, the manner in which the 'offending' passages were released to the press, almost as a Public Relations (PR) exercise (for negative publicity) before the respective launch of either book, and the salacious (and reactionary) way in which the media dug into the new information that had come to light, was symptomatic of how India views the so-called specter of homosexuality in public life. 

You only have to give a cursory glance at the Internet, to realise how it thrives on negativity (Twitter specially), and how anti-gay rhetoric becomes a constant weapon in this kind of verbiage. The hate brigade anywhere is always the better organised and the most vociferous. Instead of offering reasoned arguments, the tweeting millions seek to bring down politicians with disparaging personal comments. For example, Rahul Gandhi, if you are to believe his virtual detractors, is effeminate and of suspect sexuality, when really that should have nothing to do with his statesmanship (or lack thereof). Even in the 21st century, hitting below the belt still involves notions of chest-thumping masculinity from which gay men are bizarrely excluded. Sexuality remains mired in what is considered an unsavoury underbelly, something that is now being referenced even in our cinema. In Prakash Jha's heavy-handed Rajneeti, a politician's downfall is brought about by a sex scandal involving a gay masseur, rather than the courtesan round the corner.

As can be seen, politics and sexuality are unlikely bedfellows. In the democracies of the West, several politicians are now openly gay, without it being considered a chink in their armors. This reflects changes in the society they come from. They serve as upstanding members of that society, and represent the people as a whole. A strident right-wing still exists even in those countries that seek to quell the progress made to end discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The battles continue. In India, we've just about started pulling up our socks. History will yet be made, in our own snail-slow fashion. Hopefully, changes in public opinion on these matters will accelerate the process somewhat.

The writer runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions

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