The gays maze

Published: 29 December, 2011 10:10 IST | Vikram Phukan |

From corporate acceptance to family support, it is time to look at ground reality and do some introspection too

From corporate acceptance to family support, it is time to look at ground reality and do some introspection too

It has been more than two years since the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 (see box: What is Section 377) and doing so, delivered a homily for 'inclusiveness' that has been repeatedly cited as an example of the new Indian mindset, and for gay people in the country. The effect of that legal verdict has been nothing short of cathartic. However, given the case is still pending appeal, such rejoicing comes with its share of caveats and the more guarded members of the community have been keeping pace with the case's progress in the Supreme Court. True to its reputation, the legal system in India has been taking its time. No surprises there -- the High Court took nine long years to adjudicate. In the interim, several religious groups have joined forces against the verdict, a request to include the armed forces as an 'interested party' was dismissed, and the government (which made a mockery of the court system with its Mickey Mouse arguments the last time around, almost as if they wanted to actually lose the case) withdrew as co-petitioner.

Mom with a difference: Chitra Palekar is part of the contingent of
parents who are contesting the Section 377 case. Pic/Atul Kamble

A 19-strong group of parents of gays and lesbians also came forward to argue for the rights of their children. In addition to the petitioners being asked to submit full depositions, we also saw several adjournments of proceedings, with the case not even coming before the panel even on a scheduled date, given the packed itinerary that is a feature of a regular day at court. A hearing is now scheduled for Feb 2012, when the case would hopefully be fast-tracked. If it comes to pass, the Supreme Court ruling (which many expect to uphold the Delhi High Court verdict) could be the last nail in the coffin of one of the most antiquated Victorian-era stipulations in the penal code. After this, there will be many more battles ahead for the gay community, not least the struggle for acceptance in society at large, and the sensitisation of the country's institutions like a homophobic police force and an intransigent education system, but at least now, the law would be unequivocally on their side.

Life's a sham: Till you can say I am what I am. Sanjay Suri, Juhi
Chawla and Onir (r)

Parents batting on their side
One of the main reasons gay people in India remain subjugated is because of the impact being open would have on their families. This can be seen in the forced marriages that continue to involve large numbers of gay men and lesbians, and also in the prevalence of quack therapies that enjoy much patronage in India, as eager parents rush to 'cure' their kids. Unlike in the west, where youngsters leave home early, young Indians live in their parental homes well into their twenties (or even throughout their life) so they can hardly be expected to live life on their own terms, there is always the peril of being kicked out. The manner in which the closet encourages a double life means that parents can be kept forever in the dark. This isn't always the case, the support group Gaybombay organises parent meets, for relatives of gay people to come forward and discuss their experiences with a captive audience. These meets have been well-attended affairs and often the stories that are recounted resonate strongly with the attendees, many of whom can never hope to bring their own relatives to such a forum. Interestingly, the meets have invariably seen women relatives attend -- mothers, aunts, sisters, even a grandmother, although a recent edition saw a father make an emotional speech of how he wasn't ready to accept his son's homosexuality.

One of the important voices of the gay movement has been Minna Saran, whose son, the late Nishit Saran, with just a hand-held camera managed to capture one of the most enduring images of Indian queer cinema, that of his mother's unscripted reaction to being told he was gay. Saran, and others such as filmmaker Chitra Palekar (whose daughter is lesbian), are part of the contingent of parents who are contesting the Section 377 case. At the moment, only a single informal support group exists for such parents, therefore setting up a national agency along the lines of the global organization PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) could be one of the most significant developments of 2012, for a country of several million gay people who need their parents resolutely by their side.

Boy zone: From Boy Culture shown at the Kashish Film Festival

An end to stereotyping GAYs and lesbians
The demonising of gay men continues in several mainstream films (and now lesbians also get ribbed about in films like I Hate Luv Storys). Gross-out gags, even in A-list films like Ra-One, use gay panic and camp stereotypes. This year, there have been affirmative cinema like Onir's I Am, where the issue of entrapment was handled sensitively, but generally film projects dealing with homosexual themes attract low budgets and amateur talent and almost no recourse to public distribution. Mumbai's rapidly growing queer cinema circuit (with its own international film festival, Kashish) has managed to import cutting edge content from abroad, and we can now watch modern sensibilities at work that make our own cinema seem bigoted in comparison.

Television isn't much better. News-channels continue to report on gay issues in a sensationalist manner. Exploitative programming try to show the community in a poor light, with hijra activist Laxmi being pencilled in for Bigg Boss more for her potential to create controversy than the work she has done with her Non Governmental Organisation (NGO). However, given the manner in which she was able to bond with the manicured 'industry types' on the show demonstrates that acceptance isn't really a tall order sometimes.

Elsewhere in a serial like Maryada, a storyline in which a man is unable to consummate his marriage because he loves another man, is given the full-on treatment replete with high-flown dialogue, reaction shots, sappy music, and a long-suffering mother thrown in for good measure. While the tropes of soap opera can make for painful watching, there are changes in attitude that the medium can bring about, given its reach. In theatre, modern portrayals have already started gaining ground even if it's through the work of foreign playwrights in plays like Baghdad Wedding and Cock featuring strong gay protagonists. In 2012, we can hope for human-interest tales where queer characters are drawn based on their innate qualities as people rather than their behavioural quirks. The gay community actively devours pop culture, therefore a nod in its direction, while being excellent for TRPs, will also serve to ebb somewhat the alienation it feels.

And that's that: Sridhar Rangayan, director Kashish film festival

Diversity training in corporates
Queer people in corporate organizations (whether openly gay or merely presumed as such) are often times the victims of discrimination and ridicule, which can be both overt and subtle. School-room bullying now rears its head in the new playground that is the office space, as higher-ups turn a blind eye to what is a kind of institutional homophobia that, clubbed with community and region-based politics, can make the average Indian office a terrible place to work in. Therefore it was heartening to see a bunch of corporate types proudly holding the rainbow flag high at the recent Bangalore pride parade, their company logos emblazoned on their T-shirts. These were groups from multi-national companies like Google (whose Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) wing call themselves the Gayglers) and Goldman Sachs, where in-house sensitisation procedures like diversity trainings are in place, and the rights of their LGBT personnel are explicitly safeguarded as a matter of policy. As India moves headlong into the international marketplace, and more global practices become a regular feature in our offices, so too should progressive measures that guarantee a stress-free environment for all workers in an organization, not least their sizeable LGBT work-force (which some industries attract in far greater proportion than others).

Introspection within the community
While the under-the-table nature of gay dating means that it sometimes acts as a great leveller, with people of all backgrounds conferencing with one another, a cursory look at some of the dating profiles on a poplar gay dating site also reveals the mind-boggling levels of ageism, transphobia and internalized homophobia that beset the queer populace.

A typical advertisement would forbid contact with all aunties (a pejorative for effeminate gay men), oldies (anyone above 35) and fatties (anyone with more than 10 per cent body fat). While a lot of this boils down to sexual tastes, it is still a disconcerting reminder that the gay scene is getting increasingly shallow and intolerant. Bisexual men are often at the receiving end of the oppression of sexual identity politics, with people constantly trying to call the bluff on them. A recent Indian entry to an international queer video contest which featured three gay men as cross-dressing divas, attracted a lot of internet hate from within the gay community. In a world increasingly obsessed with superficial allure, with gay men supposedly at the fore of the so-called metrosexual revolution where men are now queueing up for branded skinny jeans or 'Fair and Handsome' skin lotions like never before all of this may represent general societal trends.

However, it doesn't sit pretty within a community that is still struggling to get itself into the reckoning, and still waiting for its members to be counted as more than second class citizens in a country where equality is sometimes just an abstract concept rather than a reality on the ground. In 2012, maybe a collective soul-searching will allow the community to embrace the same inclusiveness that it expects the mainstream to demonstrate while taking them into the fold.

The writer runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions.

What is Section 377?
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a piece of legislation introduced during British rule that criminalises sexual activity 'against the order of nature.' The section was read down to decriminalise same-sex behaviour among consenting adults in a historic judgement by the Delhi High Court  in 2009. This section continues to apply in the case of sex involving minors and coercive sex.

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