Web-based Kirtida discusses social taboos like marrying homosexuals

Updated: May 05, 2019, 08:07 IST | Vinaya Patil | Mumbai

The law may have legalised homosexuality, but social taboos remain. Women stuck in marriages with homosexual men find support on web-based Kirtida; men are welcome, too

Rashmi Desai the web-based support group two years ago. While they have 20 female members, no men have reached out yet and she wonders why. Pic/Ajeesh F Rawther
Rashmi Desai the web-based support group two years ago. While they have 20 female members, no men have reached out yet and she wonders why. Pic/Ajeesh F Rawther

"I knew something was wrong within a month of the wedding," says 32-year-old Rashmi Desai, a psychologist and social worker. Desai, then a Pune resident, had an arranged marriage in 2014. The relationship, she says, lacked both emotional and physical connect. She did everything she could to try and fix whatever seemed "not normal" to her - from talking about it to heading for couple's counselling. Desai like most Indian brides, didn't want to give up.

Within six months of getting married, she met a psychiatrist alone, and through therapy, came to the conclusion that her partner was possibly homosexual. Later, her husband, also came out to her. Desai filed for divorce six months later, which finally came through in 2016.

But, during this time, Desai realised that she needed support from others who understood what she was going through. The few NGOs that worked with the LGTBQi community addressed their issues. A few that worked for women empowerment did send letters to Desai's husband, calling him in for counselling but none helped. "I didn't find the kind of counselling I needed. All I got was 'leave him' advice," says Desai, who then came across the Straight Spouses Network, an international support group for those married to homosexual men and women, on Facebook. However, Desai found it tough to relate to them. "They would date other men while their divorce cases were on, and it was acceptable. The stigma wasn't as pronounced as in India. I was struggling with my divorce case all alone. No one understood my issue." This is why she started Kirtida in 2014, in line with the international body, getting local references from them.

Dr Parul Khona, relationship counsellor, says parents often blackmail their homosexual children into heterosexual marriages. Pics/Vishal Kale
Dr Parul Khona, relationship counsellor, says parents often blackmail their homosexual children into heterosexual marriages. Pics/Vishal Kale

The first two years, the organisation worked online. Members would coordinate with each other over phone and the web. "What we essentially do is provide support - moral, emotional, and at times, logistical. While the organisation is registered, there is no formal structure. The emphasis is on being there for each other because hardly anyone else understands," explains Desai.

Mumbai-based Raavi (name changed to protect identity) says the year and a half until December 2016, when she finally got divorced, had been nothing short of "an eye-opening" experience for her. "The actual four months of marriage were harrowing. There was emotional abuse, and my husband and his family went around saying I was mentally ill when I confronted them about his sexuality. Once I walked out though and as time went by, it made me feel sad for them as well - that they were so ignorant to cover things up, that the guy had no choice (or spine) but to listen to his parents and get married to a woman even though he was gay, that we lived in a place where it was still taboo to be homosexual," she elaborates.

Bindumadhav Khire, a gay rights activist
Bindumadhav Khire, a gay rights activist

While Raavi rached out to Desai, in the last few years, Kirtida has had barely 20 members and all of them women. "We haven't got any men in the group, and I don't know why. We have nowhere specified that Kirtida only works for women, but maybe because of an all-women membership so far, men must be hesitating to approach us, I guess?" Desai says.

The group has members from across India. They meet fellow members in their respective cities once a month and try to get their families involved, too, so that there is sharing of information and resources. Desai, who recently remarried and shifted to Bengaluru, often visits slums and other underprivileged pockets in cities to create awareness homosexuality and how it must be respected to avoid future casualties.

Dr Parul Khona, a Pune-based relationship counsellor, says, "Parents often resort to emotional blackmail and make matters worse." When she encounters such cases, which is often, she tries to get the parents involved. "I give them examples of our ancient culture, but things need to be told correctly. I often take the scientific approach and tell them that this is a matter of DNA. Most people are born homosexual or bisexual and that's just how normal it is." She also speaks of the hassles of separation in such cases. "I had a 45-year-old man fall in love with a 25-year-old man after being married and having kids. In such cases, I don't suggest separation to people because there is a lot at stake. So there is no formula to counselling either. Every case is distinct."

Yet, seeking divorce isn't easy. To begin with, "I didn't know under which section to ask for divorce. I finally put it under section 13A (mutual consent)," says Desai. Some women resort to annulment but it becomes difficult to prove in the court of law, especially for women since the court demands proof and "how do you prove that the marriage did not consummate?" questions 34-year-old Shailaja Sharma from Delhi.

Married at the age of 29, Sharma too, had an arranged marriage. "On our honeymoon to Greece he would simply go out clicking pictures. When I confronted him, he said that we must focus on exploring Greece and that physical relations could wait. I realised something was wrong in those 10 days but didn't imagine him being homosexual," Sharma says.

Convincing your partner to visit a doctor, dealing with their refusal and the knowledge of their sexuality remain a common thread. The nuances differ. In Sharma's case for instance, her husband happened to be an IAS officer's son, meaning a family that had immense social recognition. "He thus never accepted being homosexual, and that made matters very difficult for me. My character was questioned. I was called desperate and even faced harassment by two female judges in the court." Sharma also filed a case against her husband for harming the dignity of a woman and defamation, wrote to the Women's Commission, the PMO and every possible place, "but four years of life and a lot of money haven't got me anything. I no more trust the courts and the police of this country," she rues.

Bindumadhav Khire, an independent activist and founder of the queer sexual health organisation Sampathik Trust, "It's not so easy to exit marriages in India, and unfortunately, many such unions do exist in our country, which still doesn't accept homosexualtiy. One solution to separation in such cases can be mutual incompatibility. But it is important to understand both individuals in such cases." Khire often conducts counselling sessions among the community about this. "We urge people not to enter such marriages. Also, unless the community shows courage to come out and reject marrying straight people, decriminalising homosexuality is not going to help."

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