Sunday, 22 July 2007

Gay. So what?

Gay. So what?
http://www.newindpr sundayitems. asp?id=SEH2007070605525 8&eTitle= Cover+Story& rLink=0
Friday July 6 2007 15:19 IST Priya M MenonIn June 2007, Baljit Kaur and Rajwinder Kaur of Amritsar made headlines when they tied the knot despite violent opposition from their families. "We love each other and will die for each other," the women declared. They've threatened to run away to Canada if the families continued to be difficult and in the meanwhile, plan to start a family of their own — by adopting a child.

Baljit and Rajwinder are yet another example of a lesbian couple who have dared to defy social norms and a legal system that criminalises homosexuality. In 2006, Wetka Polang (30) and Melka Nilsa (22) of Orissa actually managed to get their union blessed by their community. Wetka and Melka, day labourers who belong to the Kandha tribe, got married in a traditional ceremony presided over by a Kandha priest after paying a fine — a barrel of country liquor, a pair of oxen, a sack of rice — and hosted a family feast.

"They wanted to prove that they can live without the help of men. They also love each other very much. So we decided to forgive them," said village elder Melka Powla.

These are rare yet defining instances of defiance in a society which still hesitates to talk about sex and where homosexuality is a crime, courtesy Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. In a social setting where same sex love often leads to social ostracisation, police harassment and even suicide, members of this hitherto silent community are now making their voice heard.

Last year, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla, Gujarat, drew international media attention when he publicly declared himself to be a homosexual. "I wanted to open a Pandora's box," says Manvendra. "That could have happened if only there is some controversy. I thought an Indian prince openly talking about his sexuality would make news." And it did. His effigy was burnt and the royal family threatened to disinherit him. Though it was legally impossible, the resulting controversy triggered national debate on homosexuals and their rights.

Interestingly, it is the emergence of AIDS in India that has enabled public discussion about homosexuality. "The HIV/AIDS issue has flushed homosexuality out of the closet," says Sunil Menon, founder member of Sahodaran, an organisation in Chennai that works with MSM (men having sex with men).

Aditya Bondopadhyay, legal advisor to Naz Foundation International (NFI), a London-based NGO that helps set up and support community-based NGO's working with MSM, agrees. "It was recognised by the state that HIV is a problem and MSM are a high-risk group," he says. "Groups initially started low-key, just spreading awareness, but soon realised that they cannot do it without addressing rights issues. For instance, if someone wanted to visit a drop-in centre, they had to be confident that police would not haul them up."

This does not mean that there has been no backlash. In July 2001, four HIV/ AIDS prevention workers from Naz Foundation and Bharosa Trust, Lucknow, who work with MSM groups were arrested by the Lucknow police, sparking off a controversy. "In a way it is a milestone that helped the movement in India as it motivated all groups in India to come out and protest; it proved that Section 377 is a law that needs to go," says Aditya.

The Internet is another factor that has helped fuel change. "There are e-groups and discussion forums," says Aditya. "Gay Bombay, a yahoo group, is now the largest group with over 16,000 members from India. This helps rope in professionals like doctors and lawyers from within the community."

Today, all over India, there are a number of groups that offer support, counselling and also focus on rights issues. But "coming out" is still a sensitive issue which can have far-reaching consequences.

First of all, you have to come to terms with your own sexuality. "You need to have access to information and interact with other people with similar feelings and behaviour," says Sunil. "Most people know they are gay but suppress it for they will not get any support from the family."

The burden of living a lie can take its toll. "I did get married," says Prince Manvendra. "I thought I could become straight, that was my understanding of my sexuality in those days." The marriage didn't last and they divorced soon after.

In 1997, he established the Lakshya Trust, a community-based organisation, which has been working in the HIV/AIDS sector since 2001. In 2002, Manvendra suffered a nervous breakdown. "The burden of lying to everyone was too much," says Manvendra. "I was hospitalised and first spoke about my sexuality to my psychiatrist who told my parents."

Coming out publicly can change your life forever. For Dr Hoshang Merchant, who teaches at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), it was loss of his inheritance. "But I got my freedom," he says. His open sexual orientation got him "kicked out of 17 houses in 11 months." "I was also kicked out of my job as a Reader at Pune University when they realised I am gay; in seven years I changed 11 jobs," says Hoshang, editor of Yaraana, the first anothology of Gay Indian Literature published by Penguin in 1999.

That's why coming out is advisable only if you are independent, especially financially. All the more so if you are a woman. "Where is a girl to go if she is disowned by her family?" asks Malobika, founder-member of Sappho, which was established in 1999 as an emotional support provider group for lesbians. "Coming out is still a very big deal." In West Bengal, a young girl was tonsured recently for displaying "man-like" behaviour.

Sappho, which runs helplines from 10 am to 9 pm, has more than 200 members now. "Many of the spouses of women who contact us have no idea of their dual life," she says. "Some of them just want our help and stay in touch over the phone or by mail as they say their husbands are wonderful and don't want to leave them."

"In India it is fine to be gay or lesbian as long as you don't ask for identity, validation and legitimacy," says leading gay activist Ashok Row Kavi. "It is ok to be a gay man as long as it doesn't threaten the family."

He established the Humsafar Trust in Mumbai in April 1994 to reach out to the gay population. He also published the Bombay Dost, one of the oldest gay publications in Mumbai, to serve as a platform for sexual minorities. Though it wound up a few years ago, Kavi is thinking of reviving it, maybe make it web-based with an annual print edition.

According to Sylvester Merchant of Lakshya Trust, even today, discrimination is largely due to ignorance. "For instance, many people think all homosexuals are pedophiles," he says.

But attitudes to sex and sexuality are changing. Kavi cites the example of a young boy who likes to dress up like a girl. "It is really admirable how his mother is handling it," says Kavi. "She has explained his behaviour to the school which is also sensitised and learning to cope."

Even on the professional front, policies are becoming more liberal. "With MNCs coming to India and Indian companies becoming multinationals, today discrimination cannot be made on grounds of sexuality," says Aditya.

Hoshang teaches a pioneering gay literature course in HCU, the second such course in India. The First Annual LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) film festival organised recently in Kolkata by Sappho for Equality and Pratyay Gender Trust, was a huge success.

Says Malobika: "We got an irate father-in-law who was very upset about his daughter-in- law being a lesbian. Though he was a doctor, he thought it was a disease. We counselled him, and when he left two and a half hours later, it was after donating Rs 200. The woman continues to stay with her in-laws."

A thorn in the flesh Section 377 of the IPC states that: "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature, with any man, woman, or animal shall be punishable with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years and shall also be liable to fine."

This law, which was first passed in England in the 16th century to criminalise homosexuality, was adopted by the British for India, when the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860. It was repealed in England in 1967 but is still in effect in India though it there is an ongoing campaign to repeal it. The Law Commission of India, in its 172nd report (on review of rape laws), recommended its repeal.

In September 2006, more than 100 celebrities like Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, Booker prizewinner Arundhati Roy and writer Vikram Seth signed an open letter protesting against Section 377. The letter said the law had been used to "systematically persecute, blackmail, arrest and terrorise sexual minorities."

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