Rashme Sehgal began her career as a poet-cum-short story writer in 1970s. She then shifted to journalism and worked with several leading newspapers including The Independent, The Telegraph and The Times of India
I am what I am, so take me as I am.”
These ringing words of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra have seen the gay community breathe a collective sigh of relief. Gay activist Gautam Bhan said in a tone of celebration: “At last queer people have won the right to breathe and to dream.”
It was 24 years ago that the first AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan petition against Section 377 was placed before the courts. That was way back in 1977.
Today India is the 126th nation in the world to decriminalise homosexuality. The sense of relief can be gauged from the heartfelt article written by writer Gurcharan Das in the Times of India. He started with the evocative words: “My son is gay and I no longer feel reluctant to admit it. He has been in a loyal, happy relationship with his partner for 20 years and my family and close friends have accepted it gracefully. I didn’t dare speak about it in public, however, for fear of bringing him any harm that is until 12.35pm on Thursday (September 5) when the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. My wife and I suddenly feel as if a great burden has lifted.”
It seems strange that India chose to live with a tyrannical colonial law for the last 157 years that was contrary to our country’s ancient spirit. Indian classical texts are full of stories about men turning into women and women turning into men. The Khajuraho temples are an ode to erotic sculpture, depicting sex between men and women, women with women, group sex and much more, all being done under the benign smile of the deities. Likewise, the Konarak Sun Temple.
The Puranas had accepted sixteen different kinds of genders. Today, genders are down to four or five. Hinduism recognises people showing signs of both sexes. The terminology for such persons is tritya prakriti, literally meaning third nature.
First Baby Step
On hearing the Supreme Court verdict, 29-year old drag performer Alex Mathew started weeping out of sheer relief. But at the same time, he believes that decriminalisation is but a first step in a long journey.
Mathew admitted that while earlier he had been scared of holding ‘a guy’s hand in public, now at least he could do that’. “I don’t know if we are that progressive to indulge in PDA (public display of affection) like that, but slowly, we’re taking baby steps,” he claimed. Mathew has been performing drag since 2014 and uses his art to educate people about the LGBTQ community, especially since the public by and large continue to subscribe to certain stereotypes about men who are gay.
Mathew confides that in the past, he has lost out on jobs and performances because of his sexual orientation. There were times when he went into depression and yet, he never stopped performing. That has kept him going all these years.
Mumbai-based Ankit Bhuptani, the head of the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association in India, felt he was finally a free human being. Speaking about his own experience as a gay person, Bhuptani believes that he had been treated as a criminal from the day he was born because of his sexual orientation. For the first time in his life, he believes he can behave in a normal manner But the biggest apprehension amongst the gay community is how society is going to accept this verdict. Activists believe their real work has started now.
“We are now going to have to start working in the areas of marriage, inheritance, sex education, mental and sexual health of the LGBT community,” says Ashok Row Kavi, co-founder of the NGO Humsafar Trust and one of the petitioners in the case.
Kavi sees this as an uphill struggle in the years to come. “If I want to marry my lover, under which section will I do it? Religion plays a crucial role in marriages in India, as they are governed under personal laws by religious communities, which recognise matrimony only between a man and a woman. Gay marriages are seen as a sin by, both, the Church and in the Quran. So a same sex marriage cannot be consecrated in a church, nor under Islam. Now, will a Special Marriage Act for same sex marriage be recognised?” asks Kavi. The Hanafi law does not accept adoption. If a Muslim man has ‘adopted’ his lover and shows this in his will, his relatives can challenge the will. Suppose a same sex couple adopts a child and they are Muslims, the child has no recognition in the state, at least under Islamic Sharia laws,” Kavi asserts.
“In the same way, according to the Bombay tenancy laws, a family member can continue to live in the flat following the death of the tenant. But since union with a same-sex lover is not accepted, his family members can ensure he is thrown out so that they can occupy the place,” says Kavi.
“Same sex couples face the same problem when it comes to getting Mediclaim or pensions. The Indian government does not accept us as donors because we fall under the high risk category. But as I keep saying, we have started peering through the door, and we are going to have it to push it wide open,” he adds.
Kavi pointed out how he has been fighting this battle for the last 18 years. “A lot of water has flown down the rivers from that time. None of us had anticipated we would end up facing these problems. Let me cite you but another example. Single men are not allowed to adopt girls. I can understand that there is the fear of paedophiles. But now, the government has clamped down and said we cannot adopt even a boy. All these issues that are coming up had not been envisaged earlier,” he adds. Another problem that activists plan to focus on is to provide proper sex education in schools. “There is no sex education in schools. Effeminate children are often bullied. Those in rural areas run away to cities like Mumbai. There is also a lot of alcoholism in the LGBT community, especially among transgenders,” Kavi reveals. Activists believe that only when the slew of laws ending discrimination based on gender and sexuality, equal civil partnership rights and giving equal adoption rights to gay people that discrimination on the ground will end.
When the fight against Section 377 began, all the community’s energy and resources were spent on fighting the law, said Kavi. “Now that Section 377 is out, we need to meet and strategise again.”
The kind of uphill battle being fought in India is similar to the struggle that the gay community has fought in the West and especially in the US. Kavi says: “It was the same in the US and UK. Both the right wing communities and the liberals were intolerant in their own ways.” The RSS issued a statement after the SC verdict that though homosexuality is not considered a crime, they do not support same sex marriages or relationships which remain ‘unnatural for them’. Kavi scoffs at their comments because he believes that homosexuality is known to be rampant in the Roman Catholic Church, the Ulema and the RSS... none of them is different.
Nor does Kavi e agree with the gay community being described as a minuscule minority. “What is a minuscule minority? No minority is minuscule. They are a minority because they are smaller in number,” he asserts.
Bollywood has also begun taking tentative steps to depict homosexuality. The film fraternity has also breathed a collective sigh of relief. Filmmakers and actors say that decriminalisation of same sex relationships has opened the doors to show nuanced stories with different kinds of narratives.
Onir, who has directed films like “My Brother… Nikhil and I”, says he has been waiting for the last 12 years for the industry to embrace LGBTQ rights more freely but the change has been slow.
Using gayness for comic relief in films like “Kal Ho Na Ho” and “Dostana” has been common and its only been in the last three-four years that films like “Aligarh” have changed the conversation, maintains Onir.
Onir believes the three main stumbling blocks for films with the same sex narrative have been lack of financers, distribution and roadblocks from the Censor Board. Apurva, the writer and editor of the movie “Aligarh” which showed the life of a gay professor in the Aligarh Muslim University, believes the change in attitude in the film industry (however miniscule) happened because of the 2013 judgement when homosexuality was recriminalised by the SC. “It angered us. It was an ‘enough is enough’ moment. It was then that the need was felt to tell these stories,” says Faraz Arif Ansari who directed the film “Sisak”.
For Manoj Bajpayee, who played the character of Siras in “Aligarh”, what was important was to ensure that he was not going to give a stereotype to the character. Similarly, actor Saqib Saleem recalls how when director-producer Karan Johar offered him a role in Bombay Talkies he learnt that it had been rejected by seven actors before him. Saleem admits having been a little hesitant in accepting the role because of the way his parents and the people in his hometown (Delhi) would react to it. “When Karan narrated the story, I found it brilliant. I felt it needed to be told and I went ahead with Karan’s conviction. When the film was released and my mother saw it, it brought tears to her eyes. She told me it was my best performance ever,” said Saleem.
Faraz Arif Ansari who directed the film Sisak while admitting the SC verdict deserves celebration but also expresses his apprehensions at how the situation may unfold in the future.
“It is important to remember that we still inhabit a society where individuals are killed for belonging to a minority (religious, sexual, caste-based or otherwise) community and imprisoned for the slighted dissent,” Ansari wrote recently in the Indian Express.
He goes on in his thought provoking article to write about how during his teenage years, he had distanced himself from Islam because he had been made to feel that his sexual identity could not coexist with his religious beliefs. He admits to having become a target of many ‘Islamophobic jokes’.
Says Ansari: “I was extremely fortunate and privileged to have family and friends who supported me through these trying times. Being a practising Muslim who also happens to be admitting of his same-sex attraction doesn’t make me a conservative radical. Neither does being gay mean I am a degenerate.
However, while I may have been fortunate to escape such binaries, there are many queer folks who do not have the same safety net to fully embrace their true identity. They are unable to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, to celebrate and to be proud of both, So it’s important to remember that winning this legal battle is only the stepping stone to a fight that will take a lot of life and love from all of us, collectively.”
Anjali Gopalan, heading the NGO Naz Foundation which petitioned the law courts to strike down homosexuality way back in 1991, believes that in recent years, more and more people have come forward and are willing to take a stand on this issue. “The gates have opened, as it were, and you can’t close them now,” Gopalan says.