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Homophobia within India

by sairah19 

Posted: 07 April 2003
Word Count: 3014
Summary: The feature identifies the problems faced by homosexuals in India and talks about the groups that have been introduced within the country to combat the homophobia that exists

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Within certain segments of the Indian society there is an outright homophobic reaction. Long ridiculed and disapproved by a conservative and tradition-bound society, India's middle-class gays are slowly coming out of the closet. Many cultural organisations categorise homosexuality as a western/foreign import and deny its existence. To them it is alien to Indian culture, and looked upon as a corrupting influence that needs to be curbed. This translates into various violations of the basic human and fundamental rights of homosexuals.

The Victorian morality of the British Raj, which labelled sexual non-conformity as deviant and sick, has left a homophobic stamp on the new native capitalists. It has long been suggested by theoreticians of colonialism - and not-ably in the 1950s by Frantz Fanon, writing on Algeria - that colonisers and colonised engage in a relationship which results in the latter aspiring to be like the former, taking on their values, especially on moral issues. This applies certainly to India, and has allowed radicals on the Left, who question all other issues related to society and economics, to maintain an anti-gay position.

India is a large country where people speak different languages, practise different religions and where most of the population is still rural. While few generalisations on other matters are possible, the suppression of gay men and women is total. Traditional family patterns have remained unchanged in rural society and the expression of homosexuality has remained undocumented. In urban life homosexual men and women are beginning to emerge, though only a handful would define themselves as gay, and they belong to an English-speaking elite.

To define oneself as being gay is considered a Western notion and places the Indian homosexuals in a difficult position. “There is no gay liberation with its attendant support organisations, meeting places or publications”, says Ashish Kumar, a freelance journalist living in New Delhi whose aim it is to set up a national gay group in India, “the urban phenomenon of the liberal 1960s in the industrialised West appears to be lacking in countries like India. For a gay movement it lacks a sense of history and personalities, and most importantly an ideology.”

He continues: “Under attack from both the traditional right and the left, the idea of a movement would appear almost inconceivable in India. For most people the obligatory arranged marriage is inevitable and gay life is left expressed in terms of sexual contact outside the home. It may be fleeting or extended with a regular partner but it is not allowed to threaten the extended family.”
The central socio-economic unit is indeed this ‘extended family’. With rare exceptions it is patrilineal, with fathers and older male siblings having considerable power over the lives of individuals. Kumar states: “Marriages are arranged and children are expected very soon after the marriage. Women move in with their in-laws and are expected to be servile and obedient. In a country without a social security system the family provides housing, financial support during periods of unemployment, and an informal contact network that provides jobs. To alienate oneself from this structure without alternative means of support is suicidal.”
The Indian gay male community that exists at the moment is made up of privileged middle and upper class men who keep in contact through a private network. Everyone is married - or at least expected to be. Homosexuals of other classes may be tolerated on the margins of this group for sexual purposes. As members of either the old aristocracy or the new entrepreneurial class, their chances of radically analysing their situation in terms appropriate to the Indian condition are nil.
Kumar, who has published many articles to encourage gays to come out of the closet says: “India has only recently begun to emerge from its feudal state, and caste and class loyalties are still firmly entrenched. The entrepreneurial skills of some groups and the large bureaucracy bequeathed by the British Raj have created an urban middle class, which is more or less modelled on western lines.
“Only in the urban middle class group the extended family is breaking down and individuals are somewhat freer to pursue their own inclinations. It is from this group that people are emerging and are prepared to identify themselves as gay or lesbian, particularly amongst the young.
“Paradoxically, as in the West, it has been the rise of capitalism that has both created an environment allowing greater freedom in sexual lifestyles and which has pushed to the fore a class of bourgeoisie that is fundamentally opposed to homosexuality. Thus, in India's large urban centres such as Delhi and Bombay, homosexuality is slowly becoming a topic of conversation.”
A conference was organised in Mumbai earlier this year by three of India’s gay organisations including Mumbai 's Hamsafar Trust, chaired by Ashok Row-Kavi, who launched India's first journal specifically for gays, "Bombay Dost" (Bombay Friend), four years ago. The conference was made possible by an 8,000 pound ($12,500) grant from the Mercury Phoenix foundation, set up with money willed by aids victim Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the rock group Queen and a member of Bombay's Parsee community.
For the moment, Indian gay groups are concentrating on "empowerment", Row-Kavi states “we want to reach out to the thousands of Indian men confused are about their sexual preferences, to assure them that this is normal.” Row-Kavi estimates there are around 50 million homosexuals within the 900 million population of India.
“This was a historic conference,” said Arvind Kumar, a director of the San Francisco gay and lesbian group Trikone, who sat in on the sessions as an observer, “fifty delegates, nearly 90 percent of the group, spoke to the press at the end. That would have been inconceivable ten years ago.”
“All these years we've been forced to be hypocrites,” states Annu, one of the delegates at the gay conference, “it is an exhilarating experience because for the first time in our lives we were able to openly interact with other gay men. It's a great relief to find out that there are hundreds of others like me all over the country.”
Annu is married and says he is bisexual. He is caught in the classic Indian gay dilemma: married off by his parents against his inclinations. Thanks to the cultural pressure to conform he is wary about coming clean now, apprehensive of the havoc that will result. Neither his wife nor the rest of his family know and he has no plans to tell them.
“The strongly patriarchal traditions of the extended family with its arranged marriages and a set of urban middle class values deriving from the Victorian values have resulted in an almost total suppression of gay Indian men and women”, argues Annu.
Shaleen Rakesh, a gay activist with the Naz Foundation, a HIV/AIDS and sexual health awareness agency, has filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission on the ground that the Indian Psychiatric Society has not formally recognized homosexuality as normal behaviour. The complaint says gays, who consult psychiatrists, are often told that homosexuality is a mental disease and needs to be cured.
Rakesh argues: “There have been instances when psychiatrists have put gay men through unimaginable physical and psychological torture to try and convert them to heterosexuality by using techniques such as hypnosis, aversion therapy and in some cases even shock treatment. This is often done purely from the objective of making money.”
The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973 and the World Health Organization did the same in 1981. The Indian Psychiatric Society is yet to acknowledge that homosexuality is not a disease.
Now that the complaint has been made, the NHRC seems to be at a loss about how to handle it. Sources in the NHRC admit that the complaint is unprecedented. Five single-member benches of the Commission will hear the complaint but it may not be treated as a human rights violation, sources say. They claim that it is a social problem. Rakesh believes that “all human right violation cases are social cases.”
He adds: “Gay men consult doctors because of the extreme emotional and psychological turmoil caused by Indian society's homophobia and not because homosexuality is a pathological or clinical disorder. This is something the psychiatrists have to recognise.”
Dr. Sandeep Vohra, president of the Delhi Psychiatric Society, says psychiatrists all over the country do recognise that homosexuality is not a mental illness. “When gay men come to us with their problems, we tell them to accept their sexuality. We do not treat it as a mental disorder. If these gay men have had encounters with doctors forcing aversion therapy it's because they are going to the wrong people: General physicians and psychologists who do not know how to handle the situation. It is true, however, that some old timers in the psychiatric society may not have accepted homosexuality but I only use shock therapy in suicidal cases.”
Salim Kidwai, a noted gay and activist of gay rights in Delhi, argues: “Those termed ‘Queer’ and scorned by the majority, gays and lesbians have a right to live, eat, sleep and make merry.” Unfortunately, these basic human rights have long been denied and the worst thing is that the homosexual community itself does not want to fight for its rights for fear of further alienation from society.
Kidwai recalls two true incidents, which reflect the lives of millions of gays in India at a risk of violence, arrest, harassment and discrimination because of their sexual orientation.
First he talks about a young man called Rajiv who was sacked from his job once the employers discovered he was gay. He was openly ridiculed by the entire office staff and was deprived of his final month’s pay. Today he is unemployed and held responsible for the distress and embarrassment caused to his family. Rajiv, despite Kidwai’s attempt to get justice for him, refused to go to the court against this injustice. He was scared and so is his family, for fear of the "bad" publicity they would get. His father told the activist who had gone to them to advocate a legal fight: “It has become so difficult for them to leave their house.”

The second case involves Keith and Aslam. They were strolling in the evening along the serene paths of the Buddha Garden in Delhi, hand in hand, when a handful of cops came out of nowhere and started to harass them. After extorting large amounts of money from them, the cops decided to indulge in a bit of fun. Their fun turned out to be a strip tease act by the couple. “The incident again was not reported”, says Kidwai sighing “for similar reasons as the first case.”
Born into a feudal Muslim family, Kidwai himself has been through a lot because of his sexual preference: “It has been a long lonely fight. My family went into a fit initially. But today my family accepts me. My landlady here knows I am gay and I have recently finished a book titled Same Sex Love In India, so now the whole world knows and I am perfectly all right with it.”
The law itself plays a big hand in repressing the homosexuals. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code states: “Whoever has carnal intercourse against the code of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life.”
“The threat of legal action, combined with social ostracis, is enough to deter all but the least vulnerable from coming out”, argues Frank Gupta, Leader of Dekhi Human Rights Group. “The threat is real for gay men who, like their counterparts around the world, for want of better places are forced to meet in public parks, public toilets and similar places.”
Mr Gupta adds: “No one has yet lobbied to have this section of the Penal Code repealed, nor has anyone brought a test case as high as the Supreme Court. There is a general sense of fear which predominates, and homosexual journalists, intellectuals, political activists and others prefer not to come out and endanger their careers and positions of authority.” In India homosexuals are open to persecution by the police who are primarily interested in extorting whatever they can from their victims.
Amidst the exhilaration of the newly confident gay community, there is also the issue of Aids and HIV. “The government is aware of the spread of Aids among gays” says Anand “but stringent ideas of morality mean that it prefers to ignore the threat”. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), 889 cases of Aids have been reported nationwide, along with an estimated 16,015 carriers of HIV, the virus that causes the disease.
Hamsafar Trust's Row-Kavi said WHO’s funding to combat Aids lapsed last year because the government was unable to come up with a coherent strategy. “That money could have been utilised effectively if we had been allowed to participate in the planning process more closely”, he said.
The rate of attrition within the gay community is not known exactly. The Indian Health Organisation, a private agency working with Aids patients, which believes there are 190,000 cases of AIDS and an estimated 3.8 million infections nationwide, contests even the official figures.
Shivananda Khan, of London's Naz Project, which works with gays from South Asian says: “The country's bureaucrats are aware of the need for rapid action but there was no clear political will to beef up public health facilities.”
Journalist Deepak Kapoor, who has written many articles for the Newsletter NAZ Foundation International, argues, “There are efforts to mobilise. Attempts have been made to organise groups in Delhi, Bombay, and in Calcutta, but often these organisations are not much more than an extension of the personal contact network.” Three years ago one attempt failed in New Delhi because there was confusion about its aims and political strategy, and also because the group concerned allowed itself to be fragmented into class-centred cliques.

Kapoor adds: “Any group action in India has to overcome powerful class and caste loyalties, and for middle and upper class Indians under pressure from a vast group of underprivileged people it often proves impossible to relinquish power.”

Unsurprisingly, as in other countries, homosexuals exist in all strata of Indian society but there is limited access to information. Homosexuality is not considered an appropriate subject for culture or art. “Homosexual characters do not appear in films, plays or literature”, states Vikram Bhatt, an uprising director in Mumbai, “ideas of gay life in the West are brought back by a few individuals, or else filter through randomly by means of the straight English language media.”

“The vast array of gay writing in the West is generally unavailable, so people are not aware of what the gay movement is doing elsewhere” Bhatt continues “what is known, however, is that there is an apparent 'freedom' to be gay in the West that manifests itself in terms of a wide selection of gay bars, baths and other commercial venues.”

Ghalib Dhalla, an accountant in the United Kingdom, spent his early years in Pakistan where his only introduction to gays was the hijras: hermaphrodites who dress in women's clothing and perform at weddings. “Beyond the hijras, gay relationships are kept in the closet in Pakistan”, comments Durrani. He comments: “In Pakistan, sex among men is common, but they don't label themselves as gay. As long as the men marry and have children, fulfilling their so called duties, they can sleep around on the side.”

Dr. Devdutt Patanaik, author of several essays and books on Hindu lore, tries to answer whether homosexuality existed in ancient India. “To find out if homosexuality or same-sex intercourse existed in India, and in what form, we have to turn to three sources: images on temple walls, sacred narratives and ancient law books,” she identifies “an overview of temple imagery, sacred narratives and religious scriptures does suggest that homosexual activities in some form did exist in ancient India.” Although its existence was acknowledged, it was not approved of.

In India today radicals cling to heterosexuality as the norm. The emancipation of women and the arrival of feminism have brought at least some debate on the impact of sexual politics in creating an alternative ideology. It is to be hoped that the liberation of gay men will follow, but as elsewhere, this will not happen until Indian gay men make their homosexuality a political issue, no one else is going to do it for them. “Until then”, Sunil Gupta, a bitter and angry gay freelance photographer and writer in Delhi, argues “let us at least expose the Indian homosexual man as a cynical, reactionary creature who is misusing the label 'gay' to give an imagined and imported respectability to his sex life, and not to change his politics or lifestyle.” The real Indian gay man has yet to surface in strength to challenge the prevailing heterosexist culture and the mythology of the family.

"Going by statistics, there are about 50 million men who practice homosexual behaviour in India. But most prefer to be closeted and I ask why?” questions Ashok Row Kavi, a renowned gay activist, “there are a lot of high profile gay men in the corporate world, the film world etc but they don't speak up. If a few of them supported gay causes, even verbally, it would go a long way in stabilizing the gay movement. It is not necessary to lead gay pride marches but by supporting each other would go a long way.”

Although talks and Internet sites such as bombay-dost.com and gaybombay.com have started in cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, the general reaction is still one of hostility and ridicule. Homosexuality is denied within the Indian society, where homosexuality is not spoken of at all and ignored where visible. This attitude has its benefits in as much as homosexuals are left alone to their own devices and are not untowardly bothered. But it also means that the system and the state does not take any step whatsoever by way of welfare measures for homosexuals, or for the protection of their basic human and fundamental rights.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 09:29 on 15 April 2003  Report this post
A very thorough and interesting article with many thought-provoking angles. It would seem, from the picture painted here, that there is little chance of finding a publisher for such a piece in Indian journals but I could imagine one of the broadsheets in the UK taking an interest.I wonder if there is any reliable information on homsoexuality in the UK Indian/Pakistani communities - this could provide a very interesting comparison. I'd be interested also to hear something about the position of lesbians in the sub-continent -presumably they endure the same, or even worse, repression. Perhaps worth raising these issues on the WriteWords forum? - it would be fascinating to read of other experiences.

Ralph at 19:36 on 15 July 2003  Report this post
I was fascinated reading this for all kinds of reasons. The main one is the way you discuss the formation of a gay identity. I don't know if you've come across Foucault's "History of Sexuality", in which he theorises that the development of such an identity in the west came from scientific categorization as a means to control and ultimately eliminate the sexual act. This work has sparked all kinds of debates about whether the gay community can and/or should lay claim to a sexuality that dictates lifestyle beyond what happens in the bedroom, so to speak.
From the perspective of an area where this identity has not been fully grounded, I wonder whether immitating western assertions of a homosexual culture would be entirely a good thing....
Your argument over the human rights issues was accurate and compelliong, and sadly reminiscent of 40s and 50s England in places.
The only thing that threw me slightly was the fact that you used "gay" as a noun as well as an adjective. That's probably just me though, I know some people do this, but I'm on Armistead Maupin's side over this one....

Kara at 16:23 on 08 March 2005  Report this post
I found this an interesting article. I was pleased that you quoted so many different people and that you made the article accesible without losing style and direction. It certainly should be published in this country and in other European countries. Good luck with it! best wishes Kara

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