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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Unless you live under a rock, you know that there’s been an ongoing battle to decriminalise Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and an attempt to alter the way our society talks about and deals with homosexuality. Since the news of America’s recent legalisation of gay marriage has been doing the rounds on social media, the Woman’s World Team spoke to a few people in the city to see if we’re any closer to making it less of a taboo in India

HOW SOCIETY REACTS
Indian society may be becoming more open-minded, but we still have a long way to go until we are comfortable with openly discussing homosexuality. Bobby Darling is perhaps the best example of this. Born Pankaj Sharma, he faced a lot of ridicule for being homosexual. But, he is still unabashed about discussing his sexuality, which is worth noting in a society like the one we live in.

There are several examples of the struggles that homosexuals face in India. Sushant Divgikar, winner of the Mr. Gay India 2014 pageant, tells us what he thinks about society’s reaction to homosexuality. He says, “I don’t really understand why homosexuality is an issue. While the root cause behind this discrimination is lack of education, it’s also time for our government to wake up and smell the coffee! I have had some heart-warming experiences though, like when I was in a reality show and my co-contestant, Pritam Singh, told me that he had never had a gay friend. He said that I was such a nice person and so flamboyant, that it actually changed his mindset towards homosexuals. He hails from a small town and had a different perspective on the matter before he got to know me. When I heard this, I felt like there was something I could do to change the notion of how homosexuals are perceived in our country.”

While belonging to the LGBT community can be tough, Devarshi Gohil, a 24-year-old architect, thinks that homosexuality has come a long way. She says, “I think it’s more socially acceptable to be a part of the LGBT community today. As a ’90s kid, and as someone who identifies herself as part of this community, I’ve noticed a shift in people’s attitude towards the issue. From being a term that was used to bully or demean people, it has now become a topic that is accepted, and even trendy and socially relevant. However, the one thing that hasn’t changed, is how people believe that they have the right to judge your sexuality for you.”

Nolan Lewis, Mr. Gay India 2013, was bullied by other boys in his school for being “different,” but he feels more accepted today. He tells us, “I have been out as a gay man ever since I was nineteen. I’m 30-years-old now.

I was nervous about my decision to participate in Mr. Gay World, especially about my family’s safety, because we still live in a society that has an ambiguous stance towards sexual minorities. However, I was relieved to return to a country of people who were supportive and encouraged my decision to be true to who I am. Despite the Supreme Court’s disappointing judgement on Section 377, I still believe in India’s democratic structure. I live as a gay man who has come out of the closet and I encounter individuals every day who are respectful and even curious about what it is like to be homosexual.”

SO, WHY IS HOMOSEXUALITY STILL TABOO IN INDIA?
Homosexuality has always been taboo, but while the West is becoming more accepting of sexual minorities, India still has a long way to go. We spoke to two people in the city to find out why this attitude isn’t changing in our country.

People need to evolve
Gay rights activist, Harish Iyer, tells us, “Being gay is taboo in our country for several reasons. One of them is that Indians are hypocritical. For instance, we have sex all the time, but do we talk about it? No! Another reason is that we blame the West for homosexuality. You only have to read our history to realise why this is an incorrect assumption. Finally, Indians have just started using the word condom, so how can you expect them to be open to the idea of homosexuality so quickly?” While Harish is angry about how slow the progress is, he also believes that India is slowly getting accustomed to the idea. He explains, “Indian media has come of age, so there is a general mood in favour of gay rights, but only in certain pockets of society. This is primarily because Indian society still needs to evolve on a bigger level.”

Playing by the rules
Paras Sharma, programme coordinator at iCALL Helpline, tells us that there are two dominant forces — patriarchy and heteronormitivity — that make homosexuality taboo in India. He says, “India is a very patriarchal and heteronormitive nation. Patriarchy is a common problem in our country, where men define the sexual and reproductive roles for both, men and women. Heteronormitivity implies that being heterosexual is the norm. It’s the upper class, heterosexual male who dominates the public discourse in our country. Also, there is a lack of awareness about homosexuality. This stems from the fact that sex itself is considered taboo and so, homosexuality as a taboo gets elevated.” He adds that religion plays an important role in perpetuating the misconceptions. “All religions preach that homosexuality is wrong — this is one aspect where they all unite!” he tells us

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
The age-old issue of misunderstood children and old-fashioned parents is being re-written today, for the most part. Parents are either ignorant of their children’s individual struggles, or they try to mould them according to a particular image that they feel is acceptable to society. And, while letting your parents see you as a unique individual with sexual needs is usually an uncomfortable part of growing up, for some, it’s an even bigger issue.

Sushmit Sen, a 28-year-old copywriter, told his family about his sexual preferences only after he graduated. In fact, his friends were the first ones to know. He tells us, “I didn’t open up to anyone because I thought it was nobody’s business but my own. I didn’t date anyone from within my circles and didn’t engage in conversation with my parents at the time. After college, I came out to my closest friends, and eventually, told my parents.” Luckily for him, the experience turned out to be a good one. “The problem is that our parents don’t want to believe that their children are sexually active before marriage. I was not comfortable discussing sex with my folks before I became an adult. When I was ready, I came out to them and even clarified their doubts.
They’re definitely supportive, but they don’t go around telling everyone that I’m gay. There is so much more to me than just my sexuality,” he explains.

On the other hand, for 21-year-old Jeet Dalvi, coming out was a nerve-wracking experience. He tells us, “There was a long wait because I was too scared to do it by myself. I believe that when your parents accept you, you need no other validation. Eventually, as I started to live life on my own terms without being dictated by societal norms, I was much happier. However, when I did tell my parents, I wasn’t just nervous; I was paranoid. My mother is my best friend and hiding such a big part of my life from her had been eating away at me. I couldn’t afford to lose her. It was an awful experience and I even went through a couple of psychiatric treatments for depression and hallucinations. Now, my mother just wants me to get into a relationship with a decent guy. Initially, she was apprehensive about discussing my sexuality with my father, because she believed that he wouldn’t understand, which hurt me. She is concerned and unhappy most of the time because she fears that I’ll end up alone once she’s gone. After all, she is an Indian mother and is accustomed to melodrama. She’s unhappy with the recent judgment of the Supreme Court and wants me to go abroad as soon possible because she thinks it’s unsafe for me to stay here”

A word from the wise
Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, from the royal family of the former princely state of Rajpipla in Gujarat, is one of the leading gay rights activists in India. He is the founder of the Lakshya Trust and is also the goodwill ambassador of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation India.

His own experience of coming out gave him a new perspective about our society. He tells us that he doesn’t blame society  for being unwilling to accept homosexuality, he blames its ignorance. He tells us, “When I came out, everyone was against me. But, I was determined to be truthful... you can’t live your life on falsehoods.”

A good point that he raises is about the hypocrisy that exists in our country. He points out that from sculptures and paintings to texts such as the Kama Sutra, there is ample evidence that homosexuality has been part of our culture. He adds, “I believe that the imposition of Section 377 by the British is one of the reasons that homosexuality is taboo in our society.” The way ahead is to educate people. He adds, “From a personal experience, I can tell you that, people who’ve been shown to have homophobic tendencies have changed their beliefs once they become educated and were provided with the right information. For example, the police department today takes part in our organisational events and activities, now that we’ve explained the facts to them.”

Regarding the equation between a parent and a child, he says, “Parents should love their children for who they are. Being homosexual is natural, just like being right or left-handed.

You wouldn’t stop loving your child for being left-handed, would you?”

If you need a hand…
Whatever path you choose, dealing with your sexuality isn’t always easy. But there are centres and helplines that you can contact if you need someone to talk to.

  • iCALL Helpline: 25563291 (Monday to Saturday, from 10am to 10pm)
  • Humsafar Centre: 26673800 (Drop-in centre for gays and lesbians; meets on Fridays from 6pm to 9pm)
  • India Centre for Human Rights and Law: Human Rights Group with a separate division for gay/ lesbian/ bisexual rights

HANDLING THE HURDLES
So, how do people deal with these hurdles without hiding or compromising on who they are? We gather experiences and find out what a relationship counsellor thinks

“The power of the press shocked me”
“My biggest fear surrounding the situation was really bizarre. I have never had the courage to come out to my extended family (cousins, relatives, uncles and aunts) because I hail from a closely-knit, conservative, Catholic family. It was embarrassing to answer inquisitive questions from an aunt who remembered the girlfriends that I had when I was a teenager. I was surprised at how sensitively and positively the media reported my story and my journey through the Mr. Gay India 2013 pageant, painting the LGBT movement in a very graceful light. I realised the power of the press as soon as my first interview was published. My phone kept buzzing through the day, and my email inbox and social networking pages were flooded with messages and questions. I feel blessed to be born as a gay man and I’m not bogged down by the challenges that accompany it.”                                                             
— Nolan Lewis (30-years-old), Mr. Gay World 2013 contestant

“Taking it slow and steady was hard”
“My biggest hurdle was that as soon as I realised that I was different, I resisted it. I was living a dual life; I pretended to be someone that I was not. But, with time, I took a good inward look and asked myself if the lie I was living was worth it. I decided to open up to my friends and luckily, the first friend that I confided in was extremely understanding. I’m still under a lot of pressure — I haven’t told my parents yet because I think they will not take it well. But I do plan to tell them and I will cross that bridge when the time is right.”
— Pankaj (22-years-old), media professional

EXPERT OPINION
“These days, children hit puberty at an early age and for boys, it’s often a lot more obvious. For Indian parents, it’s shocking to hear that their child is bisexual or gay. This is mostly because there are  certain norms that society has conditioned us to follow. So, people think that being differently-oriented is wrong. It’s very important for parents to be open with their children, because children are young and impressionable. In our country, it is taboo to talk about gender equality, let alone sexuality. However, since parents spend a lot of time talking to their child about other things, they should also talk about sexuality with an open mind! You should help your children understand what sexuality exactly means. If you don’t believe in talking about it, that’s fine, but at the very least, you shouldn’t say things against it. This will make your child nervous and scared of opening up to you. Don’t condemn anything!”
— Kinjal Pandya, relationship counsellor

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