Millennium Post

Gay rights = human rights!

The much-debated Section 377 of Indian penal code criminalises not only gay sex but also all intercourse against the ‘order of nature’ – a culturally and religiously coloured perception of ‘nature’ that believes sex is for procreation only, in humans like in other animals. And not one that considers the complex scientific, emotional, psychological, socio-cultural, etc. roots of human sexuality.

Anal sex and oral sex are criminalised, even if you are a couple of heterosexual, consenting adults. Nonetheless, given that Section 377 criminalises all sexual intercourse of gay and lesbian people, and only some heterosexual sexual experience, the drama around the supreme court reinstating it by overturning the Naz Foundation’s victory at the Delhi high court is being seen as a gay rights issue.

In my late teens, my closest friend was a reed thin man-woman with a big smile and a raspy voice who I met at a cyber café. The depth of experience in this person’s life made her fascinating and fun, an empathetic listener and mature advisor, and we became friends immediately despite our age gap. I took the fact that we could become friends for granted, in retrospect I realise I took the liberalness of my parents for granted.

Because, from her, and others since, I have heard just how hard societal and familial acceptance can be, how much internal and external strife comes from having an alternate gender and/or sexuality. While gender colours all our lives, having an alternate gender and/or sexuality means being an alternate gender or sexuality – it doesn’t just involve who you love and live with, as it should. It consumes your life and life choices, makes your experiences and interactions more complex and nuanced, and automatically sets you aside as different.

Unlike those who choose to join the hijra community that congeals into a family, most LGBTIQs (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersexed/questioning) live in the mainstream; they are about 10 per cent of the population. Within this environment, each has to carve out his/her own identity, often a lonely journey full of strife; negotiate puberty, adulthood and sexual shame; and, hopefully, find love.

They would like to be accepted in the discourse of ‘normal’, under the cover of cultural and legal sanction, towards a world where they are not first defined by their gender and sexual identity. In that you can replace the words ‘gender and sexual identity’ with ‘race’, ‘class’, ‘femaleness’, ‘disability’, etc., the rights of the LGBTIQ community are clearly a human, equal rights issue.

The world over, people are being politically correct and apologetic for racism, classism, misogyny, disabled-bashing – all persecution for things people didn’t choose but were born with – so one must be mindful that that new research claims homosexuality is biologically determined. And even if it isn’t (such a view is too simplistic, I think), there are loud calls from the growing liberal brigade for being tolerant of individual choice – to practice a religion of one’s choice, to be cultural or not, for women to wear the clothes they want to, or to be gay.

Gay rights are human rights. And you don’t need to be gay to empathise. You just need to not be a bigot.

Same-same but different

In the little bubble Sahil (husband) and I inhabit, comprising, for the most part, anglicised liberals in the media and arts, we have a lot of friends proud of their LGBTIQ identity. Two Australian gay couples who have had a child each through Indian surrogates are dear friends.

In the midst of all this sermonising for and against gay rights recently, I reached out to several of them. A common belief is that the only barrier to accepting homosexuality is education and understanding. ‘There are so many misconceptions about gay sex and life,’ one friend told me. ‘We are not a stereotype or crazy, an infectious disease or predatory. We are just people.’

The difficult journey

Even for us heterosexuals, sexual awakening in the teen years is a complex time. It hits us in a blaze of hormonal changes, stimulates our bodies, colours our minds, and all the while leaving us to negotiate our cultural mores and environment. This is when, emotionally and socially, the heterosexual journey is not fraught with nearly as much loneliness and strife as ‘coming out’ is for those of alternate sexualities.

On a long Skype call as he got ready for work, Ashok Bania, 32, told me that he realised he was attracted to men at adolescence. ‘I used to get tingly when I saw guys,’ he said matter-of-factly, and enjoyed what he calls a ‘single isolated event’ of sexual experimentation with an older teenager boy.

Ashok, an IIT Madras-IIM Lucknow alumnus based in San Francisco since June, is the son of an Assamese IPS officer and comes from humble beginnings. He grew up in and around Guwahati before finishing his bachelors and masters in Chennai. ‘No one spoke about gays in Guwahati,’ he said. ‘A little information in a book in my convent school library and an article in the Reader’s Digest were what made me realise I was not alone.’

In college, Ashok was popular, and fit in by overtly talking about girls and watching straight porn with the boys in an environment where gay stereotypes (from The Wedding Planner and Father of the Bride) were ridiculed, all the while indulging himself in his ‘accurate sexuality’ in private. It was 1999, when chat rooms were all the rage, and in these he learnt more about being gay, hoping nonetheless that ‘this is a temporary phase that will go away: it’s a fad, a hormonal imbalance.’

It was at IIM, at age 23, in love for the first time, with a (straight) close friend, that his longstanding deception first started gnawing away at Ashok. Depressed, he ended up in media houses, first in Delhi for six months, and then in Mumbai for two years – ‘I heard things about gay life there. But being gay meant you had to be underground, and that scared me.’

And despite a few people asking about it, Ashok could never admit he was gay. He would be guarded when he drank, lest he spill his terrible secret. He had resolved to carry his burden alone, and never practise homosexuality. ‘In college, I had a friend who introduced his parents to his girlfriend. That made me cry.… I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.’

Ashok didn’t even start reading about living a gay life until he came out, as he ‘didn’t know that was even an option’.

In fact, he didn’t tell a soul until he was 28, when, after a couple of years of resisting pressure from friends to get married and rejecting prospective brides his parents sent his way, ‘this amazing girl appeared’. She came down from the US to meet him in Bangalore, where he was then working with AOL. ‘I felt trapped. A line from Dexter (the anti-hero from the eponymous TV series), ‘You cannot be honest to someone if you’re not honest to yourself’ played on my mind. I couldn’t eat or sleep for five-six days; I lost weight. I would have palpitations when met her.

‘I was playing out scenarios about getting married and having kids, and panicking at the thought of having sex!’ At this nail-biting now-or-never juncture, Ashok finally called his sister at 3 am to tell her the truth: he was gay. And then he told the girl.

Onwards to happiness

When he awoke the next morning, though, Ashok’s thoughts weren’t with the girl whose heart he had just broken. Instead, he felt elated, like a demon had left him.

Anyone who has kept a secret for a long time, let alone for years, will appreciate the happiness and liberation that comes from truth. As a culture, we have a complicated relationship with truth. On the one hand, our culture studies classes in school teach us not to lie; we are taught to look up to Mahatma Gandhi, the apparent paragon of virtue, and various swamis. On the other, we propagate a culture of silence and hypocrisy to conform to society and tradition. ‘You have to be true to yourself or you will always be a liar. It is not what you should have to chose for your life,’ as Ashok put it. Slowly, he started telling the people closest to him – friends, roommates and sisters – in what he calls the ‘coming-out disease’. His father, whom he confided in during an evening walk, said nothing more than ‘Oh’ at first, but later told him to be safe and careful. Telling his mother, the closest person in Ashok’s life and to whom he had lied for many years, was a different matter. She went through stages of grief and denial, proffering jadi-bootis to cure the ‘disease’. It was only in six months that she broke her silence on the topic, and began to follow stories about LGBTIQs in the Assamese-language press.

Talking to the ‘other’ side

There is no new argument to offer to upholders of culture and religion than ones heard before – the choices of consenting adults, the fact that homosexuality is natural, or that it has been accepted in our culture from times immemorial. (I don’t believe current laws and social conventions should derive from ancient culture, mythology and history, but these people certainly do, hence this point.) A few mornings ago, I had a conversation with one such person from my dreaded and amusing ‘other’ messages folder on Facebook; and as I was writing this article, right, so wanted to explore the other side’s point of view. Quotable quotes, almost verbatim, save for correcting his English:
‘Sex is only for giving birth to a new life not for enjoyment.’

‘Always private things must be kept in a private place… So making it an issue is making no sense, no one is going to check in everyone’s private life who is having homo sex.’

‘If we start these sex issues in public then god knows what will happen in the next ten years… Making these issues public can badly affect kids and teenagers. Just tell me whenever someone thinks about sexual matters, what does she/he feel?’

(Me: ‘When you think about sex, you feel aroused. When you think about sexual rights, you don’t feel aroused. Is that your concern, that the law will turn people on?!’)

The culture they seek to preserve is not one of greatness or happiness, but of falseness and hate. To make something natural against social mores can only mean more people living unhappy lives in enforced hypocrisy. Case in point: as a parting shot, the culture protector who had declared ‘For me sex is not so important, love emotion is much more important than sex’ said, ‘I am looking through your pictures. They turn me on.’

The paranoia about the spread of a gay pandemic is not actually about more people becoming gay; it is about more people admitting to being gay. Says Ashok, ‘I never had any role models. If I had known just one person – someone’s uncle or brother – retrospectively, I might have had enough courage to say ‘Hey, I’m different’.

While laws and cultural pressure are essential to prevent things that are truly horrific from happening in society (rape, sex crimes, murder, communal violence), let it not stand against the happiness of two consenting adults.

By arrangement with Governance Now

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