Images of Yonatan and Omer Gher holding their surrogate child made headlines earlier this week and in doing so, did far more for gay rights in India than the couple could have imagined. A homophobe colleague perhaps put it best: “They don’t look gay at all, they look so normal.”
Popular perception has stereotyped gays for years. Most people expect homosexual men to be effete and touchy-feely and lesbians to be butch, hairy and aggressive. Simply put, anything but “normal”.
The stereotyping begins young. My 11-year-old, for example, suddenly wants his friends — all boys — at arms length. “He high-fives all the time, it’s so gay,” he snickered about the new kid in the neighbourhood. “What’s wrong with that?” I ask. “You know, getting all touchy-feely is so gay.”
“And what’s wrong with being gay?”
“Nothing,” he shrugs. “So why do you find it so funny?”
“All kids at school do. You won’t understand. Women have no sense of humour,” he shrugs.
Well, women and gays have been the butt — bad pun but intended, after all I’m just another humourless woman — of jokes forever. As a woman, do I care? Not really.
So why are homosexuals so touchy about gay jokes? Perhaps because most people start laughing before they hear the punchline.
Few understand that homosexuality is a sexual orientation — not behaviour, connoting choice — that describes people having sexual or romantic attraction to members of their own sex. Homosexuality, bisexuality and heterosexuality are the three main classifications of sexual orientation.
Homosexuality, I have been informed, is an orientation that you are born with and not a behaviour choice. “It’s like being born left handed; it is what you are and there’s nothing you can do about it. Being homosexual is not a choice a person makes. Why should anyone choose a sexual preference that is not accepted by society and subject to stigma and discrimination?” says Ashok Row Kavi, chairman of the Hamsafar Trust and a consultant with UNAIDS.
Some religions and institutions do not accept the positions of medical organisations. The Roman Catholic Church considers homosexuality a “tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and therefore “an objective disorder”. Even the US Department of Defense Instruction on “Physical Disability Evaluation” lists homosexuality as a mental disorder.
India is among very few countries —Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt, among others — where homosexuality is penalised.
Over the last two decades, there has been increased visibility, recognition, and legal rights for homosexuals, including marriage and civil unions, parenting rights, and equal access to healthcare in several countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden.
In 1992, the WHO removed homosexuality from the category of mental illness. The UK government did the same in 1994, followed by the Ministry of Health in the Russian Federation in 1999 and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry in 2001.
UNAIDS is currently working on a “position paper” on homosexuality in India. With the Centre clearly divided on its position on homosexuality, the paper should be made compulsory reading for all ministers and bureaucrats deciding the fate of countless Indians who are just different, not deviant.