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Out of the closet, on to the streets

Pride Marches throughout the world are the key to a society where each person is valued for who he or she is, without asking for anything in return. Writes Ashok Row Kavi.

entertainment Updated: Jul 02, 2009 17:48 IST

On July 2, exactly a decade ago, 15 men met in Kolkata’s badly maintained Park Circus Park. It started drizzling the moment we assembled and all of us ran to seek shelter in a dilapidated gazebo standing forlornly in a corner. But those were exciting times and the ‘fabulous 15’ set off for what was then called the ‘Rainbow Walk’. The plan was to follow a leisurely trail visiting officials, NGOs, judges and all those who matter and tell them what we were all about. ‘We’ here being faggots, gay men, g*ndus, naan-khatais, gud — whatever you want to call us homosexuals.

It was a pretty rag-tag bunch, wearing similar yellow t-shirts with the legend ‘Walk on the Rainbow’ printed in pink letters (what else) saying it all. The t-shirts had been printed and packed lovingly by a giant gay man called Owais Khan who worked for a corporate in Bangalore. Nearly all of us had made it to Kolkata on our own steam and had been picked up by the quiet Kolkatan called Pawan Dhall from Howrah terminus, a whirlpool of perpetual chaos.

But the most memorable part of that ‘Walk on the Rainbow’ was being stopped by a grand old Bengali Maashi Maa (auntie) and asked: “What on earth are you guys walking around for?” to which I replied, “Oh, we are homosexuals and we are asking the government to get rid of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.”

After seeing the rather puzzled look on her face, I explained what the whole enterprise was all about. “You see,” I said patiently, “there is this really awful law that says that anal or oral sex is against the law of nature and must be punished with 10 years in jail even if both parties consent to it.” Before I could explain further, I had an outraged Bengali lady on my hands: “You mean to say that this useless government has nothing to do but peep into everybody’s sex life? You mean even your bottom is not your own?” She seemed to be getting really mad as she pronounced the Bengali street word for buttocks in well-rounded contempt.

It’s then that I realised that India’s heart is good and gracious. The kind of homophobia I would see in New York or London was just missing even in a hide-bound great city like Kolkata. But was it really that easy? I wasn’t sure.

As a street counselor in my organisation, Humsafar Trust and my experience manning the Trust’s helpline in Mumbai, I had talked to scores of young men and women who were puzzled first and then traumatised when they learnt about their sexual orientation and tried willy-nilly to adjust to mainstream society. It wasn’t that easy specially because there was no homophobia of the Western type here. Nobody in India really took homosexuality seriously till you refused to get married and insisted on making everybody’s life miserable by defying social norms of dress or composure.

That was the issue as the Indian middle class faced a new phenomenon — whole segments of population whose only common trait was that they loved the same sex. It was exactly like a teacher or parent seeing that a child was writing using its left hand. And just as nobody now sees that as a problem, one wondered why this business of sexual orientation had become such an issue. But obviously it was an issue. As the days passed, not only were there horror stories of young men and women being forcibly married, sent for psychotherapy and aversion therapy, but they were also being beaten, caned, injected with hormones, sent to ashrams to be changed through ‘lessons in morality’, called scum of the earth by priests — and sometimes even driven out of homes. What was the issue?

It was obvious that sexual orientation and gender identity were not easy subjects to handle. Neither schools nor colleges had any inkling on how to do that through sex education. Even most parents didn’t have the skills to explain to a child why he or she shouldn’t be attracted to somebody of his or her own sex.

In that respect, I was a lucky guy — my father not only didn’t bat an eyelid when I said I was attracted to other boys, but he even went and got whatever literature on the subject he could get for a nerdish kid; I still have the two volumes of Havelock Ellis with me as a gift on my 12th birthday.

At the Humsafar Trust, the stories tumbled out along with the men carrying them like a huge burden — rejection by family and friends, violence in public spaces for being ‘different’ and being blackmailed by goons and the police using an archaic law that was rarely used. What seemed to be used were a set of nebulous laws that supposedly maintained “social order and threats to public order”. As the net widened, I heard of cross-dressers being beaten and raped by the police and goons, and young men being raped by stronger male relatives. It looked like the law was a beautiful carpet under which crawled a whole lot of worms.

What one concluded was that homosexuals (the term includes lesbians) and cross dressers were persecuted because they were ‘not natural’, which, of course, was an oxymoron. The point was — was this new? Every homosexual thinks he’s the only one alive but as the years go by and you seek out others like you, things get a lot easier.

So then I started digging into history and all sorts of texts surprised me; from Socrates and Plato to Alexander the Great, there definitely seemed a whole lot of “us” way back in time. In India, personal histories came in with Islam and all the way from Mehmud Ghazni to Allauddin Khilji and Babar, homosexuals were very much present. This historical perspective gave an idea that homosexuality or homosexuals were not foreign but desi to boot. The nearer one got, the more complicated it became. One couldn’t name, say, any Khan in Bollywood because that practically amounted to dragging them out of their closets which was unethical.

The British in India brought in their own laws and prejudices. Section 377 originated in 17th century Britain and was introduced into the secular criminal codes from ecclesiastical statutes existing in the St James Bible. Before that, we never had such a law even under a bigot like Aurangzeb. The personal in India had remained personal till the British invented both the closet and the law to keep you in it. And the irony is that even though they have rid themselves of this law in 1969, it still lingers in all their former colonies.

Unlike other minorities, sexual minorities will remain minorities by their very nature. They are a reminder that society is a pluralistic multitude and that each of us are different yet equal.

Pride Marches throughout the world are the key to a society where each person is valued for who he or she is, without asking for anything in return. India’s LGBT community is slowly coming of age and will not go back into the closet. That’s for sure.

Ashok Row Kavi is founder-chairman of the Humsafar Trust and a gay rights activist.