India at 70 | Want to move to a country with dignity: For LGBT folks, freedom is still a dream
In small-town India, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender people are still grappling with violence from family, society and pervasive bias because of section 377 that criminalises homosexualityIndependenceDay2017 Updated: Aug 14, 2017 11:19 IST
The first time Apoorva and Chetana* met, it was magic. One lied to parents, concocted a job offer and flew down from Pune to Lucknow, the other financed last-minute tickets with her hard-earned savings. They had spent a restless month chatting online after navigating for years the crushing ennui that accompanies most LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) lives in small-town India.
They met at the airport, ran towards each other and hugged. In the taxi, they stole kisses. Apoorva couldn’t stop smiling when they bunked up together in her house. They spent a euphoric week, eating, going out, planning their future together.
But life was determined to crush their dreams. The first shock was when they tried opening a joint account – bank after bank turned them away saying they needed a legal relationship, or a family connection, for any transaction.“Many asked us if we were sisters because our glasses looked alike,” Chetana says, laughing.
We are sitting in a coffee lounge in the older parts of Lucknow where the two had first met, and spent countless afternoons together planning their lives, recuperating from the agonizing negotiations with prospective employers, family and most importantly, society over the next three years.
The couple meticulously saved every penny, clawing their way to financial independence, building job skills. A mesh of lies, concealment and ingenuity kept them together but increasingly convinced them that their future didn’t lie in a country that criminalises them.
“In five years, I want to move abroad to a country where we can legally marry and be employable… I never wanted to move but maybe I became selfish, I want a comfortable life for us,” says a visibly-conflicted Apoorva. “I know that my family will force me to marry so I want to move away.” She is studying to be a lawyer and her partner is an engineer.
LIFE IN LUCKNOW
In Lucknow, queerness hides in plain sight – in the shadow of the crumbling imambaras, the bustle of the chikan markets of Aminabad or the languid majesty of Residency. On a rain swept evening, we run into a same-sex couple on the banks of Gomti that gushes through the city, stealing a few hours of bliss before returning to their respective, dreary homes. The narrow galis of old Lucknow are imbued with stories of the decadent ways of the erstwhile royalty and same-sex desire is often understood as “Nawabi shaukh”. But everything is shrouded in secrecy.
A string of high-profile police raids and arrests in the 2000s on NGOs working with LGBT people sent the community in shock. Lurid media coverage fanned gossip and bias, forcing them to retreat to the shadows. As they claw back into the public view, a whole generation of queer folks are absent.
“In Lucknow today, you will hardly find gay men who are 30-40 years old. A whole generation of people like me were lost,” rues Yadavendra Singh, one of the organisers of Lucknow pride this April. That event, where hundreds of people came out onto the streets to demand a life of dignity and respite from the colonial-era section 377 that bans “unnatural” sex, was a milestone for the community.
Bias against same-sex desire starts early. In school, Apoorva was vilified for her orientation, often by her own friends and partners. Hormone-soaked gossip about lesbian threesomes soon ballooned into tales about 20 guys and two women, to the point where even teachers avoided her -- all because of a woman who was openly sexual. “It was super hard…a boy I liked grew so insecure that he said asked how women could be so sexual? If women are like this, who will keep boys in check’?”
In the absence of physical spaces and pervasive social stigma, alienation grows roots. Apoorva remembers in her adolescence she didn’t know a single queer woman in the city and would often be forced to rely on stereotypes. “I would follow women with short hair, hoping against hope. In malls, on the way back from school, I would strike up conversations with random women.”
Lucknow acts as the focal point for many smaller towns, and monthly gay parties attract people from as far as Gorakhpur, who travel in rickety buses for hours for a glimpse of the freedom they cannot imagine in the confinement of their homes. But access to public spaces is tricky, especially because of the fear around section 377. Ask any gay man and you will hear countless stories of blackmail, theft and physical violence.
There are other threats too. Many LGBT people carry other identities too -- of caste, faith and class – that render them vulnerable. We meet a gay couple – one partner Sikh and the other Muslim – who speak about the ripples of fear and apprehension running through their residence in old Lucknow since a new government was sworn in. “Our biggest risk is that people think we are Hindu and Muslims staying together. Our Brahmin neighbours often throw taunts and questions.”
But things are slowly changing, helmed by people like Apoorva and Chetana, who are nurturing a dream of a happy family despite the adversity. “We want to adopt children, have a family. People think LGBT relationships are just sex, but that’s not true. It’s about companionship. We’re co-dependent. Sometimes, it just fits…it’s perfect.”
*Name changed. First names used on request.