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Chasing the rainbow

The Queer Pride march today in Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata will mark 10 years of the event in India. How have things changed over the decade? Nivriti Butalia examines...Duos despite the odds.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2008 02:46 IST

So you think it happens only among sissy men who wear pink shirts, or gruff-voiced women who dress like men all the time? But then, are cufflinks only for gays, and can all women who wear untucked, oversized shirts be passed off as lesbians? When you put up such age-old stereotypes in front of the gay and lesbian community of our prudish country, most of them laugh it off. Others take care to dispel such notions. With a heavy dose of irony, gay rights activist Gautum Bhan goes so far as to say that the stereotypes at least acknowledge the existence of homosexuals in our society.

Such stereotypes are as valid as clichés are true, says Ayush Tewari, an academician and supporter of the gay movement. He says, “Many Punjabis are brash, but it would be unfair to pass off the entire clan as a bunch of boors.” What needles men like Tewari is not so much the stereotype as the over-simplification that becomes part of the mould. If every well-groomed guy in pink is gay, then surely every straight person is unkempt and litters his speech with abuses. Tewari points out that in the craze to slot ‘us and them’, a minority of sensitive straight men get stuck with such labels too.

The stereotypes move into the bedroom as well. Is it true that same-sex couples take on the roles of either a man or a woman? “That’s bullshit,” says Kartik, a 36-year-old designer. “I’ve been in a long-term relationship with a man for seven years. We didn’t do defined roles. You are who you are.” He concedes that role-playing has its place, but “it’s fluid, and not the most integral aspect of being with someone”. Kartik busts another myth: it’s not only the queen (the more effeminate partner) who plays the woman, should there be role-playing. “You’d be surprised,” he says with a shake of his head.

To tell or not to tell

Gays and lesbians have to ‘play roles’ even outside their relationships to avert the prying gaze of the prudish. The all-important ‘coming out’— disclosing the sexual orientation — signifies an end to that. Take the case of 25-year-old Vikrant Kaul, now a researcher at a multinational who first came out to his friends in university. He says, “Back when I was a closet gay, a lot would go through my mind about how people would react.” On being told, one acquaintance blurted out, “But dude, you play tennis!” Kaul, who happens to be hooked to his fortnightly pedicure sessions, says he is yet to tell his family.

Bhan, who interacts with college kids in his role as an activist, claims it’s easier today to come out to friends, colleagues, and even family. “The pace of change within the community has increased rapidly — even over that in the late 1990s,” he says. There’s one caveat though: the easier bit is still strictly an urban phenomenon.

Your city or mine?

Not all is urbane within the urban, though. Ashok Row Kavi, chairperson of the Humsafar Trust and one who moves between Delhi and Mumbai, says, “There’s more hypocrisy in Delhi than in Bombay, which is more open about things such as the massive cruising that goes on every Saturday night at The Walls — the promenade on the sea next to the Taj Mahal Hotel.”

If some of the been-there-done-that sources are to be believed, Delhi is full of pretentious upper-class ‘queens’. Some even yawn at the Capital’s tacky pick-up culture. “Gorgeous migrant men, in spite of wearing watches, would ask for the time. Such things are happening more in the Delhi Metro these days,” says 37-year-old Kartik.

In Bangalore, playwright Mahesh Dattani is less keen on slotting clear-cut attributes to such urban spaces, believing there is a “certain homogeneity” in the homosexual culture of our cities. He says, “The battles are the same everywhere.” Give or take a few geographical idiosyncrasies, that is.

At home online

The air in our cities is still too stuffy for comfort for most. Shalini of Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action (Labia), a Mumbai-based group of volunteers, points to the most convenient route for escaping this: the Internet. This mode of communication marks a huge difference in the way the community gets together today from what it did even five years ago.

Kartik, for one, prefers online chat rooms to make contact — “to begin with, at least”. There’s also a class consciousness that precludes some from hanging out at dark parks or alleyways of movie complexes. Cruising is much safer online. The drill: get chatting, exchange details and then photographs, and only if mutual interest is established, would one bother to take it to the next level — a fling or maybe a relationship.

Rahul Singh of the Naz Foundation believes things are looking up because there is a dialogue in the open. Though still in a small section, an increasing number of parents are approaching support groups wanting to know how best to deal with their son/daughter's alternate sexuality. “In the last one year, at least 12 sets of parents have approached us worried about their children’s ‘future’,” says Singh.

There’s just one large, dark cloud framed in all the silver lining: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises a large section of the queer community.