‘I was born of heterosexual parents, taught by heterosexual teachers in a fiercely heterosexual society. So why then am I homosexual? And no offence meant, if it were true that children mimic their teachers, then we would have had hell of a lot more nuns running around.” This is Harvey Milk’s counter-argument to a demand in mid-70s America that sought to dismiss all homosexuals from the teaching profession. “How do you teach homosexuality? Is it like French?” he asks wryly.
Gus Van Sant’s film Milk (for which Sean Penn won this year’s Best Actor Oscar for his role as Harvey Milk) does a lot for gay people anywhere in the world. It deals with acceptance, the lack of it and the struggle to be accepted as real people by an overwhelmingly heterosexual world.
India needs a revolution of the kind that Harvey Milk had helped to usher in the US — a way in which homosexuals can gain acceptance and equal rights in this country. Any Indian gay movement is still a mix of the visible and what remains underground. The latter comprises overwhelmingly of private get-togethers and clubs across major cities and cruising at public spots.
And then there is the internet, which has a host of chat sites for online exchanges that can be followed up in the ‘non-virtual world’. On the ‘visible’ side of things, there are the media, cinema, the fashion, design and beauty industries, NGOs and court battles, not to mention gay pride marches. While these are visible ‘outings’ of the gay community in India, most members of the community cover their faces — afraid of being found out and ostracised by their families and friends.
It is strange that a country that has a history of accepting same-sex relations continues to legally deny the very existence of homosexuality. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises ‘unnatural sex’ that, by implication, includes active male homosexuality. This was a law handed down from British India, and remains in place.
The most potent way of bringing about acceptance of homosexuality in this country is being counted and being seen in every walk of life. This obviously is the toughest part for most gay men, in India in particular and Indian homosexuals in general, given the value of family ties and the complexities of the socio-cultural system. The debate on homosexuality here has moved from ‘sickness’ to ‘abnormality’, from ‘religious beliefs’ to ‘invasion of Western cultures’. In the case of Harvey Milk, there was just one lobby to deal with. In India, homosexuals have many more.
Even as I write this under a pseudonym for fear of ‘being counted’, I hope to be part of a ‘Harvey Milk movement’ one day when India’s homosexuals do not need to hide behind a veil of a fake life. I wonder who will take this lead. You or I? Or all of us?
Bharat I. Sharma is the pseudonym of a Delhi-based writer.