Malini has lived with Sushma for about six years now in Delhi’s upmarket Hauz Khas area. She works at a media house in a mid-level managerial position. By any standards, she is an independent woman in an interesting line of work. Yet, there is one side of herself Malini can never talk about. To most of her friends and colleagues, Sushma is her cousin-cumroomie, when in fact, they are lovers. Sushma, who is in publishing, has to resort to the same subterfuge.
Their situation is in stark contrast to that of Delhi-based boyfriends Manish and Varun, who are both from staunch Punjabi families but make no bones about their five-year live-in relationship. They attend parties as a couple, cuddle – sort of – in public and take pride in being together.
Following the scrapping of Section 377 in 2009, a long-awaited move that decriminalised homosexuality, more and more gay men have been coming out in the open. But gay women – or lesbians, if one prefers that term – are still in the shadows. Malini and Sushma are among the many female couples in India who must still be furtive about
who they want to live with, despite these so-called “liberal” times.
Are we to take it, then, that the rampant inequality among the genders extends to the sphere of homosexual relationships, too? Most lesbians answer in the affirmative. To the question, ‘Why do gay men have it relatively easy?’, they say it is because women are judged more harshly in this as much as in everything else.
Malini says, “Despite the [scrapping of the] law, most people have a huge mental block against same-sex couples. Guys continue to have it easier as they are seen as stronger and are entitled to doing their own thing without being criticised. The minute a woman does it, society becomes judgmental.”
The one time when Malini tried opening up, the general reaction was unnerving. “During an after-office chat, I decided to talk about Sushma and myself with a colleague. While she kept a straight face throughout, the next day, I could see the entire office talking behind my back. All this while, people had doubts about whether I ‘was’ or ‘wasn’t’, more so because of the way I dressed. Now they knew for sure. Over the next few months, attitudes changed so drastically that I had to quit my job. Ever since, I’ve never come out in the open about my status. I realised it’s best to leave people guessing and keep doing your own thing.”
Instances like this are common – it actually could get a lot worse, as it happened in the case of Kim. Her family disowned her once she spoke up about her sexual preference, at a time when her mother was busy looking for a ‘suitable boy’. “When I told them who I am, all hell broke loose,” recalls Kim. “The extended family got involved, and in a matter of two weeks, I was thrown out of the house, and had to suffer violence before that. Thankfully, through my college years, I had made a bunch of friends who stood by me during this phase, helping me find my feet.”
Kim has now found happiness in her partner for the past couple of years. She works at a call centre in Bengaluru, and keeps her lesbian status strictly private. She does take her partner to social dos, but they are happy being referred to as each others’ roomies.
“A lot of this has to do being a woman in Indian society,” says Shobhna S. Kumar, lesbian rights activist and director of Queer Inks, Mumbai. “Our society is yet to learn about the concept of lesbians, and what being one really means. Coming out in the open would only mean stepping out of the comfort zone and taking a stand, which very often women don’t want to do for fear of being shunned and for fear of violence by the family. In reality, the majority of the people in our society are still not open to accepting that women can live independently, without their families and, particularly, without a man in their lives.”
Anjali Gopalan, director of the Delhibased Naz Foundation, the NGO that launched the campaign for gay rights in India, echoes her views. “Coming out of the closet continues to be a very complex process for women. While most of them have no problems accepting themselves as lesbians or bisexuals, which is the first part, coming out is largely a taboo, despite their economic independence. This is largely because society refuses to view the woman as an independent human being – she is rather someone who is always seen in relation to someone else within society.”
While LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexualtransgender) activists feel economic independence is crucial for most lesbians to tell the world who they are, they also realise it is really not enough. LGBT groups have a key role to play in helping more and more women speak comfortably about their sexuality. Betu Singh from Sangini, New Delhi, one of the oldest forums for the LGBT community, says, “One of our main aims is to dispel existing myths about lesbianism and to confirm that these women are completely normal. We do both online and personal counselling to make these women feel confident in these identities, and to strengthen their assertiveness against societal notions of lesbianism as unnatural.”
Paving the ground is important, as violence is a real risk for someone who wants to come out. Neelima, a lawyer, had been living away from her ancestral home in Muzaffarnagar for years. When at 30, the constant family pressure to get married became too much for her, she decided to tell her parents about her sexual orientation. Just a day later, her whole family landed up at her Delhi home, and thus began a chapter of physical and mental abuse, not to mention the threats of marrying her off. She was barred from stepping out and her cell phone was taken away, too. She finally fled the ‘jail’ by climbing down the balcony.
The question is, where does a woman go after she escapes her family? This is where community support comes in. Shobhna says, “LGBT groups have developed safe spaces for women to share life experiences and be themselves. Social networking sites have also made it easier for these women to come together as a community. Within the current scope of lesbian support action in India, this approach proposes to promote fairer societies by preventing the alienation of lesbians, and regarding them as human beings who contribute to the character of society.”
At the end of the day, a woman is the best judge of her own situation, and it is important for her to be confident about her choices. Gopalan advises, “She should come out only when she thinks she is perfectly comfortable and feels it’s safe to do so, and never do it as a mere fad, as is the case with many college-goers who do it out of a sense of adventure and end up in trouble, to the extent of being killed in more conservative setups.”
It is your life and you decide what to do with it. This party season, should you want to go out with your girlfriend as a couple, do not let fear hold you back, but also do not allow impulse to drive you into a tight corner.
With inputs from Ameta Bal Some names have been changed on request