A courtship of five months and a marriage of 46 days. That's how 28-year-old Rashmi defines her marriage. Rashmi, who got married in November 2013, and didn't want her last name or location to be identified, recalls that her husband was emotionally distant, tried his best to "avoid physical intimacy", and would accuse her of having a "heightened sexual appetite" whenever she broached the subject. "There was always some excuse: either he was not ready, or there wasn't enough privacy for us, or he was tired from work," she says. Luckily for Rashmi, a social worker, a common contact helped her reach her in-laws' family doctor, who revealed that her husband was gay. That revelation finally supplied her with the resolve to end the marriage.
"Intially, it was hard to believe, especially as we had been intimate before marriage. Even at that time, though, he often insisted that we 'don't cross our limits' [in physical intimacy]," says Rashmi.
In a society where homosexuality is still a crime, where "coming out" with one's sexual orientation is a fraught experience, where marriage is believed to be the ultimate "cure" for homosexuality, and where family often has the final say on who is an acceptable partner, it isn't entirely unusual for people to be trapped in a marriage with a gay partner.
That it is often women who unwittingly marry gay men is just the unhappy offshoot of the patriarchal and sexually repressive nature of Indian society. Perhaps, the shrouded nature of female sexuality combined with the all-consuming experience of reproduction allows some closeted lesbians to channel their energies (seemingly successfully) within a heterosexual marriage.
A straight woman married to a gay man, however, is condemned to a life that's sexually and emotionally unfulfilled. How an individual deals with the situation depends on her personality. While Dr Priya Vedi of AIIMS resorted to suicide, the enraged wife of a Bangalore-based techie captured her husband and his gay friend having sex on CCTV and filed a complaint under Sec 377. Most Indian women probably wouldn't go to such extremes and would, instead, attempt to keep up appearances in a society that values conformity.
"Given a choice between divorce and staying in a loveless marriage, many women still tend to choose the latter. Many justify their decision on grounds such as "at least he doesn't beat me", or, that he is only "bringing male friends home," says Vinay Chandran, executive director of the Bangalore-based Swabhava Trust, an NGO that works with the city's LGBT population.
Other factors that prevent "straight wives" from calling it quits include the husband's denial of his sexuality, lack of support from parents on both sides, fear of being blamed for the failure of the marriage, and the social and material consequences of divorce. One female member in Rashmi's group left shortly after she joined because "she had a daughter in fifth standard; divorce was not an option."
It is easy to point fingers at the gay man who uses his wife as a screen, but the situation is complicated. "The pressure for gay men to get married is high, and acceptance levels for homosexuality are still low. I once had an Army general come to me to help "cure" his son of his homosexuality. He broke down when I explained that was not possible, and that nothing was wrong with his son!" says Chandran.
Such attitudes are widespread and create a hostile situation for those resisting imposed marriages, trying to come out of the closet, or even simply being. "Many doctors, psychiatrists and yoga gurus mislead people into believing that homosexuality can be cured. There's a need to reach out to these people if we are to change things," feels Rahul Sharma, co-founder of Queer Campus, a Delhi-based collective for queer youth.
The refusal of family to accept an individual's sexuality sometimes results in disaster. This is as true in the case of the gay man being pushed into marriage (despite the "privilege" he has within the patriarchal family structure) as it is in the case of the lesbian woman. A particularly poignant example is that of Bengali actress Disha Ganguly, who allegedly committed suicide as she was being forced to give up her girlfriend to marry a man.
The socially-accepted nature of the institution of marriage within the Indian context is at the heart of all this angst. "Marriage is an economic system, as well as a practice that validates people socially. Priya Vedi's suicide should make us think hard about why people get married, and what they would need to resist marriage, if that is what they need to do," says Svati Shah, assistant professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
But resisting heteronormativity is difficult. Deepti, a queer feminist activist from Delhi believes it is important for those resisting such pressures to surround themselves with like-minded people. "For some, resisting marriage has worked because they knew they had a place to go to; others were economically independent; still others managed to get out because it was a matter of life and death for them," she says.
Her unfulfilling marriage was a matter of life and death for Dr Priya Vedi too. It pushed her to suicide and left her husband in prison. Both are victims, says Deepti. Things might have been different for the couple if Indian society (and Indian laws) encouraged its members to be true to themselves.