My first vote: ‘Parties don’t care about LGBT people’
A breakfast changed Mohammad Unais’s life. The son of an influential imam (Muslim religious leader) in a south Kerala town, Unais had not planned to speak about homosexuality at the family table.
A breakfast changed Mohammad Unais’s life. The son of an influential imam (Muslim religious leader) in a south Kerala town, Unais had not planned to speak about homosexuality at the family table. But when his father, a firm believer in hardline Sharia, opined that “those people” should be beheaded, Unais snapped back, “Then you would have to chop off your son’s head also.”
The response was swift, and drastic. He was first dragged to a religious doctor and then to a psychiatrist, who told his parents after “diagnosis” that he could be rid of his “habit” only if he chose to.
He was taken back home, and over the next few months, kept under observation, with his father preaching that homosexuality is a sin. Finally, his family gave up and warned him to not talk about himself to anyone else because it would bring disrepute to the clan. “I was hurt, but I knew I wanted to be myself. So I defied them, and started talking to people through social media.”
Unais, 27, who will vote for the first time in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, grew up in a sun-kissed town couple of hours by road from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. One end of the town mingles with the Arabian Sea, and the other blends into a network of oblong water bodies that together make up the Ashtamudi lakes, Kerala’s second-largest backwater system, dotted with ornate houseboats. When the tourists are not thronging the beaches during winter and spring, Unais’s village is an unhurried place where people know each other and children spend lazy afternoons walking along the palm-lined shores. It was also the city where Unais often felt he was the only gay person alive.
“There was no exposure, no one spoke about homosexuality.” He came out to his sister in Class 9. “She was shocked, speechless. I tried to make her understand, and made her promise on the Quran to not tell anyone else.” Despite growing up in a city with 94% literacy and in a state widely acknowledged as India’s most progressive, Unais battled prejudice throughout his teenage and later.
At home, his orthodox parents feared he was committing sacrilege; in his college, he would routinely be abused for his effeminacy. “They would ask – is it curable, why do you talk about it openly, it will pass, it is a phase; why don’t you take medicines, or get married. It made me feel suicidal.”
In 2015, Unais travelled to Thiruvananthapuram to take part in the state’s first LGBT pride event, and it changed his life. “It was the one day in a year when we could be ourselves and celebrate joy. I suddenly became brave.” He contacted the organisers over social media, and one of the activists added him to a secret Facebook group. “I saw there were many people like me so I got confidence. Before that, I didn’t know anyone else like me.”
As the son of a well-known religious leader who commands great respect in the region, Unais has struggled to find harmony between his sexuality and faith for years. In 2017, he started writing about his religion and sexuality, and was almost immediately sharply criticised. “I called out the hypocrisy of organisations who want rights of Muslims but shun LGBT people.” He started reading up about Muslim feminists, such as Amina Wadud, the pioneering American Muslim philosopher who offered a new interpretation of the Quran, and about gay imams challenging orthodoxy across the world. He now says he receives plenty of support from other Muslim people and scholars, though almost none of it is in public.
This consciousness about what Unais called the double marginalisation – of faith and sexuality – is guiding his political choices this election.
His town is about 90 minutes away from Pathanamthitta, which has been roiled by months-long protests by devotees of the celibate deity, Ayyappa, who have sought to block the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age into the Sabarimala temple despite a Supreme Court order scrapping the informal ban.
Hordes of women have been forced to turn back in the face of threats, and showers of abuse hurled at them as they climb the steps to one of India’s most-visited shrines. The agitation has rocked Kerala and brought to the fore its orthodox underbelly – one that Unais is already familiar with. He says he has been a lifelong supporter of the Left parties, which currently controls Kerala, and the Sabarimala issue has made him more confident that it is the Left Democratic Front (LDF) that will bring change in the arena of gender and sexuality.
“Sabarimala is an issue of equality and fundamental rights of women, and my support is for Left ideology because it is the only party that is favouring women’s entry,” he says. The two other major parties in the state, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, have both opposed the Supreme Court order and said the faith of devotees needed to be respected. “I think as a queer person, gender equality is important and a related cause. And, the Left stands for women’s representation and for the oppressed.”
Unais knows the Left is not a national choice, and admits that he would support the Congress if he was voting outside Kerala, but the national party’s stance on Sabarimala has disappointed him. He is, however, appreciative of Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor’s advocacy for LGBT rights, and says he liked that the Congress consulted with LGBT persons before drafting its manifesto.
The 27-year-old diligently follows Mollywood but his biggest idol is not a movie star, it is author and activist Arundhati Roy, who he met at a literature fest and a photo of whom is his display picture on WhatsApp. “I love her because of her activism, she fearlessly makes her stand clear. She is a proud anti-national, and maybe, so am I,” he laughs.
Unais says the feeling of insecurity associated with being Muslim is lower in Kerala but that Islamophobia is rooted in the coastal state. “If I say anything in support of Kashmir, I will be called a Pakistani. I fear to say anything about the army because I am Muslim.”
In a landmark decision last September, India decriminalised homosexuality but Unais thinks this is only a first step in a state where anti-LGBT slurs are coded into popular culture, cinema and politics.
He hopes for a day when political parties will draw up a charter for LGBT rights and include them in their campaign manifestos. “It is so difficult for us to get housing, and we are denied jobs. I hope for an anti-discrimination law that makes any bias a punishable offence. The focus should be on jobs, housing and education.”
The other focus has to be on health care and counselling, he adds, especially in a state where families pressurise LGBT teenagers, and often force them into dubious procedures that lead to depression or suicide.
And, as LGBT communities grow in visibility and strength, he wants them to stand with other marginalised sections such as Dalits and Adivasis. “If we are asking for equality, we cannot leave others behind.”
Unais now comes home occasionally but is firm that this is where he wants to settle down. The city has changed remarkably since his childhood, and he says he often meets openly queer individuals now – something he couldn’t imagine 10 years ago. “They ask me if I am sorry for coming out. My answer is no – after coming out, my life is so much better, it gave me friends, it gave me the courage to face anything.”
He has high hopes of the future. “So much has improved in the past 10 years, more will in the next 10. Marriage equality will be here and many of my friends will have settled down with their partners. And, so will I, Inshallah.”