The way we were
In the winter of 1987, two policewomen in Madhya Pradesh hit the headlines for the unlikeliest of reasons: They were in love.
Leela Ramdeo and Urmila Srivastava met on the job, fallen for each other, and decided to get married. They gathered a few friends and went to a temple in Sagar town, exchanged vows and took turns to place a garland of flowers around each other’s necks in a “gandharva” marriage ritual presided over by a priest.
After the ceremony, the two women went to a local studio for a customary wedding photo. A few days later, they were back at work.
But wedded bliss was not theirs to be. A photo of the ceremony was leaked, some say by a co-worker, and the police moved swiftly to fire and imprison them, because they were apparently a bad influence to other women at work. The women eventually fled to Srivastava’s ancestral village.
But through this ordeal, many friends and local people stood by them even as a nationwide debate raged on the “immoral union”, documented academic Ruth Vanita in her 2005 book, Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West.
Vanita wrote that a journalist who visited them in February 1988 found unprecedented support among neighbours. “After all, what is marriage? It is a wedding of two souls. Where in the scriptures is it said that it has to be between a man and a woman?” asked Sushila Bhawasar, a local resident.
Ramdeo and Srivastava’s travails underline both the hope and the precariousness of queer lives in India in the 1980s and 1990s – one that flourished away from the gaze of the media, in parks and cinemas, through pen-pal columns in newspapers and magazines, anonymous post boxes and letters that sometimes travelled across continents.
In an era before the internet, with little information and public visibility for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, this is how queer people lived their lives, and found companionship, and sometimes, love.
“Many people deny that homosexuality exists in India, dismissing it as a phenomenon of the industrialised world. Others label it a disease to be cured, an abnormality to be set right, a crime to be punished. The present report has been prepared with a view to showing how none of these views can stand the test of empirical reality or plain and simple common sense.”
This is how a 70-page booklet with a pink cover titled Less Than Gay: A Citizen’s Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India set forth to normalise same-sex relationships. Published in 1991 by a collective called the Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), the report was the first document of its kind that broke the silence around LGBT lives.
“The Less Than Gay report may have been the first such document on gay and lesbian lives in India. It was extremely well researched and brought together rigour and passion,” said Jaya Sharma, a queer feminist activist.
“It tempted you to come out,” said Maya Sharma, a Vadodara-based activist, and author of Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a tumultuous time for the public expression of gender and sexuality in an India that was also shedding its socialist skin and entering the fast lane of global capitalism.
In 1990, Ashok Row Kavi founded Bombay Dost. Not only was Row Kavi one of the first gay men to come out publicly — in 1986, he gave an interview to Savvy magazine, which also published his photograph — he also went on to work on HIV/AIDS, co-founding an organisation called Humsafar Trust in the early 1990s.
The next year, Delhi-based activist, Giti Thadani, started a network called Sakhi, where lesbian women could communicate via letters. The Bombay Dost carried advertisements of Sakhi regularly, and women responded to those advertisements, writing in to Sakhi and seeking others like them to correspond with.
“By the time Sakhi began advertising in Bombay Dost, it was available in bookstores and some newsstands in India’s major cities, and judging from the addresses of its correspondents, had achieved an active readership in smaller cities as well,” wrote Naisargi Dave in her 2012 book, Queer Activism in India.
The same year, Delhi-based women’s group, Jagori, started a research project on single women (Ekal Aurat). Several of them would meet informally in each other’s homes, thus creating alternative support structures.
In Mumbai (then Bombay), Women to Women was started in April 1995, as a face-to-face community, inspired by the letters sent to Sakhi.
It even resulted in a picnic at a beach close to Mumbai — the first such meeting of women who desired other women, in the city. Dave quotes some letters sent to Sakhi.
“Among the early voices was that of Anuja, who wrote from Allahabad in 1991: ‘We are very few lesbians [in Allahabad], and also we are not sure of each other, except a few. Please let me have some addresses of lesbian sisters. I am 35 years of age. I want to be an active lesbian member of your organisation.’” (…)
Ms Bhan wrote in 1992: “I am a 21 year old lesbian of Jammu. I do not have any other companion except one here. I hope you will help me… You are my only hope.”
It’s hard to imagine today that there was a queer life before the mid-1990s but people met, formed friendships, found love, and forged networks that sometimes spanned continents.
“Casual sexual encounters also seemed easier and much more exciting before the apps. These could happen anywhere and in almost any context — at a family wedding, or on a city bus in transit to school or work. You learnt to read the signs and acquire some gaydar before the word was invented,” said Sunil Gupta, now based in London, but who often travelled to Delhi.
Finding love and companionship was tricky and, on occasion, a matter of luck.
Anish, who only gave his first name and grew up in a small town in Karnataka before moving to Bengaluru, recalled the loneliness of not knowing anyone else who was gay or understanding the desires he was feeling. But that didn’t mean finding love was impossible; it was just unexpected.
“In Bengaluru, while walking to work, I realised the park on my commute was teeming with other gay men. I had never heard of cruising before, but in a couple of days, I had become a regular, and even found a boyfriend. I had a pager, but he didn’t, so he would often end up waiting under our tree,” he said.
Cruising, or finding other queer people for conversation, sex or relationship in public spaces, was one prong of queer life — a relief for many gay men locked in conservative families and committed to living, on the face of it, a heterosexual life.
The other was private house parties, though they were the preserve of a few in big cities.
“They were delightful, raucous affairs full of laughter, booze and sex where you could let your hair down. If you travelled to another city, you would have a few numbers to call to get invited into a whole new party scene. Great lifelong friendships were formed,” said Gupta.
But some paid a heavy mental toll for living in the shadows, spending years trying to be themselves, having the confidence in oneself and not to judge oneself through the eyes and mind of society.
“It was so trying that we had little time or energy to expand on someone else — a lover, a partner! At 51, I have missed out on a school or college romance or even finding love. These are things any heterosexual person would take for granted. As a friend said, many of us are now fixed in our ways because we had to fortify? ourselves,” said Sharif Rangnekar, a writer and journalist.
The third prong were letters and anonymous columns in various newspapers, and newsletters and magazines run by LGBT organisations. One such organisation was the Counsel Club in Kolkata, founded by Pawan Dhall in 1993.
“Most of these groups were based in only a handful of urban centres. Beyond word of mouth, or striking it lucky in cruising areas and opportunities provided in familial, friendship and community networks, what worked best was if the groups’ post-bag numbers were mentioned in newspaper and magazine articles,” Dhall writes in his new book, Out of Line and Offline: Queer Movements in 90s Eastern India.
The letters these groups received were varied, and formed a rich repository of not only the lives of lonely, isolated or confused queer individuals but also a society struggling to come to terms with its desires, fears and aspirations.
This history was encapsulated in yellow envelopes, inland forms, open postcards and aerogrammes — from all over West Bengal, nearly all corners of India, and also abroad.
A crucial part of this network was Trikone Magazine, started in January 1986 in the Bay Area of the United States by Arvind Kumar and Suvir Das. The publication, focused on South Asia, quickly grew from a newsletter to a full-fledged magazine that would be shipped to all corners of the world.
Writer Sandip Roy, who edited the magazine through the 1990s, recalled the relief of walking into Kumar’s home and finding queer people.
“It was the first time I was seeing queer people outside cruising or parties; they were chatting, making tea, writing or editing. The everydayness was immensely assuring. It showed me that gayness needn’t be a shadowy part of your life,” he said.
The relative lack of information and visibility of queer lives and terminologies was sometimes, ironically, helpful. In the bylanes of Lucknow’s old city, same-sex desire had always been whispered as “shauk” or “bazi”, but it was tolerated and not actively shunned.
“The lack of labels helped us escape scrutiny. We could hold hands in public and people would think of us as friends,” said activist Arif Jafar, who formed long friendships and relationships through pen-pal columns in local magazines.
In the 1990s, he would receive letters from across the country, from as far as Amaravati, Darjeeling or Jaipur. “Writing letters would take time, and the relationship thus forged would not be momentary, temporary?/brief? like it is now. People who came to visit me from other cities would stay for three or four days, and so sex was not the only thing on their mind. We also talked and got to know each other,” he added.
The world was very different for transgender people, who had their elaborate networks of guru-chela systems, community events and festivals, such as the decades-old Koovagam festival in Tamil Nadu, where thousands of transpersons congregate every year for celebrations.
Ranjita Sinha, an activist from Bengal, remembered the 1990s as a difficult time for many transpersons like her — and a reality that was completely removed from the lives of many gay men. “We were not allowed into bars, pubs or shops. We would joke that every time I went out, it would end at the police station,” she said.
Such action, often on flimsy charges such as obscenity or the now-read down Section 377, continues because of police impunity and lack of sensitisation.
Shrigauri Sawant from Mumbai said that the rise of the internet had meant the closure of many public spaces frequented by transgender people.
But this never stopped people from living their lives – or having fun. “Internet nahi toh kya. We would sometimes not tell our elders, dress up in gowns and go dancing, put on make-up and flirt with so many men,” said a 60-year-old transperson in Delhi, who did not wish to be named. “Of course, sometimes those nights would end up in police lock-ups but it was all right,” she laughed.
In 1989, Dominic D’Souza, an environmental activist, was declared Goa’s Patient Zero — the first to be detected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
Soon after he tested positive, D’Souza — who was the inspiration for the 2005 movie, My Brother Nikhil — was incarcerated in a disused Tuberculosis sanatorium, after he tested positive for HIV.
There he was forced to stay for 64 days, even as a groundswell of support began to build for D’Souza, especially among folks who made the radical choice of eschewing prejudice that the condition, known then as the gay man’s scourge, engendered worldwide.
Lucy, Dominic’s mother, and a group of friends and activists, petitioned the government to change the law that permitted HIV positive persons to be isolated and deported. “Within three days, the tide turned,” said Mumbai-based Dr Ishwar Prasad Gilada, who recalled visiting the Goa Legislative Assembly and speaking to ministers.
His neighbour, Lucinda Rodrigues, a 62-year-old resident of Parra village in Goa, remembers his fondly. “He would make chocolate cake for my daughters even after he was diagnosed with AIDS,” she recalled.
Their houses share a boundary wall, but 28 years after D’Souza’s death due to AIDS- related complications, the house and the wall are overgrown with bramble and wild bushes. “He was a wonderful man. Very helpful,” she said.
The unsung trailblazers
Riyad Wadia: Chronicler of the gay life
Riyad Wadia (1967-2003) was the grandson of movie mogul, Jamshed Boman Homi Wadia, co-founder, Wadia Movietone, one of the earliest movie studios in 1930s’ Bombay. Riyad was a gay man who made films about gay subjects, unabashedly so. BomGay, which featured a very young Rahul Bose and Kushal Punjabi, was made in 1996, based on the poems of R Raja Rao, a queer poet.
The film went to over 50 international film festivals. He followed it up the same year with a documentary on Aida Banaji, a transwoman who was part of Bombay’s club scene in the 1980s, and who underwent gender corrective surgery.
Wadia made films about subjects pertaining to gender and sexuality at a time when conversations about these issues did not have any social traction. Section 377 was still in place, and homosexuality as well as transgender identity were mocked at and considered aberrations.
Mona Ahmed: A famous Dilliwali
Often called Delhi’s most famous transperson, Mona Ahmed was born in old Delhi in 1937 and braved family violence before escaping and becoming a part of the centuries-old guru-chela system.
The stories of her life and her struggles were most famously told in the 2001 book, Myself Mona Ahmed, by Dayanita Singh. In the book, she documents Ahmed’s life, her adopted daughter, Ayesha, and everyday details of her life through photographs that were considered a landmark at the time.
Ahmed lived in a graveyard where she claimed several of her ancestors were buried, and was close to her guru, Chaman, though she took away Ayesha. Her emails became one of the first repositories of trans lives in India. “Everyone who meets a eunuch, meets him for some purpose of their own, either it is money or to write articles about eunuchs, to find out what a eunuch is like inside, which we do not tell. So much research was done in all fields, but on eunuchs there is no research. In villages they are gifts of God; in cities they are men trying to be women, but no one has access to their souls. Everyone makes their own little theories and no proper research,” she wrote in one email . Mona died in 2017.
Betu Singh: Pioneering organiser
Betu Singh (1964-2013) was a lesbian activist, who co-founded Sangini, which functioned initially as a helpline and later as a shelter for lesbians on the run. The daughter of a military man, Singh studied in Meerut University, and shifted to Delhi after she was offered a job in security at the Centaur Hotel. Together with Cath, an Englishwoman who was a volunteer at Naz Foundation India Trust, she set up Sangini. Naz ran an HIV/AIDS prevention programme and, later, in 2001, filed a petition in the Delhi high court against Section 377 .
Sangini began as a helpline, but as Singh said in a 2012 interview to Sridhar Rangayan for a film which was part of the Project Bolo series, it was soon felt that the women needed to move beyond that for face to face meetings. As a support group, often volunteers would be trained to handle calls from women from around the country. As a support group, however, more caution was needed in vetting who would be given the physical address of the space. Eventually, Maya Shanker and Singh started a shelter for runaway couples under the auspices of Sangini. It was not easy. One year, the family of one of the women descended upon the shelter, and broke the windows. Singh, all of five feet tall, stood on the doorway and warded them off.
Siddhartha Gautam: Fighting it out in court
Last year, Yale University awarded Siddhartha Gautam the Brudner Prize posthumously, in recognition of his work on LGBT rights and welfare in India. Gautam was an alumnus of the Ivy League university and one of the early members of the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), which filed the first petition against Section 377 in the Delhi High Court.
In 1991, they also released a radical report titled, Less Than Gay: A Citizen’s Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India, of which Gautam was a co-author. Much before other human rights groups cottoned on to the fact that the rights of those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, as well as those who were HIV positive were human rights, Gautam and other members of the ABVA were already articulating these positions.
The Less Than Gay report unequivocally called homosexuality a political issue, and not simply one that was confined to the private lives of individuals. Human rights violations based on gender and sexuality discrimination spurred Gautam towards activism. However, Gautam died in 1992 from cancer. He was only 28.