A recent countrywide CNN-IBN survey revealed that we still live in quite a homophobic India. The poll which was primarily conducted in urban neighborhoods showed that as many as 73% Indians felt homosexuality should be considered illegal while 83% felt that homosexuality is not part of Indian culture and 90% of Indians won’t give their house on rent to a gay or lesbian couple.
Although the homosexual community in India had some respite from being social outcasts with the Delhi High Court ruling in 2009, even as late as in 2011, the social stigma attached to them continues to prevail as is evident from the fact that stories or press reports of lesbian and gay couples exchanging marriage vows invariably excite crude humor. Many a time I find myself reluctantly participating because I lack the gumption to stand up against public opinion (read, the tyranny of the majority).
On the public front, as late as July 2011, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has gone so far as to term all such relationships "unnatural" and a "disease" (to be cured by psychiatry/ neurology?) despite the fact that the UN has, long ago, passed a human rights Bill which says discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality is a human rights violation. The Health Minister was speaking at a convention on HIV/AIDS thereby whimsically singling out homosexuals for abuse and making them directly responsible for the spread of HIV. Such views proclaimed by prominent public figures serve only to fuel anti-gay sentiments by people at the grassroots as most protests by the media are essentially ‘urban upper class’ in nature and do nothing to educate the masses who would ultimately constitute the MP’s or minister’s vote bank.
As such, survival itself continues to be a struggle for people whose sexual orientation is not mainstream. Added to that is the aspect of religious orthodoxy and intolerance. This I see as a strange aberration though in a country whose mainstream religion, Hinduism, cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be recognized as an organized religion. An overview of temple imagery, sacred narratives and religious scriptures does suggest that homosexual activities – in some form – did exist in ancient India. Though not part of the mainstream, its existence was acknowledged if not approved. For example, hidden in niches of temple architecture as in that of Khajuraho, one does find images of either women or men in erotically suggestive postures to other women or men. These images cannot be simply dismissed as perverted fantasies of an artist considering the profound ritual importance given to these shrines. In the Hindu scriptures stories of women turning into men and men turning into women abound. In the Mahabharata, Drupada raises his daughter Shikhandini as a man and even gets ‘him’ a wife. When the wife discovers the truth on the wedding night, all hell breaks loose; her father threatens to destroy Drupada’s kingdom. The timely intervention of Yaksha saves the day: he lets Shikhandini use ‘his’ manhood for a night and perform his husbandly duties. Perhaps the most popular stories revolving around gender metamorphoses are those related to Mohini, the female incarnation of Lord Vishnu. She is so beautiful that when Shiva looks upon her he sheds semen out of which are born mighty heroes such as Hanuman (according to Shiva Purana) and Ayyappa (according to the Malayalee folklore). However, sensitivity to the essence of tolerance and inclusion hinted at in these stories cannot be expected from the modern breed of self-appointed patrons of religion whose only creed is fundamentalism in any form. Why single out Hindu fundamentalists for their extremist stands, one might ask? My answer to that would be because I do not know much about other religions, although, during my five year stay in Kerala, I do remember hearing news bytes about orthodox churches systematically denying any sanction to alternative sexual orientations.
Popular culture too shies away from depicting gay men and lesbian women as ‘normal’. For instance, Bollywood could at best come up with a humorous parody in Kal Ho Na Ho or a comic plot in “Dostana” as signs of its willingness to tread this grey zone. Parallel Indian cinema however has time and again broached this subject with sensitive handling such as in films like “Fire” by Deepa Mehta, “My Brother Nikhil” & “I am”, both by Onir, and recently “Memories in March” by Sanjoy Nag. Needless to say, parallel cinema has limited impact simply because its viewership is restricted to niche audiences.
In the final analysis, it is imperative to ask oneself this question: If I were to come to terms with a family member who is gay or lesbian or bisexual, how prepared and willing would I be to acknowledge the truth lovingly? As for myself, I do not know the answer.
Photo credit: Vinayak Das