The Guardian recently published the article Gay men become victims of forced marriages. It reported that the UK’s Forced Marriages Unit (FMU) recorded an increase in calls to its helpline, going on to say, ‘Men in some communities are being forced into marriage because their families suspect they are gay or bisexual’. Of course this will mean different things to NRIs everywhere. Most will be wanting to ignore the issue, or, unknowing the best way to respond – may abandon it as an irrelevant idea. Others may simply accept it for what it is. The most important thing is that the article refers to very real people that you or I may know – not distant or different individuals. For me, what this article says more about the treatment of gay or bisexual people in NRI communities, is that there is a growing trend in men and women being open about their identity. This is a landmark trend in its own right, but as we can see, is presenting a tremendous uphill battle for those involved.
To prevent men (and women) from being pressurised into marriages, particularly whilst abroad, the UK Government launched The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which came into force on 25 November 2008. An interesting feature about this, is that it is available in Hindi, Bengali, Arabic, Punjabi, Farsi and Urdu. Perhaps this is a clear indicator of the communities in which incidents are occurring, and therefore a real sign that trouble is closer to hand.
Of course forced marriages have been going on for centuries, but we have come to understand them as an issue which largely affects women in NRI communities. The notion of honour and family obligation is often brought up in the media, particularly involving Muslim and Arabic communities. This is clearly terrible, but has for a very long time overlooked men in similar situations. For example, recent press has featured lynching and possible executions across countries from Malawi to Iran, proving the global resonance with this issue.
Returning to the key issue, we have to acknowledge that NRI audiences simply don’t know how to deal with the notion of homosexuality. Responses have been varied; sometimes startling, at other times horrific. Victims have been taken to India or Pakistan, and quite often beaten, tortured and subdued into marriages. Increasingly, this is happening to younger and younger men, revealing a shift in their willingness to admit who they are, albeit at a cost. In many ways, this is no different to the barbarism that occurs to women in such cases, particularly in the name of ‘honour’. Eventually, this leads us to question, just what honour is – and does cultural, sexual and personal identity need to be sacrificed to uphold it?
During the last few years, I’ve come across individuals with varied experiences which I’ve summarised below. All men have at some point been honest about their sexual identity, but have acted quite differently.
Person 1 is a married man, he has children. He was clear about his bisexuality during his youth, but understanding it will never be fully accepted, kept it a closely guarded secret. Person 1 believed that as long as he could hide, repress or subdue his sexual urges then the rest of life will work out. Person 1’s experiences are similar to those of many across different cultures and backgrounds. Things are slightly more liberal today and Person 1 may often see other men in order to fulfil personal desire in an anonymous extra marital capacity. In doing so, he realises (or accepts, that his marriage to a woman – was in effect, one of convenience). He often looks down upon the gay community as hedonistic, selfish and different. He is unwilling to make any association with it. He believes that things are beginning to change, but those that are opposed to forced marriages or marriages of convenience are self-indulgent. There may be an element of jealousy in his view towards the young men of today, with their supposed new ‘freedom’.
Person 2, having grown up in a NRI community, understands the obligations and pressures of religious and family expectation. Yet, he also understands the importance of leading a free life, being honest to oneself as well as fulfilling the desire to find a partner. He’s made the decision to come out to his family - who, not understanding his sexuality have found it difficult to deal with. They have found his state of being to be one that is temporary or something that can be remedied, and as such have taken him to India to be seen by medical professionals. He understands that this is a ludicrous idea, but wanting to challenge it, Person 2 has agreed to come along. Of course, several opportunities of marriage have presented themselves to Person 2, but his family, understanding that they can’t override Person 2’s happiness, have refrained from force.
Person 3, is younger than the two above, he has grown up seeing gay characters openly leading their lives in television and movies. He is comfortable with his tastes and experiences and very open about his sexuality to everyone, except immediate family. Person 3, recently went to Pakistan, and for a long time didn’t return. On his return, he decided to covertly part with his family. Understanding that the prospect of a forced marriage was a very realistic one. In this situation, this was the only thing that could be done.
All three models above are based on actual individuals, yet they speak for many; and although the issue is of forced marriage, its seed is that of personal choice. Therefore the argument goes beyond that of preference, but moves towards freedom in general. Forced marriages have existed to prevent a multitude of situations (often politically, economically or socially engineered) in which they have affected both straight and homosexual men and women. Those wanting to evade the ‘system’ have resorted to spinster-hood, clerical professions, or simply running away – seeing these as viable options in the face of violence or suicide. Which in itself sounds like something from an eighteenth-century novel.
In retrospect we have to ask ourselves as a modern, liberal and empirical society how important marriage is to us. What does it mean to us as Indians? I for example have found the term Love Marriage to be hilarious – like marriage could be anything other than something grounded in love? Clearly the idea has been manipulated over the centuries and it’s beginning to reflect strongly and badly on us. But with the FMU reporting a 65% increase in the number of men contacting it, we can detect a clear shift in attitudes. People are beginning to be open and honest, and yes this comes at a risk, but in demonstrating the number of gay Indian men and women that exist they are helping their own cause. In demonstrating that they make up a sizable percentage of everyday people, the elder NRI community will realise that it is something to be accepted, as opposed to hidden. As such, I will do my part to encourage more voices to speak for themselves and protect their futures. This may be in highlighting the cause for other NRIs, but also through acknowledging that I am Person 2.
We may like to think that we’re now part of a grand generation of youth which is free, ready and able to do what it likes (in a foreign land, which has already embraced the sexual revolutions of the sixties and seventies), but even in a far away land, if risk is just around the corner, then more reaction is needed.