India: A nation's gay revolution

The Guardian
The Indian government is reviewing legislation that outlaws homosexuality.
The Indian gay and lesbian community may have been told not to get their hopes up about the government decriminalising homosexuality, but the fact that talks have even begun this week to discuss repealing section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, should be cause to celebrate. In India, homosexuality is illegal and carries a life sentence.
But while fierce opposition has predictably come from extreme Hindu and Muslim religious parties such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, who claim it would bring "sexual anarchy" and "spread diseases", it can only be a matter of time until change arrives. After all, even Nepal lifted its ban in 2007.

Apart from the fact that India is trying to rebrand itself as a superpower and distance itself from its neighbour Pakistan (which also bans homosexuality), the gay revolution is already under way, whether or not the judicial system likes it. Gay Pride parades took place in India's major cities last Sunday for the second successful year in a row, from which a poignant image emerged that encapsulated the years of struggle and hope for the future of India's gay community. Two elderly Indian women, one resting her head on the other's shoulders, carried banners declaring their love for each other. Doesn't sound like a big deal? In Hindi, to quote Deepa Mehta's groundbreaking lesbian film Fire, there isn't even a word for lesbian. It doesn't exist in Indian society, according to those in power – it cannot exist.

Well, it does. And due to the intolerance meted out by sections of Indian society, there are an incredible number of gay men and women who have found themselves in loveless marriages, arranged or otherwise forced by whispering relatives to deny their very selves. This intolerance has passed by osmosis to the British Asian community over here. As someone who used to write for to highlight British Asian gay and lesbian issues and increase their visibility in the press, I think very little has changed over the past few years with regards to community attitudes. Worryingly, a 2007 survey by the BBC Asian Network showed that a whopping 44% of British Asian youngsters felt homosexuality was immoral.

While this is disheartening, change in attitude on both sides might be helped along from an unlikely quarter – Bollywood. Films over recent years have in one way or another touched upon gay issues. The most relevant was Fashion, released this year, which had a sub-plot in which a gay male fashion designer married his female friend to keep his mother happy. Perhaps it would help if India's gay celebrities actually came out to champion the cause, but for now they've only got Prince Manvendra from Gujarati royalty, who came out in 2007 and appeared on the ghastly BBC show The Undercover Princes to find love in Brighton's gay bars.

For now India's gay community takes its strength from its tireless activists and a flourishing clubbing scene, as does its British Asian counterpart. Whether India's government repeals section 377 or not, the fact that sections of the country are once again having this debate surely means we're getting a step closer.

01 July 2009

By Poorna Shetty

Source: The Guardian