Is it easy to be a gay man in India today? The answer can never be an emphatic yes, but with a little bit of reframing of the question, one can wriggle out an answer in the affirmative. If you belong to a certain class, are upper caste, have a certain amount of generational wealth, identify as cis gender and live in urban centres of the country, life is much easier than it used to be before 2018.
I remember standing outside the hallowed Supreme Court exactly five years ago, in between tearful hugs and whoops of joy, wondering how life would change for me as a gay man in this country in the years to come. Well the report cards have come and today, as a cis gender, upper-caste gay man, I can walk into a Sephora showroom unselfconsciously and buy an eyeshadow palette (we have a host of Instagram influencers to thank for normalising that), I can sneak an al fresco kiss with my date in certain pockets of Delhi without the fear of being put behind bars and being slapped with a non-bailable case, and I can shut down a homophobic colleague by calling him just that, a homophobe. But the truth is I could do most of the above even before 2018. Yet, If you were to speak to queer persons across the country, you can piece together a narrative of hope and resilience.
For the past few months, I have been in touch with this “young gay adult” from a small town near Chennai. He is still a student and keeps writing to me about being interviewed. His story doesn’t warrant any separate article really, and I say that with the cold-blooded objectivity of a journalist. He seems confident, sensitive and aware of his rights, all this at the age of 21. He is the first graduate in his family, he is studying to appear in competitive examinations, he is not out to his family but plans to do so as soon as he is financially independent. That’s his story. And he wants to be heard. On condition of anonymity. That’s the contradiction of queer life in India. More often than not, you have to “un-gay” yourself in certain situations, places, amongst certain kinds of people. Like Bhawna, 23, who was asked to take off her choodas — the red-and-white bangles that newly-wed north Indian women wear — by her same-sex partner, Kajal, 28, because they don’t want to attract too much attention in the conservative North Indian town they live in. The couple has been in hiding for the past few years because they have been subjected to violence from their families. They also happen to be among the petitioners seeking recognition of same-sex marriages in the Supreme Court.
Five years ago, in the historic judgment that decriminalised gay sex, the Court had ordered the government to run a national campaign using TV, radio, newspapers, etc. to sensitise the public about the LGBTQIA+ community. We did not see any efforts towards that end, but even a cursory assessment will reveal the judgment’s positive impact on queer representation in popular culture. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, queer men and women of the country were scarred by the most problematic depiction of queer characters in popular culture. You were either aberrant monsters (Sadak, Mast Kalandar, Mehendi) or mute victims (Tamanna). Or you ended up being the comedy track of the film (Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke, Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat). Today, even your Instagram feed will tell you that inclusivity comes in all stripes. There has been a silent revolution since the day Justice Indu Malhotra stated that “history owes the LGBT community an apology for their sufferings”, but we don’t have our government(s) to thank for that.
The Union government has categorically stated in the Supreme Court that same-sex marriages will be against Indian culture. But countless activists, lawyers and the 20 petitioners persevere. Because, as senior advocate Saurabh Kirpal (who is a counsel for the petition for marriage equality at the Supreme Court of India) pointed out in an interview to The Indian Express, “this is not about queer people who belong to the upper class and are a minuscule minority, this is about an idea of India, and who we wish to be”. Maybe, just maybe, if our unions are legally accepted, we don’t have to un-gay ourselves in certain situations and places. Maybe then, Bhawna can wear her choodas without a worry in the world.
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