Saturday, June 20, 2009

Gay community fights for dignity




Gay community fights for dignity

Indian transsexuals and lesbians shout slogans during a rally in Bombay in 2004 demanding recognition from the government and attention to their poor health and economic conditions.

Indian transsexuals and lesbians shout slogans during a rally in Bombay in 2004 demanding recognition from the government and attention to their poor health and economic conditions.

Rights groups hope high court's ruling on same-sex relations will end a plague of state-sanctioned homophobia


Stephanie Nolen

New Delhi — From Friday's Globe and Mail,

The cop strode up to Rajiv M., gave him a shove and demanded to look in his backpack. Rajiv handed it over and the cop pulled out a condom, and asked why Rajiv had it. “I said it was for sex,” Rajiv recalls, a bold if obvious answer that he knew was going to irritate the cop. But he wasn't feeling deferential.

The police officer demanded Rajiv's money, and his cellphone. “I said, ‘Why should I give it to you?'“ The cop grew more menacing: Next he demanded oral sex. Rajiv refused that, too, so the cop hauled the slight 21-year-old to a nearby police station and began the motions of charging him with the crime of homosexuality. When eventually he realized that Rajiv's dad was also a police officer, he let the young man go.

This nasty little piece of attempted extortion took place not in a gay bar, not in an alleyway late at night, but in the middle of a hot spring afternoon in Delhi last year, when Rajiv was standing at a crowded bus stop. “It's India,” Rajiv said with a shrug full of bravado. “So he could do something like this in the open.”

Rajiv, tousle-haired and deliberately camp, told this story a few weeks ago at a Delhi drop-in centre for gay and transgendered men, where he goes a couple times a week. Everyone had a similar story, except most had gorier endings. All the men had been harassed and detained by police who demanded money and, with no trace of irony, also often wanted sex, with the threat of charging and exposing the victim as a homosexual.

The police invoke Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the law that criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” including homosexual acts between consenting adults, with a possible sentence of life imprisonment. The law is almost never used for actual prosecutions: Men would have to be caught fully engaged in a sex act to hold up a case. No one has been convicted under 377 in 20 years. But few police officers are interested in actually enforcing the law. They prefer it as a blackmail tool.

Now, however, a fledgling gay community is waiting on tenterhooks for a verdict from the Delhi High Court, expected soon, on a public-interest litigation aimed at decriminalizing same-sex activity – and ending a plague of state-sanctioned homophobia that has led to rape, extortion, suicide and the spread of HIV-AIDS.

If they win – if the law is struck down, and many legal experts believe it will be – it will be a big shift in a still deeply conservative culture. There will be huge ramifications for India – where the courts seem to be out ahead of most of the population – and for the rest of South Asia and the developing world, where only a handful of countries have legally enshrined gay rights.

“Although the jails are not full of people arrested by 377, to say it doesn't have a violent effect in the community is totally false,” said Gautam Bhan, a gay activist in Delhi and co-editor of the anthology Because I Have A Voice: Queer Politics in India .

Gay people are afraid to disclose their sexuality to their doctors, the human-rights commission won't touch issues such as men who lose their jobs, AIDS organizations have been raided for abetting obscenity because they give out condoms to gay men, he said.

“For us as activists, our hands are constantly tied. So to argue that just because this law does not appear in court records and people are not charged is irrelevant … the law is alive and well in the lives of gay people in India.”

The case to change the law was filed by the Naz Foundation, one of India's leading AIDS organizations. Naz was founded by Anjali Gopalan, a journalist and social worker who worked in New York in the 1980s, and lost gay friends at the height of the American HIV epidemic. When she came home to India in the early 1990s, she looked for similar initiatives, where she could volunteer as she had in New York, but there was nothing. There was no discussion of HIV, even though the virus was already circulating widely in communities of truck drivers, sex workers and injecting drug users. And there were no data on the number of gay men and incidence of HIV, although the experience of countries such as South Africa showed clearly that communities of gay men were affected early and hard in the developing world, too.

So in 1994, Ms. Gopalan started by persuading a couple of men she knew to show her the cruising zones of Delhi. At first, she was met with hostility: “The older queens in the park were saying, ‘She's just come from America and she doesn't want you to have sex with us.' And I was saying, ‘Have sex with anything that moves, but use a condom.'“ Soon she persuaded a doctor friend to come with her, and he began treating sexually transmitted infections and giving HIV tests behind the bushes. She noticed one big difference from New York: “Here all the gay men I was dealing with were married.”

Married to women. So sacred is marriage in Indian society that many men who were attracted to men found it far easier in terms of family and social pressure, and often, more acceptable on their own terms, to marry a woman, and produce a couple of obligatory children, but satisfy sexual desires with long-term lovers or men they met in parks.

It soon became clear to Ms. Gopalan that if many of these men were testing HIV-positive, a lot of their oblivious wives would, too – if they had any idea or access to testing. Which they didn't. “And I got really mad that women had to go through that.”

By the late 1990s, Naz had grown into a small charity that offered a hospice for the dying, a drop-in clinic and counselling services.

But there was a problem: The organization's outreach workers kept getting arrested while giving out condoms or sharing information on HIV with men cruising in parks or public toilets. The police charged them with obscenity and abetting an illegal act. They were rarely prosecuted, but their would-be clients were frightened off.

Meanwhile, counsellors on the phone lines were consoling despairing, often suicidal gay men and women who were being forced into marriages or shunned by their families. “We do lots of work with young gay people, telling them it's natural and it's not wrong, and in the end, they say, ‘If it's so normal and natural, why is there this law?'“ Ms. Gopalan said. “Or we work with their families, and in the end, they say, ‘Okay, I can accept it for my son, but if it's so normal why is there this law?'“ Ms. Gopalan, as practical as she is fierce, decided it was ridiculous that the country's anti-HIV efforts were being hamstrung by a 150-year-old British law. So she enlisted some human-rights lawyers, and they went to court.

Naz was the initial plaintiff, but as the case dragged on, it emboldened the gay and lesbian community, and a new coalition of gay groups and human-rights organizations, called Voices Against 377, joined the AIDS organization in the case. That group filed a second petition, specifically asking that the law be changed on the basis of the equal rights of gay, lesbian and transgendered citizens. “It was very important to us politically that we expand the ambit of the case to talk about rights,” said Mr. Bhan, who is part of the group.

The government countered that homosexuality is inherently “against Indian culture” and that the majority of Indians opposed legalization.

“Unnatural carnal intercourse is abhorrent to civilized society – even if consent is given, that is immaterial,” said Solicitor-General P.P. Malhotra. “Our moral values require one man and one woman, his wife … law is what society feels to be immoral.”

He also argued that legalizing homosexuality would lead to more gay sex and so more transmission of HIV and that the law was necessary to protect men from AIDS.

Mr. Bhan and his compatriots countered that, in fact, homosexual love has a history in India going back to ancient times, citing epic poems and loving couples chiselled into temple sculptures. They also ran a huge open letter in daily newspapers, enlisting prominent personalities to support decriminalization, pillars of society including retired army generals, a former UN under-secretary-general, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and even some veterans of the freedom struggle against Britain. “We sensed the change of mood, especially among the young. We wanted to say, ‘You can't just easily say people won't accept it.' It's not true any more,” Mr. Bhan said.

It complicates the legal battle that the law currently covers all “unnatural sexual acts,” and is the only legislation pertaining to child sexual abuse, so the gay groups cannot ask that it be repealed all together.

In the course of the trial, the pro-decriminalization forces received backing from an unexpected quarter, the government's own Health Minister, Anbumani Ramadoss. Dr. Ramadoss said legalization would encourage gay men to access HIV-prevention services and stop impeding health workers and social workers who tried to assist them. But he also provided gentle chiding to his fellow citizens to get with the times. “The world over, gays are being accepted,” he told Indian journalists in September of 2008. “We need to move on.”

Questions and comments from the judges during the hearings, and the lack of any particular public outcry about the case, have left the advocates of decriminalization optimistic. “I think this verdict is going to be good news, if it ever comes,” Ms. Gopalan said.

While public discussion of any sexuality remains constrained in India, and homosexuality is particularly taboo, it is also true that the past few years have seen a gradual thaw in public attitudes. Bollywood movies have gay characters and even plot lines these days; ever-increasing access to the Internet is giving thousands of once-isolated young people access to chat rooms and dating services. It bears noting that this burgeoning gay movement is an almost entirely urban phenomenon, while three-quarters of Indians live in rural areas. But last year, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore held their first ever gay pride parades, with about 900 people marching in each city while a largely supportive crowd looked on.

And yet the social pressure on gay people remains intense. Many Indian gay websites, for example, have sections for people seeking a “marriage of convenience” – gay men and lesbians seeking to marry each other, so their parents can be placated and they can pursue their real romantic lives without harassment. “I am 27-year-old gay Indian female in Mohali in Punjab looking for Gay Indian Guy for marriage of convenience,” writes Preeti S. (As with Rajiv, her last name is being withheld because she has not discussed her sexual orientation with her family.) “I have to do this cuz of my family. I am preferably looking for guy who is settled abroad so that we can lead a more free life and there is less intrusion of relatives and society.”

At the drop-in centre, which is run by Naz, a gorgeous young kothi (a female-identified, cross-dressing gay man) who goes by Katrina – and charms the boys with elaborate Bollywood dance numbers he performs in spangley outfits, caramel curls flying – described how his mother had twice had him committed to a mental hospital. “That was hell – it was like a graveyard,” he said. “She tells me, ‘Just kill yourself.' But I've never done anything wrong. This is who I am, God just made me that way.”

He, too, has a police brutality story – three police officers stopped him in the road a few months ago, when he was dressed in women's clothes and heavy makeup. They forced him to strip, he said; when they saw his penis, they beat him nearly unconscious.

Gay and transgendered Indians, especially those who belong to the visible hijira (transgendered) and kothi communities, and femme and proud boys like Rajiv, are particular targets for police brutality carried out in the name of 377. An elite of educated, English-speaking gay men and lesbians moves relatively freely, meeting on the Internet or at dedicated queer nights at upscale bars; their money insulates them from the threat of police harassment.

Even lesbians who aren't wealthy have a somewhat easier time than men such as Rajiv. Their community is lower profile, and women, even those in intimate “friendships” with other women, attract less attention. But Mr. Bhan noted that in 2007 alone, his group documented 42 suicides by lesbians who identified their sexuality as the reason they took their lives. A new lesbian support hot-line opened by a Chennai gay group received 45 calls the first day they turned on their phone, a few months back – although they were not meant to open for another 10 days. Many were from young women who had recently found a name for their gay identity, but were being forced into marriages by their parents.

Rajiv and his friends, who veer between startling confidence in their identities and sudden moments of visible fear, chafe in a life in which they can only be themselves once a week in a dingy basement. “What I want is dignity,” Rajiv said. “And I want a successful relationship. That's why I'm fighting with my parents, and against 377, against the government.”


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