India's rainbow nation
New Delhi — From Friday's Globe and Mail, Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009 11:15PM EDT
Pinaki Mitra, 35, hijra
Ms. Mitra, from Calcutta, is part of a community – some born female, but mostly transgendered males – who undergo castration after a program of apprenticeship and religious rites that has ancient root in Hindu culture. Hijras were criminalized by the British colonial regime, and attract derision and abuse from much of the Indian public today. They continue to perform rites at occasions such as the birth of new babies; some make a living in the sex trade. Many are victims of police harassment.
“When the cops see you, if you get scared, you're done,” Ms. Mitra said. “They say, ‘Why are your eyebrows done? Why are you wearing nail polish?' You have to say, ‘It's my life and it's none of your business.' If you answer them in a smart [sassy] way, they leave you alone.”
But it's not always quite that simple. She went on, flipping between narrating in the first person and a distant, protective third. “But sometimes they will say, ‘On one condition I will leave you alone, if you have oral or anal intercourse with me,' “ she said primly, using the textbook terms, loath in her ladylike way to repeat the crude language of the cops. “And that results in rape. You get a bunch of five or six cops, and that person goes through hell. Then, they take your belongings – your watch, your phone – and then you are beaten black and blue and left.”
Deepti Sharma, 33, lesbian
Although she is in a long-term relationship, Ms. Sharma has not discussed her sexual identity with her family, who continue to hope she will meet a “nice boy” and get married. “First they said, ‘Here's a nice Brahmin boy.' Then the, said, “Find a boy yourself from any caste.' Then, ‘Okay, any boy.' Then, ‘Okay, a Muslim will do.' After that they gave up.”
Today Ms. Sharma, a management consultant, is active in the campaign for gay rights in Delhi. “There are so many instances of lesbian suicides – we may use the term ‘lesbian' or ‘bisexual' because we know these terms – but a lot of people don't even have words, don't label themselves. Having a word makes you feel there is someone else like you. So many women have committed suicide over the years and the running thread is either ‘I am the only one' or else they are a couple – and they kill themselves because they say, ‘we can't be together.'"
Revant Puri, 20, gay
Mr. Puri grew up in a small Punjab town; for years, he said, “I thought that I was the only one.” Sometimes he would go to dating websites in Internet cafés, and chat with men, pretending to be a girl. When he finished school, he moved to Delhi and got a job in a call centre, the kind of casual new work environment that has been a haven for many young Indian gay people, where they feel they can finally come out. “When I came to Delhi after my studies, I came to know there are more [than me]. It was a great exposure for me.” On weekends, he and his call-centre pals make the rounds of private gay parties across the city, and revel in being far from family back home. “India is not a good place to be gay. Even if people are … accepted in our call centres, the rest of culture won't,” he said. “The mindset is not that open.”
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