Out and proud: India's gays defy cruel laws
Amanda Hodge, South Asia correspondent | June 27, 2009
Article from: The Australian
IN a stifling room adorned with rainbow curtains and glamour posters, Mani - a high school student from Delhi's outer suburbs - submits to painful eyebrow threading with all the poise of a seasoned groomer.
A regular at the Pahal Beauty Parlour - India's first gay beauty clinic cum drop-in centre - the 19-year-old says he will be marching this Sunday in Delhi's Gay Pride parade. But like many others he will do so behind a mask, notwithstanding the day's preening efforts.
While Mani identifies himself as a Kothi - or effeminate gay man - he says his parents don't know he is gay and would probably throw him out if he told them. They think his waxing is all part of his passion for religious dancing, chuckles Rahul Singh, a gay counsellor at the parlour and co-founder of the Pahal Foundation behind the venture.
Not so amusing is Mani's fate as a lower caste gay Indian man. Asked about marriage, he says he will soon submit to family pressure and live a double life.
It's a common dilemma in India, where homosexuality is a criminal offence under section 377 of the penal code, punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment.
Men at least have the option of a double life, says Singh, who at 32 is a veteran campaigner for the gay rights movement.
"But Indian society still defines women strictly through marriage and family. Most women are married off so young they don't have time to think of themselves as sexual beings."
Gay and lesbian suicides are a serious problem in India, and women who attempt to flee an enforced marriage often end up facing criminal charges.
Final year law student and gay rights activist Ponni Arasu has worked on many cases where one woman is charged with kidnapping another by the parents.
"You have to go to court and prove she didn't kidnap her," says Arasu. "We also have to actively cover up the nature of the relationship because that's not something we can say in a courtroom today while it's still criminalised."
After years of fighting police harassment and blackmail, along with social and political discrimination, India's gay movement is on the verge of a breakthrough.
Delhi's High Court is expected to hand down a judgment next month on a petition by a coalition of lawyers and gay rights groups challenging the legality of Section 377.
Gautam Bhan, another young, gay rights veteran and a leader of the push to repeal the law, says he is "very optimistic" the judgment will go their way.
"If we win it's a hugely symbolic victory for us, because it's a law under which every kind of discrimination from psychological abuse to police harassment and violence becomes justified," says Bhan, 28.
"Ending 377 won't change the daily life of a lot of queer Indians and their negotiations with parents, doctors, colleagues, landlords and police, but it will change the way queer people see themselves. The big impact will be what we do with it."
He is amazed by the pace of change in urban Indian attitudes in the past decade. "If you had told me 10 years ago there would be a gay pride march in Delhi I would have laughed."
Kolkata has staged a gay pride march every year since 2003, but last year was the first time a march had been held in Bangalore, Mumbai or the country's conservative capital.
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