Dress down and be quiet
A gay person is ‘tolerated’ when he is among the ‘right people’: models, the fashion fraternity, artists, intellectuals. Or is he?
Purab Kohli and Sanjay Suri in My Brother... Nikhil, a film dealing with homosexuality
Tarun (name changed) is a model co-ordinator and choreographer. He interacts with the most beautiful of Calcutta every day. He likes to cross-dress at times. He is a known face at almost all the nightspots, partying with his friends from the fashion and modelling circuit. He is gay.
Seeing Tarun on the dance floor, it is possible to imagine that there are spaces in the city, some of them public, where a gay person can be himself. It can be a nightclub, a media or advertising office, a fashion designer’s small but tasteful outfit, an academic institution of the highest repute.
In short, a gay person is “tolerated” if he is among the “right people”.
Delhi High Court recently read down Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code to decriminalise homosexual acts and the gay community and its sympathisers across the nation celebrated this long-awaited revision. But it has not changed life overnight.
If Indian metros are becoming more “tolerant”, Calcutta is no exception, but there are degrees of “tolerance”.
“It depends on which segment of the society you belong to,” says Dev, a lawyer. Many members of the gay community like to use only their first names: it has a liberating effect. “If you belong to the educated, upper middle class of society, you treat homosexuality like a fad, a fashion statement, something imbibed from the West,” Dev adds.
So Tarun of the fashion fraternity is helped by his circle. He is, in fact, like an accessory in his group of mostly female models. He is the fashion statement they are making.
But things change for him the moment he steps out of his enchanted circle, into everyday life, maybe even into the nightclub loo. Tarun, since he “advertises” himself, is thought available. Seemingly heterosexual men have tried to assault him a number of times. For heterosexual men, he is an object of ridicule and horror.
“Man, I saw him wearing woman’s lingerie once!” says someone who knows him professionally, with a mock shudder and a slightly foolish smile on his lips. Tarun is considered “pushy” about his job, but he has a greater crime: “If he is gay, why isn’t he quiet about it?”
A media professional says that he likes to avoid nightclubs. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable anywhere else: at office, among colleagues, among his other friends, at home — his parents, retired professionals, have “accepted” him. He says he doesn’t want to go to nightclubs because he would really like to dance with another man, and that would attract unwelcome attention.
Tarun, too, doesn’t look for acceptance beyond his small, insular group, for whom there is more to him than just his “gay” orientation. He maintains a silence on the Delhi High Court verdict. “I don’t want to talk about this,” he says, simply, but firmly.
A fashion designer in Calcutta refuses to come out of the closet because he thinks that he will lose a sizeable section of his most prosperous clients then.
“I have known some gay designers to have a problem. It’s not that they have lost contracts or anything, but there is a certain sense of rejection that they have had to face,” says Anindya Hajra, of Pratyay Gender Trust.
But even the semblance of tolerance vanishes when it comes to most middle-class homes, neighbourhoods or work environments. “Tolerance” is also a matter of class, and the middle classes seem to be capable of it the least. Some would say they always were. “Homosexuality is still very much taboo there,” says Dev.
“In the para, the older boys call me chakka or boudi,” says Bapi, an MA student who comes from a middle class family, though he doesn’t reveal which locality. He was attending the rally organised by the gay community in the city after the Delhi High Court order, wearing kajal. His family had strong reservations about his dressing up.
Souvik, who lives in a Paikpara locality with a large migrant population of single men, quickens his pace the minute he enters his gully. “I am harassed by the ‘straight’ men. Many of them are single or living away from their family and for them, a gay person is someone who is easily available for some cheap sexual pleasure. They don’t think we have a preference when it comes to men,” he says.
Rajiv, who works in a greetings card company had to give up his job, after the comments from his co-workers became unbearable. “I wear my hair long. They would keep teasing me about it and ask me to cut my hair. They also teased me about the way I walk or talk. I tried talking to my seniors, but they too sided with my colleagues. I had to resign,” he says.
The times they are changin’, but not so fast. Family persecution of a gay person can lead sometimes to more damage than hurt pride or a lost job.
Ratri, who holds a corporate job, says she felt she had to give in to society and get married because she didn’t see others like her. After a nightmare marriage of 10 years, when she struggled with guilt throughout, for she cheated on her husband compulsively and cringed every time on feeling his touch, she is now divorced and in a relationship with Sree, who works with a real estate agency. Colleagues have “accepted” them. “When I am invited to a social do, my partner is invited too. If I am doing something that is not good for me, they threaten to tell her,” smiles Sree. But they do encounter raised eyebrows when they are at the movies together, sitting close, or when Sree, who is more “manly” in her attire and behaviour, is seen riding pillion with Ratri. She had a male colleague who wondered aloud once when he would get his “chance” with her.
In Calcutta, feels gay activist Pavan Dhall, the sense of the community continues to be important. “We still have a very strong para culture in Calcutta. In Mumbai, the apartment blocks have taken over. People more or less leave each other alone. In Calcutta, eight out of 10 landlords would be shy of renting out their property to a homosexual couple if they knew of their orientation,” he says.
Malobika of Sappho for Equality, which works for the rights of lesbians, says that people in the neighbourhood do not know that it is the office of Sappho. “They will break the place down if they knew the truth about us,” she says.
Some feel the stigma cuts across classes. What is different may be the expression, says Dhall. The middle classes are just the most hypocritical. Gay persons who live with their middle class families find it most difficult to come out. Many of them would be married against their wish, living sporadic, clandestine lives with partners of their choice.
“The poorer classes may pay less attention to homosexuality, only because they have to get on with their lives. I wouldn’t call that acceptance,” he says. “In a lower class group, the response will be immediate and violent, among the middle class it is more hush-hush and hypocritical. In the upper classes — well, money is important, but it can still be used as a stick to beat you with.”
Malobika agrees. She says the minute one of their own children is found to be homosexual, a “liberated, educated” couple will try for therapy or marriage.
Says Abir, her colleague at Sappho, that the attitude towards gay women cuts across all sections too. “From the lowest class to the very upper classes, no one is very open to two women in a relationship,” she says.
The good news is that the gay community, within itself, is far more democratic. Since a gay person has less choice, he tends to be much less fussy about matters like class or creed when it comes to choosing a partner.
“If I like someone, I will not hesitate about where he comes from, even if he sleeps on the pavements,” says the resident of a multi-storeyed building in central Calcutta.
May the heterosexuals start thinking like that.
Meeting of all faithfuls
A rally in the city on July 2 to celebrate the Delhi High Court verdict decriminalising adult homosexual relationships. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
Homosexual tendencies are unnatural and should not be encouraged. The Delhi High Court verdict decriminalising homosexuality is wrong and needs to be challenged. That was the main point made at a meeting of the heads of all religions in the city on Friday. The All Faith Forum brought together Rt Rev. P.S.P. Raju, former bishop of Calcutta Diocese, Jain leader Muni Mani Kumar Maharaj, Quari Fazurul Rahman, “Yogi” Bijay Chaturvedi, Pt Narayan Sehal and Dr Revatha (senior Buddhist monk) and others to address the issue.
Syed Athar Abbas was the most vocal. “It is an abnormality, a disease. People like these should be treated. Homosexuality shouldn’t be legalised. My religion says people having homosexual relationships should be killed and burnt,” he said with feeling. While others were not so violent, the disapproval was clear. “It is against nature. It is against the principle of creation. Only the union of opposite sexes is approved by nature and religion,” said Bijay Chaturvedi.
Kuldip Singh Virdhi, who represented the Sikh faith, said that neither their religion nor the gurdwara gave permission for this union. Rev. P.S.P. Raju, ended the session by saying that while he could sympathise with people with such preferences, he could not empathise with them. “If they are harassed we will try to give them justice. But at the same time we cannot let it be legalised,” he said. The forum feared that legalising homosexual sex would make more people homosexual. The religious heads also vowed that they would fight this verdict in the Supreme Court and even in Parliament, if need be.
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