In search of pride: Why India needs to start talking about LGBTQ+ issues

The courts have ruled, but centuries-old precepts of Indian society will take a long time to overturn.

WrittenBy:Shweta Karambelkar
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On a toasty spring afternoon this year, I made a short trip across the San Francisco Bay to Berkeley to bid farewell to a dear colleague who was leaving that evening for the East Coast after having completed their PhD with flying colors. The venue was the residence of another extraordinarily talented ex-colleague, who had also recently graduated from our lab, winning a prestigious fellowship to support her current research and set her on a path to independence.

The research lab I work in is a powerhouse of talented minds and so nothing was out-of-place on the brilliance front. But something else was remarkable about these two people. While the former identifies themselves as non-binary, the latter is a lesbian living with her partner, who is also gender non-binary (What is non-binary and lesbian, you ask? See here.)

In my home country, India, a mere acknowledgement of being gay could mean estrangement from one’s family and society. In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down Article 377, the centuries-old, atrocious, British era holdover that allowed the judicial system to criminally prosecute "sexual activities against the order of nature". For the LGBTQ+ community in India, it was a major victory. Now, at least, they wouldn't be "criminals" in the eyes of the law.

Sadly, however, they continue to get judged in the court of public opinion and, more often than not, are targets of cruel family gossip. The courts have ruled, but centuries-old precepts of Indian society will take a long time to overturn. But we need to start somewhere. And we need to start talking about it.

This is my attempt at dipping a cup into the vast and dynamic river of LGBTQ+.

Until I moved to America, I had never ever met an openly gay person in my life, let alone having friends or role models from the LGBTQ+ community. The only encounters were with transgender people begging for alms at traffic signals in India, or gay people on television, often acting pitiably or laughably, as if giving in to the public’s notion of them being immoral, sexually promiscuous, and unworthy of dignity accorded to a “normal” human.

In the United States, I find myself struggling to grapple with the openness and audacity with which people get to acknowledge their gender identities and sexual orientations. I still struggle with using pronouns correctly; “he” and “she” hogging most of my mental space! But I hope my international friends see where I am coming from.

While my own understanding of LGBTQ+ issues continues to evolve, I find conversations around the topic missing from Indian day-to-day discourse. If anything, I hear young parents jokingly narrate to me how they dread the day their child comes to tell them they are gay! No wonder their nightmare conveniently ends at that point. So far, no parent has said, even in that imaginary conversation, “What’s the big deal, beta? I am there for you.” One parent even went so far as to tell me, “I don’t like to imagine such negative scenarios for my child, just as I don’t want to imagine a future where my child gets cancer.”

While the draconian Section 377 could have been a major factor promoting guilt and concealment, rampant misinformation and lack of awareness might be a major contributor as to why we do not deal with the LGBTQ+ issue the way we should – with sensitivity and pride.

This is a piece dedicated to the members of the Indian LGBTQ+ community who stay in the shadows; as an ally, I strive to make it possible for them to come out. As a biologist, let me put some definitions and scientific facts out there.

Sex: a categorisation based on the appearance of the genitalia at birth.

Gender: A social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity.

Are you still viewing biological sex with the century-old notion that XX is female and XY is male? Well, science is pushing back on the simplicity of this idea and here is a fun listen on this subject.

Sexual orientation: An enduring emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction.

Across human societies, an estimated 2-10 percent of individuals identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Also, people may identify themselves a certain way either from birth, or at early or later stages in their lives.

Homosexuality, or same-sex sexual behaviour, is not a disease or a gift of western civilisations; it is not only natural in humans, but has also been extensively documented in non-human animals: bottlenose dolphins, beetles, snakes, snails, penguins, frogs, bonobos, you name it. Yes, even in the little red fruit flies that hover on over-ripened bananas in your homes.

The world is teeming with godmen, their influence on the populace often outdoing the power of family ties, rationality, or plain common sense. One such popular man in saffron owns a multimillion corporation, in addition to the allegiance of some of my dearest family members. His outrageous claims include cures for AIDS, cancer, Covid-19 and, you guessed it, homosexuality.

About a decade ago, while challenging my mother’s guru-gifted views that homosexuality is a disease and is criminal, I asked my mother, “Had I been gay, would you rather have me thrown in jail rather than seeing me peacefully settle down with a female partner, with everything else about me being the same?”

What I thought was a clincher to settle the argument ended up shocking me when my mother, an otherwise liberal person when it comes to her daughters’ choices, replied with a straight face, “I don’t know.” And, like any Indian mom who wants her argumentative child to instantly shut up, she added, “Can you dare ask such things to your dad?”, assuming I would never present such “obscene” hypotheticals to my father.

To my surprise, my father had a refreshingly liberal outlook on the matter, as evident from a moving story he told me. In his youth, a friend of his was struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. Dad supported him as best as he could by counselling him and telling him that homosexuality is not something to feel bad about. That helped him overcome his guilt. Like the idiom goes, a friend in need is a friend indeed, and the two of them still maintain a fast friendship. “So, of course I would have stood by you or your sister had you been gay,” he said. His words filled my eyes with tears and my heart with pride.

When I casually mentioned the Berkeley get-together to my in-laws in India over a routine group video call, I knew that they would be scandalised, if not outright offended. I tried to address some of my sister-in-law’s curiosities like “if there are two girls, who is the husband?”. I imagined she wanted to know who slogs in the kitchen while the other stretches on the couch watching television, waiting for dinner to be served. Understandable questions from a place where gender roles are strictly defined and adhered to. I tried telling them that homosexual couples lead lives that are just as boring or exciting as their heterosexual counterparts. But the conversation was clearly making the elders uncomfortable and fidgety. Finally, my father-in-law, who is one of my best friends and confidantes, broke his silence saying, “If you guys are finished, now let’s talk about something sensible.”

In Indian dinner table conversations, the subject of homosexuality is perhaps more hush-hush than female foeticide, a pervasive vice accounting for our massively lopsided gender ratio. Many young and old women within and outside my family have privately confessed to having undergone repeated sex-selective abortions, often against their will, due to societal pressure to produce at least one male heir.

Not one to be discouraged, I continued pressing on. “Homosexuality and LGBTQ+ issues are relevant to Indian families and are not western constructs. Remember how a generation or two ago, love marriages were taboo? But as society became accepting of them, more Indians are getting married to partners of their choice, with reduced fear of ostracism or violence from their families.”

To clarify, in a survey of urban Indians in January 2018, only three percent said they had a love marriage. I reasoned with my father-in-law that with Section 377 being struck down and society becoming more tolerant as we go on, LGBTQ+ members from within our families will also want to come out. We need to ensure a safe space for them.

Despite the absence of openly gay or transgender people in my close circles for most of my life, I have seen gender-related societal shaming becoming toxic beyond measure. Decades ago, a case of neglected cryptorchidism (a condition in which one or both testicles fail to descend from the abdomen to the scrotum) deprived an acquaintance not only of normal development but also the right to a dignified life. He is a Mumbaikar in his mid seventies now, never having married or experienced the joy of companionship. Unlike his siblings or anyone else in his family, he has been struggling all his life with smoking, alcohol addiction, an explosive temper, and loneliness. Our society, which is obsessed with manliness and unaccepting of any perceived “inadequacies” or differences, has a lot to answer for.

While I was doing my PhD in Bengaluru, a school friend from my art class got back in touch. An endearingly fearless and “tomboyish” personality, she seemed from her early days to have torn herself free of conventional expectations. As we caught up with each other, she confessed to having had a crush on me in school. All the more, our close friendship back then had led her to misunderstand that the feeling had been mutual. My clarification about my heterosexuality broke her heart, but I was in for a heartbreak too. This dear friend, who had perhaps buried her true orientation, was about to get trapped into a heterosexual marriage.

In high school, I remember another school friend telling me that her neighbour felt like she was a man but had the body of a woman. While the poor adolescent was struggling with puberty and internal struggles, all the moms in the neighborhood were busy devising plans to convince their daughters to distance themselves from this “abnormal” girl and her “bad” influence. The reason I had no transgender or gay friends growing up was not that my society didn't produce them, but that it abandoned the former and broke the latter. Imagine being abandoned by your family because what's between your legs takes precedence over everything else.

After an hour of to and fro over the phone, my mom jokingly complained, “I thought I am one of the progressive ones, having broken the shackles of caste and religion in respecting my children’s choices of their life partners. Now you tell me we should be ready to bless same-gender marriages of our grandchildren?”

I replied, “Well, same-sex marriages are still a long shot. But Mom, looks like I have dragged you nearly onto the fence. A fence is not the most comfortable of things to be sitting on. Why don’t you make the jump to the other side – with pride?”


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