When Raju Sharma’s father discovered his son was gay he got a rope and hung Sharma, 23, by the ankles from the first floor balcony of their New Delhi flat, and threatened to kill any neighbor that tried to rescue him.
Sharma says he dangled for an hour before his dad pulled him up, stripped him naked and tossed him into the street. He stood there sobbing, covering his genitals with his hands, as onlookers mocked him for lacking the courage to fight.
That was two months ago. “My father is quiet now,” says Sharma, a slight man with a lisp and plucked eyebrows. “But the shame is still there.”
The powerful social stigma that has long kept the country’s homosexual minority in hiding is not only enforced by family and neighbors, but even the local police. Last winter, as Ashu Seghal was walking home, two local officers, stinking of rum, rolled up beside him on a motorcycle, dragged him by the collar to a nearby police booth, lashed him with a bamboo stick, beat his head against a wall and finally forced him to give oral sex — to the tall one first, the one with the pot belly next, he says.
Seghal, a stern 26-year-old with henna-dyed hair, says that when he tried to file a complaint, the cops’ superiors threatened to arrest him under law section 377, which forbids “unnatural acts.” They told him to forget about it, just consider it a bad dream.
Despite social and legal obstacles, a nascent gay movement has sprouted among India’s middle class during the last decade. Gay websites and hangouts have proliferated, especially in the capital New Delhi and the southern city of Bombay. Groups working on gay issues have grown from only two in 1994 to at least 50 today. And in the summer of 2003, several dozen activists waved rainbow flags in the streets of Calcutta for the country’s first queer pride parade.
“There has been a remarkable change,” says Shaleen Rakesh, director of the gay outreach group Naz Foundation. “Ten years ago the only option a gay person had was to go to cruising areas — to parks and public toilets for random, discreet sex. Now there are so many venues, so many private parties, gay night clubs,” says Rakesh.
Urban gays commonly hold “farm house” parties, for which a large space is rented, on city outskirts. Several bars in New Delhi and Bombay now hold gay nights, though they are not often publicized for fear of attacks.
The west coast city of Bombay has spearheaded much of the coming out. India’s first gay magazine, Bombay Dost, was launched there in 1989, and last year the city hosted the country’s first gay film festival. The three-day event, which showcased more than 40 films, was titled “Larzish,” an Urdu word that means “tremors of a revolution.”
While the movement has not included significant numbers of lesbians due to the inferior status of women in this mostly Hindu country, a handful of lesbian groups have arisen. They were spurred in part by the conservative backlash to the lesbian-themed film “Fire” in 1998. The newly formed Campaign for Lesbian Rights responded by spearheading an awareness campaign, marching in the streets of the capital and releasing a report on the plight of India’s lesbians. There are now at least half a dozen groups working exclusively on lesbian issues in the country.
Queers and AIDS
The gay movement was spurred in part by the fight against AIDS. With over five million infected, India is second only to South Africa in total AIDS cases. The Indian government estimates that over 80 percent of HIV transmissions in India occur among heterosexuals, but the virus has hit gay men hard. A survey this summer in Bombay found that 20 percent of the city’s gay men are HIV-positive.
One of India’s leading gay advocacy groups, The Naz Foundation, was actually founded in 1994 as an HIV/AIDS outreach organization. It has grown rapidly adding services like queer support groups, a helpline, workshops, and advocacy for the gay community.
The visibility of gay men among AIDS activists is used to attack AIDS programs. A popular columnist, Swapan Dasgupta, last month cautioned of a “new gay evangelism.” He wrote, “Of particular concern to many is the possibility of the lavishly funded anti-AIDS campaign being misused to create a gay network.”
Section 377, the 140-year old law against “unnatural acts”, often used to harass or silence gay men like police rape victim Ashu Seghal, is also used against AIDS workers. “It’s an absurd law,” says Vivek Divan, a gay rights lawyer. “Distributing a condom is like aiding and abetting a crime.”
To fight AIDS, activists found they had to fight homophobia, including section 377. Three years ago, two AIDS outreach groups began a campaign to repeal the law. Government lawyers argued in their affidavit that “Indian society by and large disapproves of homosexuality . . . Deletion of the [law] can well open the floodgates of delinquent behavior,” they warned. In September, India’s High Court rejected the AIDS groups petition on procedural grounds.
The groups challenging the law are now considering whether to go to a higher court, assign other allied groups to challenge the law, or to wait four years and challenge the law again in the same court.
Conservatives have responded angrily to the new gay visibility. “[The gay movement] is an abysmal, absurd thing,” says Navin Sinha, an official with the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party. “For one thousand years in our culture, those two things you mentioned — I don’t even want to say the words — they have not been there,” says Sinha, referring to homosexuality and lesbianism.
Many Indian conservatives see the drive for gay equality as an attack on the country’s soul with its deeply held traditions of extended families and arranged marriages. Several push the theory that India is the victim of a covert queer invasion from the West.
Homosexuality, in fact, has a long history on the subcontinent. Same-sex relationships are described in ancient Indian texts like the fourth-century love guide, The Kama Sutra, the classic Hindu saga, The Ramayana, and medieval Persian and Urdu poetry.
“Homosexuality is not a fashion that can be introduced from one place to another,” says Ruth Vanita, co-author of “Same Sex Love in India.” She adds, “It is a facet of human existence, attested in all societies throughout history.”
Leaders of India’s gay movement say they are bracing for a long battle. Anti-gay feelings may have hardened for the moment, says Shaleen Rakesh, of the Naz Foundation, but at least the subject is being addressed. “Homophobia is better than indifference,” he says. “These things take time.”