As you read this, I might be marching in Bangalore’s Gay Pride march that takes off tomorrow from the conservative suburb of Basavangudi and ends at Town Hall. The police permissions still haven’t come through (I write this a week in advance) but the organizers are hoping that everything will work out. Last year, about 800 homosexuals, lesbians, hijras (eunuchs), kothis (effeminate homosexuals) and transgender activists marched at this now annual parade, which marks the end of a week of events that Bangalore’s gay community puts together to celebrate itself and spread the message.
Out and about: At the gay and lesbian cricket match in Bangalore. Photo: Shoba Narayan
This column is about the collision of worlds: the straight and the gay. When I was an art student in college most of my friends were gay. I went from viewing them as abnormal to being their friend.
I admire gay people because they have to tread a path wrought with thorns. Their life pits conviction against convenience. For Nitya Vasudevan, who is doing a PhD in culture studies, this means swimming against the tide of the TamBrahm culture that she belongs to. Vasudevan is thoughtful and pretty, with light eyes, and in a sleeveless red tank top. “Identity is a huge part of being gay,” she tells me. “The hijras and the kothis, for instance, are able to celebrate their homosexuality openly—in the way they dress and talk—while most of us in the professional world play it down and try to appear normal.”
I meet Vasudevan at a gay and lesbian cricket match. I am there because I miss my gay friends. I miss their refreshing take on life; their ability to balance risk with compromise; and the cool things they wear and try. After three years in Bangalore, I’ve had my fill of the wholesome mommy-wagon. I want change, variety, a contrast to my granola world. In desperation, I call a journalist friend in Mumbai and ask how I can access the gay scene in Bangalore. He mentions the gay and lesbian cricket match, which is how I find myself, one Sunday afternoon, watching cricket and talking to gay people.
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First, there are the formalities. The archaic section 377 of the Indian Penal Code still deems homosexuality illegal in India. This means that I have to warn everyone I talk to. Are you sure it will be okay for your photo to appear in a newspaper, I ask. Will you lose your job because of this? Are you out—to family and friends?
My guide is Siddharth Narain, a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum. How do straight people like me access your world, I ask. He rounds up some people and instructs me on who to photograph, including Vasudevan and Joshua Muyiwa.
I begin with the journalese. “I want to write a column about how straight people in Bangalore can access the gay world,” I say. Are there gay nightclubs like the ones in Berlin and New York?
No such thing, they reply. Come to Koshy’s, where we hang out. Or come to Golden Rose bar, off Brigade Road; or Bunkers. I make notes. Muyiwa writes about dance and culture for Time Out Bangalore.
I have an easy way to measure my prejudices. I simply ask myself, would I want to be part of that world? Would I want my kids to be part of that world? My own answer is that I wouldn’t mind being gay (even though I am not) but I would have trouble if my children were gay. Not because I don’t envy the intellectual freedom and creativity that gay people possess. It is no accident that some of the world’s best photographers and designers are gay. I don’t want my kids to be gay for that oldest (and arguably stupidest) of reasons: No parent wants his or her child to struggle. And the gay life in India, while rich in experience and texture, forces you to fight for social acceptance. And life is hard enough… You get the gist.
How is it for you, I ask Nitin Manayath, who teaches communication at Mount Carmel College. And then I go through the drill. Are you sure it is okay to mention your name and your employer’s? Manayath is sanguine. The management of Mount Carmel has been incredibly supportive, he says, even though some people complained about his nose ring. The thing about being gay, he says, is that every human interaction is like coming “out” all over again. When people at work find out you are gay, they think you are an ambassador for the gay community. They ask questions such as “Do I look gay,” and “What do gay people think about this”. So you have to explain and justify all the time. It reminds me of being an immigrant in a foreign land and the tiresome explanations it demanded.
A nose ring is a small thing but it encapsulates the worlds I straddle. My mother (who doesn’t read Mint, which is why I can write this with impunity) thinks of a nose ring as a sacred ornament. She often asks me if I want to get my nose pierced. To her, a nose ring is one of the solah-shrungar—16 ornaments or “love charms” that Hindu women wear. A nose ring is also what Manayath wears, just for fun, at the risk of appearing weird to the students who throng his communication classes at Mount Carmel College.
So I have a request of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. Repeal section 377. Decriminalize homosexuality. “Gayness” has been around for years; long enough to measure control groups; long enough to realize that it is biological; long enough for each of us to contend with the possibility that our kids might end up gay. And that would be okay.
I realize that the things we struggle for are the things that transform us; that a struggle, in retrospect, is what makes you who you are. Being gay may be a struggle, but it also just is—not a choice, not a consciously articulated path—but just part of who you are.
Shoba Narayan plans to go to Bunkers after putting her kids into their bunk beds. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org