Earlier this week, on the day that three Indian cities held “gay pride parades”, one of my best friends in Delhi flirted with a fellow young man by email, easy banter back and forth.
And then came the question asking exactly what they would do if they were to meet later that evening.
No sex, my friend said. Not so soon.
No thanks, came the sudden reply. Not interested.
The timing struck me as ironic. This friend happens to be staying with me for the next few weeks, and as we discussed, a few nights later, the realities of gay life in India, he scoffed.
“I’ll show you the reality,” he said. “Look here.”
And he logged me into his account on the Indian website of Guys4Men.com, a global matchmaking service with a domain name that sums up its mission. He left the room and allowed me unfettered access to the site hosting thousands of men across India, seeking company, fulfilling desires, even charging money for their services. Many users live double lives, attached to wives and children, mothers and fathers; those not on their own made clear that just as important as sex was a private place to have it. The not so fortunate strategized places to fondle, grope, copulate, in parks and gardens, monuments and metro cars.
“...my charge is 400/- Rs. only,” wrote one. I thought that was a joke. My friend assured me it was a cheap rate.
Most of the other things I read are unprintable here, but overall they exemplified the sexual repression that defines India at its worst. I wondered how many of these people turned up at the parades on Sunday. One woman who did march in New Delhi’s first-ever gay parade told The Washington Post: “Today, young Indians are economically independent — they have access to information and they have their own sexual preferences. They don’t always want to be married off at a young age. This parade is a sign of modernity.”
Yet in reality, we seem nowhere near modernity when it comes to sexuality. Even as I laud parades and non-discriminatory policies at multinational companies, in India’s efforts to leapfrog into acceptance of alternative lifestyles allegedly prevalent in the West, somehow we have forgotten the most important, more universal first step — sexual awareness and liberation. Until that is achieved, those who define themselves as gay — and those who don’t quite define themselves as anything — will remain confined to fantasy and fetish, lost among the lost. It is a most dangerous place, a repression manifested as crudeness.
It wasn’t always this way. Gay activists have long pointed to the union of Vishnu and Shiva producing a son (known as Ayyappan or Hari-Hara) as proof of the acceptance of homosexual unions in Hinduism. And the 15th century Krittivasi Ramayan describes “children of two wombs” born to two women. Once upon a time, men wore earrings and make-up, and spent as much time on their hair as women. While notions changed internally, the arrival of Victorian morality resulted in a true clash of civilizations and attitudes. Stories abound about ways the Brits took “effeminate” men and toughened them up.
And yet, Indian sexuality still carries murky remnants. Truck drivers have sex with each other but we clinically call them men who have sex with men, not homosexuals or gays. New entrants to engineering college hold hands (and then some) in their first weeks away from home. And who doesn’t have an uncle still hanging onto the pink sweater vests and floral shirts, even as they have likely never heard the term “metrosexual”? How to explain this nation moving from the sexually free, explicit and comfortable (or perhaps that’s all nostalgic bunk, too) to this new state of inhibition, admonition and deceit?
Much of modern sexual behaviour is dangerous and the result of a lack of awareness. Sex education is one start, for sure. So, too, is the growth of organizations allowing gay people across urban India to meet each other on non-sexual terms. Not a bad idea, too, for their straight counterparts. Preferably, it would be some place between the park bench and Shaadi.com, one that doesn’t offend but allows safe exploration, most importantly of self.
The same night we dissected his love life, I asked my friend what the solution might be.
“The gay pride parade feels passe in a country where being gay hasn’t even been accepted,” he told me, even as he said he supports the idea. “I think we should jump right into the post-gay movement.” By that, he explained, he means sexual preference not being at the core of one’s identity.
Along the same lines, the penal code criminalizing homosexuality is being rightfully challenged, an unneeded leftover of the colonial era. Now, in the battle for sexual freedom, we might want to be wary of taking the West’s lead once again. Ideally, the parade will lead us down the right path after all — our own.
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