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Being LGBT in India: Some home truths

Today, homosexuality and queer identities may be acceptable to more Indian youths than ever before, but within the boundaries of family, home and school, acceptance of their sexuality and freedom to openly express their gender choices still remain a constant struggle for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people.

In urban India, where social media and corporate initiatives have created increasing awareness of LGBT rights, the scenario looks more upbeat for gay men than for transgender people or lesbian women. While urban LGBT voices that are heard through several online and real-world platforms form an important part of LGBT activism, these expose only a small part of the diverse challenges faced by the community.

Far away from gay pride parades, meet-ups and heated discussions on Twitter, families in rural India have their own ways of dealing with LGBT individuals. In some parts, secret honour killings are planned so that the only way for a young gay man to survive is to run away in the cover of the night to some city, with no money or social support.

In other parts, lesbian women are subjected to family-sanctioned corrective rapes, which are often perpetrated by their own family members. Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli, a transwoman LGBT activist and public policy scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, who has openly spoken about her abuse at school, says that lesbian women and transmen in rural areas end up at the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to basic human rights within the unit of family and village.

She invokes B.R. Ambedkar when talking of the rural socioeconomic environment. “Ambedkar thought of the village as a unit of violence and that is most true for LGBT issues,” she says. “Village medics and babas often prescribe rape to cure lesbians of homosexuality. Refusal to marry brings more physical abuse. Stories of family acceptance that you see on TV and other media are more of an urban phenomenon.”

Even in educated urban India, suicides by lesbian women make headlines every year. It comes as no surprise then that a tribunal recently ruled that the only danger to lesbians in India is from their own families.

The consequences of coming out

A recent study found that one of the major factors that results in the stigmatization of LGBT people is parental reaction towards homosexuality. The study goes on to conclude that most LGBT people are acceptable to family only if they agree to behave like heterosexuals.

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, whose story of coming out has been well-documented in the media over the past several years, now heads several initiatives to help LGBT people, including the Lakshya Trust that works for HIV/Aids prevention in the LGBT community. He says LGBT people must not get carried away by what they see in the media.

“It was for no small reason that I was in the closet for 41 years,” he says. “I know of someone who got a sudden rush of inspiration from a TV programme and decided to come out to his family. It didn’t work. He lost his home, his job, everything. I always tell people to be fully aware of their own reality. Be financially prepared. Detach a bit from your family both emotionally and financially before you plan to take this step.”

Anwesh Sahoo, Mr Gay India 2016, who came out to his family at the age of 16, has a different perspective: “I would not recommend waiting for the perfect time. Staying in the closet is a huge psychological burden. If you and your family have access to information, I suggest you do it whenever you feel strongly about your identity.”

Mogli, however, cautions about the widespread practice of family members forcing LGBT people to undergo “corrective” therapy. She was forced to stay at a psychiatric ward for several months after she came out. The experience has also shaped her deep distrust of the medical community.

“The psychiatric ward was like a prison complete with high walls and electric fence where I was treated like a criminal,” she recalls. “I was administered psychotic drugs which pushed me into depression and confusion. The doctor conducted torturous psychosexual experiments on me by forcing me to stay with other mentally ill women. She wanted to see how I reacted to their interaction and sexual advances. This same person has now changed her practice to make it easy for people to shop for therapies that are more in fashion now. I am not saying all doctors follow unethical practices, but LGBT people and their parents must know that there are doctors who follow trends just to adjust their current practices to what will get them more clients and money.”

Sakshi Juneja, founder of Gaysi, an online space for LGBT people, says one can never plan enough. “You don’t owe it to anyone to come out. So, I would say take your own time and come out to only those you are comfortable with. Financial and emotional stability are must-haves before you communicate with your family. At the end of the day, family members want nothing more than a safe and secure future for you, so it helps if you don’t come out in a state of emotional or financial breakdown.”

Parmesh Shahani, head of Godrej India Culture Lab and author of the book Gay Bombay, does not know a single person whose life turned for the worse after coming out, in the long term. “Though it is challenging, I am a strong advocate of people coming out. I know of so many families that have become much closer after people decided to come out. I would say seek help of a good resource group and an LGBT-friendly counsellor if you can. When you come out, you are only sharing who you are with others. You are not seeking their approval or acceptance. Be willing to give them the time they need to process, ask questions, and accept you.”

Redefining the family and its role

In a society bound by a rigid set of social and cultural norms that dictate the terms and conditions of education, career and marriage, the lack of family support can prove to be a big blow to the mental and physical health of LGBT people. Isolation and pressure to conform often lead to depression, thoughts of suicide and psychosomatic diseases. Many of them prefer to move to another city to stay away from the immense pressure to marry and start a family.

Families that accept their identities put many restrictions in the way they choose to dress and interact with their partners. In the absence of family support, online groups and social media have offered accessible alternatives to form a community outside of family. Platforms like Gaysi and Gaylaxy, and publishers like Queer Ink have helped carve out spaces for LGBT people to interact, share and collaborate.

Dhrubo Jyoti, journalist and LGBT activist, says social media offered him a semblance of belonging right from this teenage days. Through a fake Facebook profile, he met and interacted with other queer people and found an avenue to express his fears and desires.

Juneja was motivated to start Gaysi because she felt the lack of space where LGBT people could share their experiences. “I wanted to create a platform where we could connect, where we could share our life stories. When I first started Gaysi, there were hardly any avenues for lesbian women to interact and reach out to each other.”

Though the lack of parental support can potentially be debilitating, it doesn’t mean the sky has fallen, says Shahani. “I know many LGBT citizens who have formed alternative support groups, or family-like units, when their own families have been less supportive. Fortunately, in urban India, at least, we have strong LGBT associations and communities in most big cities, so people are never alone,” he says.

But access to safe online spaces and support groups does not always compensate for the vacuum created by disapproval from family. Gohil says in the absence of family support, many LGBT people decide to succumb to the pressure to marry. ”Many lesbian women come to me with requests to find a gay man who would be ready to put up with this show of marriage. That way they don’t have to worry about coming out or sexual abuse while satisfying their family’s obsession with marriage.”

It is, according to Shahani, the fundamental responsibility of any parent to accept their children’s identity. “You are not doing your child a favour by accepting her or him. You are just fulfilling your responsibility. By accepting your child you are also helping create a better society that values diversity and accepts the uniqueness of people as they are,” he says.

“A queer person has multiple struggles in all aspects of life,” says Jyoti. “Parents can make their children’s lives much easier if they don’t add to these struggles. The fundamental problem is that parents have a hard time accepting their children as sexual beings. So, any talk of sexuality and sexual or gender identity is thwarted and wrapped in shame. This is where the guilt and confusion begins. If children ask uncomfortable questions, most parents hush and silence them. Parents need to learn to listen and let their children open up about difficult issues.”

Popular TV shows such as Satyamev Jayate and The Tara Sharma Show have helped raise awareness among parents about LGBT issues. Jyoti says some of his friends simply asked their parents to watch the episode of Satyamev Jayate that focused on alternate sexualities instead of trying to explain everything on their own.

Sahoo says TV helped him through days when he was too young to understand all that he was going through. In the absence of open communication with his family, his role models included characters from Modern Family and actor Jim Parsons (who plays Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory). He adds that TV has the biggest reach when it comes to influencing both the elder and younger generations. “My interview with ETV Oriya, a regional channel, reached out to more people than anything I have ever presented or posted on social media or elsewhere. TV wins hands down in its reach.”

Jyoti recollects being inspired by appearances of filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh on TV. “On a particular episode of a talk show, he held a long conversation with a person who had repeatedly mocked him about his mannerisms. Through the conversation, he made the person understand that though he could take all the mockery, there were other people with similar identities who could be deeply affected by such behaviour. That episode made a lasting impression on me. So yes, in addition to being a point of connection and inspiration, TV has the potential to affect attitudes across generations.”

Considering TV and movies are accessible to even rural populations where social media has not yet penetrated, these could prove to be the most effective tools in redefining the roles and attitudes of families through programmes and stories that not only educate and enlighten but also relay LGBT experiences in authentic and varied voices.

Working with Gen Next

It is an encouraging sign that schools and colleges have begun to take up institutionally approved LGBT activism. Rohit Revi, one of the founders of Orenda, the gender and sexuality club at IIT Gandhinagar, says without LGBT activism in educational institutions, LGBT issues largely remain “untalkaboutable”.

“Our broad agenda is to make LGBT students and their struggles visible. Invisibility is the first and biggest challenge that we need to take up,” he says.

Though, theoretically, most educated citizens support alternative sexualities and gender identities, when it comes to day-to-day behaviour, there is an urgent need to change the ground reality. “Bridging the gap between academic knowledge and everyday experience means we need people to question stereotypes. Say, for example, the rampant telling of homophobic jokes. We need people to pause and ask what’s so funny about such an oppressive take. We need our allies to point out that such behaviour costs us our freedom and dignity. Creating a critical mass of such an aware group is an important part of on-campus activism,” says Revi.

Juneja finds today’s youth open to listening and accepting alternative identities. She shares a recent experience where Gaysi conducted podcasts about bullying of LGBT people at school: “We got an overwhelming response. When I see students open up about such deeply personal issues, I know that change is taking root.”

However, Mogli is vocal about going deeper into investigating how schools can play a more robust role in supporting LGBT issues. “Currently, our educational model is based on obedience to authority and unquestioned following of rules and regulations. This must change. We have to encourage our children to question and learn from debate. Children must be taught about their basic human rights and the tools available to protect those rights,” she says.

“Secondly, they must know about legal frameworks and options to challenge these frameworks. I am not talking of heavy legalese but simple legal concepts,” she says.

She adds that asking young people to take individual responsibility without talking of systemic change is futile. “You can’t say you are responsible for your life so you should work positively towards your own freedom of expression. We need to talk about Section 377. We need to talk about the new transgender bill, which the vast majority of transgender people find unacceptable. Families and individuals cannot change much as long as the system supports oppression of LGBT rights.”

Gohil sums up the hope of the LGBT community when he says that once educational institutions become their allies throughout the country, future generations will have a better chance of living up to the ideals of equality.

“What better way than to prepare the future leaders of our country to believe in LGBT rights. Each time a school or college decides to participate in LGBT activism, we come closer to bridging the gap between reality and a truly inclusive society,” he says.

Rashmi Patel is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Her Twitter handle is @rashmi_patel.

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