Meditation helps eradicate homosexuality." “Trust me this is perfectly curable, let’s start you off on some Clonazepam now!" “Homosexuality cannot be legal. It is against our religion and culture." “There’s a gay guy in the script? Arrey just make him wear pink, everyone will get it!" “Don’t worry, I’m sure you will get over this phase once you are married." These classic lines we’re all familiar with are from illustrated cards titled “A Beginner’s Guide To Indian Homophobes" on Gaysi Family, a popular online lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) forum.
After Congress president Rahul Gandhi hugged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament recently, the debate around the surprise embrace curve-balled from being about love, hate and politics to one about toxic masculinity. “Rahul Gandhi will have to think 10 times before hugging me," was Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s predictable, testosterone-fuelled response.
But the textbook example of everyday Indian homophobia was offered on camera by Bharatiya Janata Party MP Nishikant Dubey: “Yes we do fear hugging Rahul Gandhi as our wives might divorce us after that," he told a television reporter who asked him to comment on Gandhi’s statement that BJP MPs would take two steps back thinking that he would hug them. “Also, Section 377 hasn’t been scrapped as yet. If he gets married, we will hug him."
In Dubey’s homophobic world, real Indian men don’t express their feelings for fear of being considered gay; a hug can land you in jail; Indian women are so ignorant that they will leave a man who hugs another man; and Indian men are “safe" once they are married because, in our culture, marriage is the ultimate cure for homosexuality and everything else.
As a constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court seems almost certain to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalizes homosexuality and “unnatural" sex, Dubey’s remark shows that even after the legal battle is won, anything that doesn’t fit our straitjacket definition of love—whether it’s intercaste, inter-religious or queer love—will continue to be under attack. The verdict is expected in the coming weeks.
“Even if 377 were to go, we expect more backlash from the conservatives," says Balachandran Ramaiah, one of 20 former and current LGBTQ+ Indian Institute of Technology students who filed a petition in May to strike down Section 377. This was one of several petitions submitted in the apex court. “Homophobia and bullying has become greater in the last 10 years as awareness has increased among the broader public." The battle to change mindsets is likely to be a longer and harder one than the battle in court, he believes.
This daily dose of ignorant and hateful comments from a homophobic nation has wider economic implications than are immediately visible, as the petition highlights. “LGBT alumni, including some among the petitioners, have chosen sectors or companies with progressive policies over those that might have provided better career trajectories or in STEM fields which are instrumental in building a modern and strong India. One of the petitioners was very keen on becoming an IAS officer and never pursued it due to the fear of being discriminated against as a civil servant and the fear of losing the job due to the criminalisation of a core part of their identity."
One 2016 workplace study by MINGLE (Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment) found that 40% of LGBTQ+ employees faced discrimination at work. A friendly workplace can be life-changing.
Early in his career, software engineer Ritesh Rajani kept his LGBTQ+ identity to himself and avoided intrusive questions such as that all-time Indian favourite—“When are you getting married?"—from his colleagues at the smaller software companies where he worked. “Then I joined IBM where I knew there was an LGBTQ+ group. I got to meet people, see role models and that gave me confidence to come out to my family and at work. I went from being a person who wouldn’t give my phone to anyone and from being someone who wouldn’t even log on to Facebook at work for fear that someone might spot a Pride flag image to being the face of diversity at the company," says Rajani, who moved from software to a human resources role. Now he handles all the diversity and inclusion programmes at IBM. Rajani says his journey of confidence, both professional and personal, wouldn’t have been possible in a less inclusive environment.
Romel Baral, a senior analyst at Goldman Sachs, had a similar experience. After going through college and life in Kolkata batting away the usual slurs, he suddenly found himself in a workplace that was pro-diversity.
“I realized it was okay for me to come out after I joined my workplace in 2015. Just a few months after I joined the company celebrated LGBTQ+ Pride Month which began with a flag being hosted by senior management. I felt quite awesome, I hadn’t seen anything remotely close to that," says the 24-year-old.
“How strongly must we love knowing we are unconvicted felons under Section 377? My Lords, this is love that must be constitutionally recognized, and not just sexual acts," said Supreme Court lawyer Menaka Guruswamy while arguing against Section 377 in front of the five-member Bench in July.
Until we relax our archaic rules and attitudes about who we can love, all Indian lovers who dare to step out of the narrow confines of “legitimate" love will continue to battle for their love to be recognized.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
He tweets at @priyaramani