Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

The marriage trap

Many gay people in India get married to heterosexuals under social pressure, sometimes with tragic outcomes

As a young boy in the late 1970s, Rajiv D. grew up amid the Mathura rape protests and a burgeoning women’s rights movement. There was plenty of talk about sexuality, but hardly anyone spoke about what was bothering Rajiv.

He was confused about his sexual identity because he was attracted to men more than women. Was he gay, bisexual or a heterosexual going through a transitory phase? The mainstream press had just about begun to discuss heterosexuality. But access to information on homosexual behaviour was sparse.

Rajiv, now 50, remembers rifling through pamphlets and books at his local raddiwala (scrap dealer) hoping he’d find answers.

He knew he was somehow “different", but didn’t know how. By the time Rajiv had a job and was earning well, his parents sprang the question: what about marriage.

Photographs were produced, names were dropped, introductions arranged. A friend told him he couldn’t possibly be gay because he wasn’t sleeping with men—a stereotype common about gay men then, says Rajiv. So at 29, he got married and, a few years later, had a baby.

Many gay men and lesbian women in India get married under social pressure, locking them in unhappy marriages, sometimes with tragic outcomes. The figure can be high—nearly 70% of gay men in Mumbai and 80% in smaller cities across Maharashtra, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Mumbai-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Humsafar Trust.

“In an effort to reconcile their orientation with societal pressures, they put on a façade of being heterosexual; get married to a member of the opposite sex as an obligation to society and have parallel romantic relationships with members of the same sex without their spouse’s knowledge," says Mr Gay India 2013 Nolan Lewis.

Sticking it out

By the time he was 32, Rajiv says he realized he wasn’t happy, either physically or emotionally. What started out as platonic friendships first with straight and then gay men, soon turned sexual. When he finally told his wife, she was shocked and thought this was a ploy to dump her. “It wasn’t something she ever thought would happen," he says.

Later convinced he wasn’t lying, she nevertheless decided to stick it out because of their child. The marriage was going nowhere and in 2002, Rajiv filed for divorce. “People keep saying men are empowered. It’s not men, but the heteropatriarchal structure that is empowered," he says.

The iron grip of a social structure that attempts to reinforce heterosexual, and patriarchal traditions and values can have tragic outcomes: On 19 April, a 30-year-old doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) committed suicide because of an unconsummated marriage with her gay doctor husband.

The step—there was a lengthy suicide note posted on a Facebook post—has prompted extreme, even angry, reactions. They have been polarized, either blaming the husband for “betraying" his wife or pointing to the woman’s “cowardice" in not seeking a divorce and failing to make the marriage work.

Repressive law

In the backdrop of these conversations were discussions on the law— particularly the draconian section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalizes sexual activity “against the order of nature".

“For several people I know, marrying someone in order to meet societal expectations is alright because of the unfairness of IPC 377 and the social risks that come with being ‘out and proud’," says Lewis.

In 2001, NGO Naz Foundation filed a petition in the Delhi high court against section 377. In 2009, the court ruled that the colonial-era law did not apply to consenting adults. Some religious groups and individuals then appealed against the judgement in the Supreme Court and in December 2011, the apex court overturned the high court verdict.

The link between this piece of law and the doctor’s suicide is obvious to many.

“We have failed two individuals. It’s sad that a young woman, who was educated and so, by definition, ‘empowered’, took such a step. And the fact that the man got married, shows how much pressure would have mounted on him," says Anjali Gopalan, LGBT activist and founder of Naz Foundation.

Since the Supreme Court verdict, the gay community has withdrawn into the closet. “There is no space for single people in our culture. Everything is done in the context of marriage. There is no space where your sexuality is accepted," says Gopalan.

Aditya Bandopadhyay, 43, a gay rights activist and lawyer, says when he was 18, it was okay if a gay man decided to marry a heterosexual woman because there was no legal or social support system to fall back on. “That the monochromatic, heterosexist society is the right way is an idea painted by society and this leads to all the misery. This is what led to the AIIMS tragedy," he says.

Conversion claims

Social intolerance of minority sexual rights is rampant in India. So-called “treatments" like aversion therapy are rampant in the country, claiming to turn homosexuals into “normal" heterosexuals—utterly unmindful of the fact that the Indian Psychiatric Society says there is no evidence to substantiate the belief that homosexuality is a mental illness or disease.

Dr Pulkit Sharma, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist and psychoanalytical therapist, says that parents come to him not so much to “convert" their homosexual children, but to “convince" them to marry.

“They tell their children that it’s okay if they are gay, but want them to get married and give them grandchildren," he says. Other parents believe homosexuality is a hormonal abnormality and a few injections of testosterone will make their son straight.

Manak Matiyani, an activist working as a trainer and consultant on issues of gender and sexuality, concedes that life hasn’t been as difficult for him as it has for other gay men. But even though gay men, who resist marriage also, have to confront considerable social pressure—to the point of abuse and threat of being disinherited—he believes that heterosexual women who unwittingly marry gay men suffer even more. “I would expect that an independent gay man does not ruin somebody else’s life. It’s just unethical," he says.

The first reaction of a heterosexual woman who unknowingly marries a gay man is often denial, says Hemangi Mhaprolkar, a counsellor with Humsafar Trust. This is followed by a fear of “what next". “There is a sense of instability. In our society, chances of turning back are limited and in most cases the women try and pull the marriage off. They opt for a very dry marriage of convenience," she says.

Abuse

Within just 46 days after her marriage in 2013, 28-year-old Rashmi—who asked that we only use her first name—was back at her parent’s house because she found out that her husband was gay. “When my parents confronted my in-laws, they said I had lost it and it was shameful that I was discussing a marital issue with my father," she says.

Five months after the split, she was on medication for depression. “Suicidal thoughts were constantly in my head. It wasn’t easy. This isn’t what one expects will happen," she says.

For a community whose sexual activity continues to be criminalized, fear of abuse is never far. According to a Reuters report in April this year, “Reports of abuse have almost trebled in the last year, with 500 reports of abuse of LGBT people in the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in 2014 alone." Citing home ministry figures, the report says 778 cases were registered under section 377 between January and September 2014, leading to 587 arrests.

“Right now, most parents who are accepting of their children’s sexuality worry about harassment at the hands of the law," says Shobhna S. Kumar, founder of Queerink, an online platform for Indian women and men who are different from what is seen as sexually “normal".

In addition, to be sure, this stigma and forced marriage are also faced by lesbian women.

“At the end of the day, changing the law is a visible approval of the state, which can only have good results," says Kumar.

The doctor’s suicide has sparked off a national conversation about the state of homosexuals. But, as Gopalan says, in a country where despite laws, women and children continue to face widespread abuse, gay men and lesbians still have a long battle to fight.

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