[Guest post by: The Bride]
“Please tell my mother there are gay people in India,” my cousin said when I visited her in New York. My cousin is not gay. She may be bisexual. (But isn’t everybody? Whether they know it or not. Anyway.) However, she has a close friend who is gay and this somewhat perturbed her mother. Although my aunt felt affection for the friend, she believed that these ideas were foreign and somehow only Indians abroad succumbed to them.
I was telling my cousin how in the university I was studying in, it was so trendy to be bisexual (and at the cutting age, strictly gay) that someone like me who decided to indulge in (gasp!) heterosexual marriage was actually being rebellious. (One of my fellow students once told me that never before had she felt the need to flaunt her heterosexuality in the face of fashionable gayness. Don’t ask – it was an Arts university.)
My cousin then recounted a story.
She and a few non-Indian friends got into a cab after a night of revelry and as usual, the cab driver was Indian. At some point in the conversation, the non-Indian friends started urging her to teach them a few abusive words in Hindi. She was embarrassed because the cabbie was Indian and kept resisting. Finally, she came up with the safest word she could think of: “Gaandu”. “It means bum,” she told them. Suddenly the cab driver piped up: “And homosexual. Someone who is fucked in the ass.” There was silence. Then he added: “Of course, there are no gays in India.”
I find this hilarious. Our culture (not in the monolithic sense) has a long tradition of homosexuality. Only it was never labeled as such. Maybe because it was taboo. Or maybe, because it was so normal that it didn’t actually need a name. And then, when it became taboo it was better not to give it one. Or maybe the labeling was different but it didn’t always have a negative connotation.
Male-male and female-female friendships in India tend to intense and especially during childhood and adolescence are tinged with sexuality even with the genders. In convent schools, girls often have crushes on and write letters to each other and this is often greeted with giggling and blushes rather than censure from other schoolmates. Young men, generally from rural areas and the lower economic classes who have escaped middle-class morality, are often seen holding hands and rubbing against each other when walking.
Later, when the concept of homosexuality, was spelled out I started to wonder if all those men are “gay” and I was to discover that it is not uncommon for men to be found having sex on the rocks and in dark corners of the seaface in Bandra. Many of these men might have wives back in their villages or even out in the city, but I believe that in their system both are allowed.
It is only in some middle-class Victorian moral scheme that only one form of sexuality was sanctioned. But India has never adopted anything Victorian without changing it. So while we nod our heads (sideways) we are saying both yes and no. Yes, we will go with marriage and yes, we will flirt with and sometime embrace other forms of sexuality also. We may or may not talk about it.
Unfortunately, most of us reading this would probably be from the middle-class and so be subject to its more confined moral system. But even in the middle class, there is a tendency to let things slide as long as they don’t hit you in the face. So young Indians with conservative parents may smoke and drink only they won’t do it in their parents’ presence. Their parents might be aware but they’d rather not address it. When I first started having sex, I saw my mom go through a similar dilemma. She was pretty sure I was having sex but she didn’t really want to know. A similar sort of thing might go on with homosexuality. The parents of homosexual people might suspect but they’d rather turn a blind eye. Each goes on his way, only with a bit of pretense thrown in.
When gay activists in India agitate for repealing Article 377 I wonder if they are being counterproductive. If they insist on being seen and heard, the Indian middle class will be compelled to confront them and take a stand (and it probably won’t be the tolerant stand because producing children has seems to be great goal that cuts across all economic classes in India). They may end up more suppressed than they were before.
Of course, this is easy to say since I’m not gay. I don’t have to lead my life out in secret.
Maybe the answer is to force yourself into visibility. To say, this is us, we exist, deal with it. Or maybe the answer is to let it happen gradually. Through the many straight people who have gay friends. To let those who would rather not know not know.