LOUD AND PROUD
India's hidden gay community comes out of the closet
Desi Magazine, London, UK
December / January 2004 Issue
may still be illegal in India but Mumbai's growing gay scene is witnessing
increasing numbers of men going public about their sexuality. Jaspreet
Pandohar talks to Sridhar Rangayan, filmmaker and one of Mumbai's leading
gay activists, and discovers just how and why gays are coming out of their
When it comes to modern India no city better exemplifies the country's westernized and cosmopolitan side than Mumbai. The sprawling metropolis leads the way when it comes to media, fashion, industry and trade, so it comes as no surprise that it is also the base for India's growing gay community.
The big city's bright lights and liberal attitude acts like a magnet, attracting not only it's own large gay population, but also hundreds of gay men from around the country, most of who are escaping an existence of suffocation and fear in the hope of starting a new life in a more tolerant and hospitable environment.
Nevertheless, action has been taken by various organizations to help bring India's vast gay community (estimates ranging from five to 50 million) back out from the fringes of existence to the heart of society.
Sridhar Rangayan is a founder trustee of The Humsafar Trust, the first and premier gay Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Mumbai as well as Executive Editor of Bombay Dost, India's only gay newsletter. One of few openly gay activists in India, he is more qualified to speak of Mumbai's evolving gay scene.
"As a filmmaker producing
and directing mainstream television software and ad films, sexuality was never
a deterrent. Today I live with a partner of eight years - Saagar. We live
and work together and 'this' is better than my wildest dreams," says
Rangayan describes how and why Mumbai's gay community has become more visible over recent years. "It has been a gradual process of enhancing visibility. Though there have been efforts over the past eight years in Mumbai and other cities to form small support groups and voice Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transexual issues, it is only in the past one year that the Indian gay community has become increasingly visible.
"I think it is due to globalization of information. The Internet, news and media have brought the world right to our doorsteps, and the closeted Indian gay man or woman doesn't feel so alone and lonely. This has led to increased comfort levels. But this increased visibility is rather restricted to urban India."
Although an increasing number of young gay men are undoubtedly trying to come 'out of the closet', according to Rangayan there is still great pressure to 'act' straight.
"The closet doors are surely coming unhinged, but it would be some more time before they are comfortably thrown open. But more than fear of expressing their sexuality, it is the fear of displeasing their families that still keeps gays in the closet. Particularly in India, patriarchal family structures and close-knit familial bonds make the process of coming out much more difficult. That's why one sees a large migration of men/ women with alternate sexual / gender preferences into the cities.
"The metros like Mumbai offer greater anonymity as well as the distance from immediate family which makes it easier to lead alternate lifestyles. The educated and the upper class, more so the English speaking classes are more emancipated, but there is still not too much opening up as far as middle-class or working class gay men are concerned. They are still getting married... to women."
So, are Mumbaites and Indians in general becoming more tolerant and understanding of gays, or does the gay community still face prejudice? "Though India has such a rich gay history and tradition right from ancient and medieval times, it is largely ignored. It is still seen as a western import. Tolerance and acceptance is, I think, still predominantly in the educated classes," believes Rangayan.
"Traditional Indian families are not so accepting. Even today, as long as it is in the closet, it is acceptable. Sex and sexuality are not supposed to be discussed, whether it is hetero or homo. Even parents to whom gay men have come out would rather sweep the issue under the carpet and not discuss it with them. 'That' is the level of tolerance."
More than workplace or families, Rangayan feels gays face most prejudice in other areas. "I think the pressure is most intense in peer groups where you are expected to follow set heterosexual patterns of dating a girl, etc. The pressure to marry is still very high and almost 80% of gay men buckle down to this pressure. I have been witness to the most vociferous queens getting married and leading a double life, with no guilt whatsoever!"
"Initially just one group, The Humsafar Trust, served as an overall umbrella organisation catering to the entire gay community. But of late, there has been a spurt of localized groups catering to specific areas and specific segments, which is quite welcome considering Bombay's sheer size and population. But how long some of these groups last and what their specific agendas are, are big question marks."
"There has been an attempt at mainstreaming the gay movement by dovetailing it into the government health programme and the women's movement. The media has also focused on gay related issues with empathy." says Rangayan.
How have organisations
like The Humsafar Trust and Bombay Dost helped to promote awareness and understanding
of gays in Mumbai?
"Bombay Dost was the first newsletter in the media. The Humsafar Trust is running successful health programmes on HIV intervention with its clinics, community centre, workshops, seminars and cultural activities. It provides a safe space for gay men to interact and discuss their problems.
Despite independent organizations making a concerted effort to support the growing gay community, according to Rangayan the Indian government has done little to lend a hand. "The government is still in a denial phase. Very few government departments even acknowledge the fact that India has a gay population too (because they are yet not a visible vote-bank!). Rather recently, with the threat of the AIDS epidemic sweeping across India, there is a token support offered in terms of health facilities and grants. It would need a lot of educating the government before the gay community gets its due place in the society."
In spite of a strong pro-gay
lobby in India, activists like Rangayan believe they are far from achieving
their goal of legalising homosexuality. "When they (the government) do
not even acknowledge the presence of the gay community, legal changes are
quite a far cry. But increased visibility is bringing in hope. Perhaps an
Indian Stonewall can accelerate the process!"
A personal step Rangayan has taken to help blow away some stereotypes of gay Indian men is to make Gulabi Aaina, a slice-of-life story about kothis (Indian drag queens) and a young gay teenager. Making the film was a natural confluence of Rangayan's synergies as an artist and an activist. However, despite being appreciated at screening in over twenty international film festivals around the world, Gulabi Aaina has met with bureaucratic hurdle in India where it was refused a certificate by the Indian censor board.
"My partner Saagar and I have been wanting to do this film for quite some time. But none of the television channels or any producers were ready to take the 'risk' of backing a film with gay content. So we finally decided to produce it ourselves as an Indie film.
"This is rather unpalatable to the bureaucrats who are comfortable as long as homosexuality is seen as a western influence. They cannot tolerate the fact that our characters are completely Indian and rooted in its culture, paying homage to Indian Bollywood divas and songs and speaking in Hindi!
"The film has been refused a certificate, even an adult certificate, because the censor board have termed it "full of vulgarity and obscenity". However, overall there has been a tremendous positive response from the gay and heterosexual audiences we have shown the film to, even in India. This is an amazing change and hopefully points to greater emancipation of the gay community."
~ Jaspreet Pandohar
For centuries being gay in India has been a taboo and considered a curse. For most men it can mean a lifetime of ridicule and persecution for showing even a slight interest in members of the same sex. With homosexuality classed as illegal under an outdated 141-year-old law that prohibits "unnatural" sexual acts, resulting in a punishable offence, it has become virtually impossible for most gay Indian men to be completely open about their sexuality.
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