Gay pride only goes so far in India
- Gay pride only goes so far in India
Friday 31 December 2010
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The Guardian, 30 December 2010
'Queer' activists out and proud in Delhi and Mumbai have little connection with those forced to live in small-town secrecy
by Parvez Sharma
I grew up in Saharanpur, a "small town" of 1 million people in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Saharanpur is very like the hundreds of other towns littering the vast plains of the region, and not notable for much except its mangoes and woodcarving industry.
In the early 90s I was at a Catholic-run school in the town and had my first sexual experiences with another boy near the railway tracks. That's what my brother was alluding to when he phoned me a couple of nights ago with what he called "breaking news from our childhood".
Under a headline saying "Gay party has been exposed", the local Hindi-language newspaper, Amar Ujala, had published a photograph of some 20 frightened-looking men sitting on the floor, many trying to conceal their faces with shawls and scarves.
A series of bullet points beneath the photograph highlighted what the editors presumably thought were the most shocking aspects of the story: a doctor, MBA students and teachers were present; this "indecent" party was organised under the guise of a birthday party at a dharamshala (spiritual dwelling or sanctuary); and alcohol was served.
The news item went on to name some of the men who were arrested; thankfully, all have fairly common first names, and their last names were not provided. However, the organiser of the party was identified as Bunty and the piece informed us that he runs a "beauty parlour" named after him. So, for anyone interested in following up the story with a spot of gay-bashing, the aforementioned Bunty should be easy enough to find.
The English-language Times of India went further with its irresponsible reporting of the same story, mentioning the jobs and neighbourhoods of some of the men.
The paper also chose to identify the host Bunty with his last name and gave the exact location of his beauty parlour. I read the rest of the piece in horror. The names of those arrested include both Hindus and Muslims (both religions have sizeable numbers in Saharanpur).
The location of the dharamshala is just two miles from my old school, where I was mercilessly bullied for being too effeminate when I was a boy.
There are quotes from the police officer who organised the raid, in which he talks about finding "used condoms" and guests in a "compromising position". Saharanpur is described as an "ultra-conservative" town and a college teacher called Ayub Qureshi is quoted expressing his indignation: "This is certainly unheard of in Saharanpur. I don't know where are we heading to."
Thirteen men were arrested, though according to police the party was attended by more than 100. The arrests should be condemned. These "gay" men probably have nowhere else to meet and many perhaps still live with their families, where discussing their sexuality would not be an option.
As I looked at the English-language news item, I noticed that one of the first comments comes from someone in the state of Haryana:
"Dear sir, all these westurn gay thing is now allowed in our culture. v must stop these gay people from having sex because then they increase in population and soon our bautiful culture country will be full of them. police have done good job. kudos to them"
The notion of homosexual activity being considered foreign and often as specifically a western perversion is an idea I came across before, when making my film, A Jihad for Love.
Last month, out and proud gay men and women marched in Delhi's annual gay pride march. Many posed happily for the news cameras. Rainbow flags were in abundance, as was western terminology such as "gay", "queer" (even transcribed into Hindi on some signs) and "LGBTQ".
As I looked at photos of the event taken by my Facebook friends, I realised that most came from middle- or upper-class families and would have a degree of ease with the English language. I have often wondered about the need to use western models of emancipation such as "gay pride" marches and rainbow banners in cultural contexts that are vastly different.
While filming "gay" Muslims around the world, I realised that very often an absence of affirmative language for their sexual selves in their native tongues was what united them. I have always found the word "queer" problematic and find its use on signs in Hindi to be surprising at the very least.
In so many countries, invisibility is the norm and the preferred option for those who have same-sex desires. I have no doubt that most of the men and women who were busy marching in Delhi waving their banners would not like to be seen at a downmarket venue like the dharamshala in Saharanpur and I am not even sure if many of these newly minted "queer" activists from India's big cities would find common cause with the small-town types arrested at this "gay party".
India remains a land of some of the greatest dissonance in the world. A booming economy and the world's largest and probably most aspirational middle class, it still seems to be not completely at ease with the sexual freedoms that are usually touted as western.
Just last year, the archaically worded anti-sodomy section 377 of the British-written penal code was successfully challenged in the Delhi high court. The vociferous activists in Delhi and Mumbai hope that the law will be repealed nationally, thus making homosexuality "legal" in the world's largest democracy. In the meantime, outdated laws written by colonisers with Victorian ideas of morality continue to be enforced in other parts of India.
As I look at the picture of the frightened men in Saharanpur again, I wonder if I can recognise anyone from my school days. I wonder if Bunty or any of the other men would have wanted to attend the Delhi pride march. Would they understand what "queer" meant at all?