Culture & Society

'Why Can't We Have Our Own Family?': Story Behind Kolkata's First Public Same-sex Marriage

In the backdrop of Supreme Court hearings seeking legal recognition of same-sex marriage, one of India's first gay couples to formalise their wedding speaks to Outlook about their unique love story, the experience of being part of a Hindu social marriage and why marriage is an important social and political right for the LGBT community.

Abhishek and Chaitanya at their social wedding.
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Abhishek Ray, a popular fashion designer in Kolkata, and Chaitanya Sharma, a digital marketing expert based in Gurgaon, were the first gay couple in India to have a formal,  social wedding in Kolkata on July 3, 2022. It received immense love and support along with hatred. In the backdrop of Supreme Court hearings seeking legal recognition of same-sex marriage, the couple spoke to Outlook's Shreya Basak about their unique love story, the experience of being part of a Hindu social marriage and why marriage is an important social and political right for the LGBTQIA community.

Edited excerpts:

You are one of the first known gay couples in India who formalised their union through a social wedding. What was the experience like...any particular challenges that you faced?

On July 3, 2022, we conducted a proper social marriage where we did sangeet, tilak and a baraat. But people around us were scared, what if someone comes and vandalises the marriage? Everyone was concerned since Hindu rituals were involved and what if we hurt the sentiments of a political party? At the same time, it was such a positive note to see the internet explode with so much positivity and there we think there is an equal part of people who are looking at same-sex marriages with hopeful eyes.

For our wedding, the most challenging part was when we thought of doing it in a proper Hindu ritualistic way. I (Abhishek) have a priest who has been associated with my family for the past 15 years. I wanted him to conduct my marriage but I did not know how he would react to finding out I am homosexual. So. I thought of doing it in other ways and I consulted a lot of other pandit ji. who turned us down because this is not what Hindu mantras would permit and there has to be a purush and a stree. Although the wedding dates and venue were finalised we had no pandit ji. Finally, I was left with no choice but to ask my pandit and I had to do it very slyly. I invited him over for an in-person discussion. We both (Chaitanya and Abhishek) sat him down and I told him that my cousin wants to get married, however, he wanted to get married to a boy. There was a two-minute silence and then, in an uncanny manner, he said why not. I was in disbelief. I was pinching myself. When I apologised for lying and revealed the truth, he instantly agreed to conduct the marriage right.

He went on to explain to us what rituals can happen and what cannot, according to the shastras, and his way of explaining was very humble. And I accepted it. But at the same time, we were also scared that he might be ostracised given the society we live in instead, he encouraged us that we would be the torchbearers of the societal change that would give others courage.

From when you first met to when you got socially married, what has been the journey so far? Was it hard to find acceptability?

We met in 2020 during the lockdown and we dated for almost a year before thinking of social recognition and we accepted each other as our life partners. We also come from two drastically different communities ---- Marwari and Bengali ---- so our cultures are also different. I (Chaitanya) wanted to do the traditional way of marriage the way we have grown up seeing two families coming together. However, when we launched a serious discussion on the heteronormative society with a patriarchal lineage, we experienced our fair share of obstacles. But we crossed them all.

No matter how privileged or socially aware our families are, there would always be one or two typically patriarchal family members who think that it’s the birthright of males to always dominate the females of the family. And in our case, those questions were inevitably raised by a few family members by people whom we know. Even, following our viral marriage posts on social media, there was so much hatred. This stems from the mindset people keep asking who’s the wife and who’s the husband. Who’s the giver and who’s the taker? In our society, this thought is extremely deep-rooted and people want the heteronormative idea that there should be a king and there should be a queen or a husband or a wife.

What was your experience of growing up as a queer child and coming out to your family?

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I (Abhishek) lost my father in 2018 and my mother in 2000. I never got time to come out to my mother but my father was a fairly educated man with a broad mind. I remember the moment I wanted to tell him about my sexual orientation, he cut me and told me “Ami jaani” (I know)He saved me from asking unnecessary questions. From my immediate family, I have received a lot of support that did not put me through embarrassing situations. I grew up in the early 80s and when I was going through puberty, I was undergoing expressions of understanding sexual orientation. It was difficult at that time because information on social media wasn’t available at your fingertips. We were growing up in the age of floppy disks. Access to information was a luxury, I would always think what is it that is wrong with me, why am I attracted to men? I could not talk to someone. However, when I started educating myself on homosexuality, I would not share my expressions with others knowing the fact that I would be told to think otherwise. I did not feel guilty while getting attracted to men. However, initially, I thought it was a disease or just a momentary thing that will pass. So, I also tried to forcefully date a couple of women. For most of my childhood, there was a lack of hospitability towards me because I did not fit into “the masculine version”. However, I never let bullying get the better hand of me. I always took/take things with a stride. It was only when I entered NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) that I felt accepted after meeting so many people ‘like me’ and that is when I got the guts to come out and reject living a life of duality. Since then, the journey was not that difficult. When people see how many strides I can deal with it, they do not mess with me.

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For me (Chaitanya), it was a difficult journey in adolescence. When I wanted to hang out with my peers, I was called different derogatory names. I was often asked to behave more manly and my mother would often correct my hand gestures and body language. She asked me the worst question, “What's wrong with you?” However, somewhere I was ready to take the responsibility of making them understand and take it as a learning phase. I had to make them understand what “happy” means to me.

Before meeting Abhishek, my (Chaitanya) family members were of course aware of my orientation because everyone is well-educated and socially aware. So whenever we used to have a discussion on the rights of the LGBTQ community, before I came out to my family, they would always say “It’s their life, they are happy, it’s absolutely fine”. But when I came out with my orientation, it was a shock for them in 2016. On Diwali back then, when my sister asked me whether I have a girlfriend, I took a pause and said I do not have a girlfriend, I have a boyfriend. My sister and brother-in-law accepted very well. For my mother, it took a lot of time. Like every Indian mother, my mother had the dream that when I will get married, there would be a daughter-in-law. Marrying Abhishek also invited questions for me like “Why did you marry a man, you should have married a woman. It would be of so much help to your mother.”

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The way society has been allowed to have families, why cannot we be allowed to have families in our own ways? In my case, it is with a man with whom I am emotionally connected.

With the ongoing court cases seeking legal recognition of same-sex marriages, do you feel there could be a change coming? And why is marriage an important right for same-sex couples?

See, we have come a long way, and it is not going to be a cakewalk to get legal recognition but there is hope since the decriminalisation of Section 377 and so many people fighting for it. In India, it will not happen easily and we have accepted that. But when we look at it, what we have done, and how people have reacted to it, I don't think five or six years would be possible. So, we see a change, we see people opening up to it and we see people being curious to understand what this is this idea of homosexuality.

Today, at any social gatherings we say that we are married and we are ready with our explanation that, “Yes we are socially married but not legally”.

However, we have been lucky to find our own support system that has let us live happily as a socially married same-sex couple. Not many are. People live a life of duality because they can't come out up given the social situation they are in. We have to accept it because there is so much violence against same-sex couples. Perhaps, that's why legal recognition is very important. When you have to protect yourself and your choices, you need a law to save yourself. With that, no one can stop you from having your own family the way you can. 

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