Saturday, Dec 02, 2023

Alternate Leaning

Alternate Leaning

Indian lesbians remain a closeted community and struggle to break free

I am a 33-year-old lesbian. I have never enjoyed sex with my husband and neither have I ever mustered enough courage to speak to him of my sexual inclinations. I feel emotionally and physically frustrated. I need to talk to someone.

—Seema Goel, Lucknow

Today, I read an article on lesbianism in the local paper. It has revived my adoloscent passions. I am a married woman from an orthodox Hindu family and my in-laws would take my children away from me if they found out. I crave to know more on the subject and intend to enjoy a lesbian relationship. I want to meet the right women.

— Radha Gurunathan, Nagercoil

THESE are real voices from an invisible community, shrouded in a conspiracy of silence in a heterosexual world. Depicting the pathos of being a lesbian in India, such letters to Sakhi, a Delhi-based lesbian organisation, convey the deep sense of isolation and fear of ostracism that haunt women who cannot emerge from the shadows. Bereft of a community to identify with, these women suffer alone, closeting their lesbianism and often trying hopelessly to assimilate into a 'straight' world.

 "Enforced silence and concealment of one's sexual identity, followed by marriage and a life full of emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse—this is the typical lesbian story that letters addressed to us narrate," says Giti Thadani of Sakhi.

Over 60 per cent of the mail Sakhi receives is from married women in their 30s and 40s. Testimony of the senders' misery at being forced to play a heterosexual role while recognising and suppressing their sexuality for years, the letters seek community space. "They need to know that they are not freaks in a normal world," explains Thadani.

And Sakhi tries its best to reassure. Working actively to raise the visibility of lesbians and lesbian culture in India, the five-year-old organisation attempts to "provide some sort of place for lesbians to identify with and counteract lesbophobia in India". A PO box number in Delhi to write in to, a network of about 25 lesbian addresses in various parts of the country for those who want counselling, a room in their small Delhi office for a lesbian friend in need and regular screenings of lesbian films to provide an interactive space for their members—these are some of Sakhi's efforts towards carving an identity for lesbians in a repressive environment. But acceptance seems quite a distance away.

Severely shocked upon discovering their 20-year-old daughter's 'abnormal' sexual inclinations, Meeta Saha's bureaucrat parents recently pulled her out of a premier engineering institute of Delhi. "My parents feared shame and scandal. Nowadays, they pore over matrimonial advertisements, shed tears about my deviant behaviour and hope to settle me in a normal marriage," says Saha sarcastically. The depressed youngster is confused about her future, but confesses that she has lost the will to resist.

Those who dare to defy are no less broken. Sushil, 27, born to a lower middle-class Haryana family is a shattered person today. Determined to marry Sumita, her lesbian lover, she braved excommunication by her conservative family to undergo a sex change operation at a sleazy suburban clinic two years ago. Only to return and find her lover coerced into marriage. Without a family or friends and trapped in 'manhood', Sushil approached Sakhi for help. While the organisation found her a job as a peon, there was little they could do to improve her fragile state of mind. "Sushil remains a misfit. And all because she didn't know that physical transformation is not necessary for a fulfilling lesbian relationship," says Thadani.

Realising the widespread ignorance about alternate sexuality, a brave few in Bombay have decided to disseminate information on the subject. Floated recently by a small group of like-minded lesbians, Stree Sangam is already receiving impressive quantities of mail. "The queries are varied and frustrations manifold. Letters have arrived even from rural Nagaland," says Amita Kar of Stree Sangam. "So much for the popular perception that lesbianism is a problem of the urban, pseudo-intellectual woman with a western outlook."

The myth that homosexuality in India is the consequence of a few people aping western decadence leads to the branding of lesbians as 'the other' and negates their contemporary existence and experience as being real. "Years of struggle have borne little fruit because we are still perceived as the outsiders—dayins (witches) in villages and as representative of western sexual aberrations in the cities," laments Thadani.

Many a lesbian's experience suggests that even psychologists regard them as sexual deviants in need of 'cure'. Kiran Bhasin, 28, recalls the humiliating treatment she underwent at a leading clinic in Delhi her family forced her to visit: "I was administered electric shocks while the doctor displayed pictures of nude women apparently intended to repulse. Then, photographs of nude male models were shown to the accompaniment of soft romantic music."

Psychologist Vimla Lal says that the counsellor's primary responsibility should be to make lesbians recognise that alternate sexuality is somewhat similar to being a left-handed person in a right-handed world. "There is no right and wrong in this; only, one has to come to terms with it and understand its implications," she says.

Many lesbians do come to terms with their sexuality. And use the privileges offered by a heterosexual world to access lesbian contentment. Lesbian lovers Rita Vachani and Aarti Shivdasani, both in their 20s, are on the look out for green-card holding grooms. They plan to marry, migrate and subsequently divorce so as to unite in fulfilling feminine togetherness in the US. "There is no way we can dream of a future together in this country. But the strong lesbian movement there will protect our right to be different," the couple assert.

Explaining the specifics of the Indian situation, sociologist Veena Das points out: "Many gay men continue to remain married and have affairs on the side. And other closet gays understand. This undermines the need to come out in the open and fight for a distinctive identity." Clearly this is a factor contributing to the splintering of the homosexual movement in India.

On their part, however, lesbian activists are loathe to see their struggle for a distinct identity categorised as a mere appendage of the gay and feminist movements. "One of the major differences we have with the male gay movement is the prevalence of misogyny and sexism. Lack of safe interactive space and access to heterosexual public spaces is mainly a lesbian issue," says Yasmin of Sakhi.

Meanwhile, editor of the gay magazine Bombay Dost, Ashok Row Kavi, argues that the lesbian rights movement would be incomplete without gay support. "I know they feel we are women-haters who dress up in drag and objectify their bodies, but we are the ones who have a stake in the battle. Instead, most of them look at feminists for help who rarely oblige."

The Indian feminist groups' reluctance to acknowledge or espouse the lesbian cause, in fact, finds mention in a report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The report cites the dependence of NGOs and feminist groups on official funding as the reason for lesbian causes not being taken up by these organizations. According to the report, another factor which hinders feminist espousal of lesbian issues is "the fear which lesbians, working within the movement, have in becoming 'known' as lesbians and subsequently being discriminated against and further marginalised".

Rubbishing these observations as "trivial nit-picking", a member of a Delhi-based women's NGO says, "When female infants are being killed at birth and young dowry-less girls burnt alive, it is fair to expect us to spend the little money we have for the rights of a fringe group."

Lesbians, in turn, argue that they will continue to hover on the periphery of society as long as they are haunted by the fear of heterosexual persecution and legal harassment. Prohibiting "voluntary carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal", the Unnatural Offences provision under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code could be interrupted as making lesbianism a non-bailable offence punishable by a term of up to 10 years.

Lamenting that this Victorian law remains unaltered, Ratna Kapoor, lawyer with the Centre for Feminist Legal Research, observes: Sexuality assertive behaviour by women is penalised by law. The battle for women's sexual rights, thereof women – recognising the specific discriminations against lesbians."

And if the lesbians get lucky, the joint war cry might just shatter the embarrassed silence that surrounds their existence.

(Some of the names have been changed)