Kerala has only a progressive veneer. You only need to scratch its skin to see that notions of alternate sexuality and associated terms like gay and lesbian—supposed to be acceptable forms of sexual behaviour in an emancipated collective consciousness—are pejoratives. Such is the social stigma that a lesbian couple—Shaibi (22) and Prema (23)—who were granted permission to live together by a magistrate's court in Thrissur last fortnight, have gone underground now. No one, not even their families, know their whereabouts. The girls seem to have literally vanished without a trace.
The media attention the case attracted has apparently forced the girls to leave their home and quit their jobs. And for the nursing agency that employed them, mum's the word. Activists working with lesbians accuse the media for going overboard in its reporting. Says Devaki Menon of Sahayatrika, a counselling agency for lesbians in Thiruvananthapuram: "This happens when the media steps in. Media attention always has a negative impact." Other activists also accuse the media of sensationalising a very sensitive and personal issue. Points out an activist: "Whenever the media publicises such incidents, the couple is forced to separate. It's an individual choice which doesn't have any social sanction and court verdicts can't make it acceptable."
Shaibi was working with a nursing agency in Poovathur, Thrissur, when she met Prema three months ago. It was love at first sight. The two decided to live together. When Shaibi's family lost contact with her, they became frantic. Her brother filed a complaint with the East Police Station, Thrissur, in an attempt to find his missing sister. The police traced Shaibi to Poovathur and found that she was living with Prema, another nurse. Both the girls were produced before the first-class judicial magistrate in Thrissur.
In court, the girls "revealed their intense love for each other and pleaded (on their own without a lawyer) for the court's sanction to live together". The court obliged by according them the right to live together, the right of any two adults guaranteed under the Constitution.
Though legally they were on a strong ground, the girls had to leave Poovathur. Lesbians don't declare their sexual preference openly. Even Sahayatrika is contacted through the web or through phone or letters. Only a few come in person to seek advice. Says Menon: "There's very little positive information available on sexual minorities (people with same-sex attraction or different gender identification). They are socially stigmatised." Adds Maithreyan, who works with sex workers and for homosexual rights: "They are a sexual minority, though a US survey said one out of 10 persons is a homosexual. We are trying to reinforce their right to lead a life together, we are trying to transmit a positive message because it's positive to love and live together, instead of getting caught in a disastrous marriage."
According to activists, Kerala does have its share of lesbians who lead very frustrating lives. For, even those who find partners see themselves trapped in a relationship that has no social sanction. This frustration is manifest in the increasing number of women going in for sex-change surgery. Recently, at the Medical Trust Hospital, Kochi, 12 women wanted a sex change and the motivating factor was their urgency to legitimise living together with their partners. Points out Dr C.J. John, psychiatrist at the hospital: "I found that most of these women, who came for screening to me before the actual operation, were actually trans-sexuals, males trapped in a female body and they were seeking the male identity because of their sexual orientation. The multiple surgery demands a multitude of very painful operations, testosterone injection to promote hair distribution and reconstructive penile surgery. But they bravely bear it, just to acquire the male facade and combat the social taboo."
According to him, after undergoing surgery, such couples invariably migrate to places far away from their home-towns to escape a guilt that has been imposed upon them in the form of societal mores. Most women who approach Sahayatrika are similarly guilt-ridden. Says Maithreyan: "We discovered that there is a sizeable number of lesbians in Kerala when we were conducting a survey to organise commercial sex workers. Some of them come to our counselling centre, Thrani, especially from the poorer sections and we try to reassure and convince them that there is nothing wrong in having a different sexual orientation. After all, they are only seeking love, not war."
Kerala tops the suicide chart in India and many female suicides are suspected to be lesbians. Yet, lesbianism is still behind a veil—unacknowledged and unaccepted.