April 10, 2020
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The persecuted gay community in India now finds a timely sanctuary in the virtual world


HOMOSEXUALITY, that dreaded word. How does one deal with an alternative sexuality, knowing that it's taboo and unacceptable to almost everyone. Often including yourself. It doesn't matter how educated you are or how rich you are or even how cool your attitude is, but being gay hits you hard in the face. A double wham-my which hurts for a long long time. Support then becomes crucial for a gay person. Reaching out, with just that objective, is 32-year-old "with it" businessman Anuj Chatterjee, with India's first gay website: members.tripod.com/gaynewdelhi.

The site started, appropriately enough, to announce a party, an important part of the gay culture. Says Chatterjee, "I felt that a lot of people didn't know where to get in touch or how to get information." So, a one-page party map site saw numerous expansions, now to boast of as many as 75 links, with many new ones being added all the time. The reason for its quick growth and success (it gets a small but steady average of 400 hits a day) is the isolation that most gays experience for a large part of their lives. Says gay counsellor Bikram Rana, "The site is a great boon. I know a lot of people who are 50-60 years old and were pushed into marriage who now seek solace in the site."

 Solace is the primary function of this seven-month-old site. Gays still in the closet or in small towns without the kind of access that their Mumbai and Delhi chums enjoy are the main beneficiaries. The site is the first link in a small chain of support systems that the community is trying to get into place. The site, for instance, gives information about the Humrahi Trust, Delhi's gay support group, which holds its meetings every Saturday and runs a helpline every Monday and Thursday for two hours in the evening. Says 22-year-old David Sternn, who is part of the trust, "The website and the helpline help people who have a lot of misconceptions."

The most common of those being: 'Will masturbation turn me blind? Is homosexuality a disease? Can it be cured? Is it brought about by poor parenting or lack of religious beliefs?' Chatterjee, who runs the site single-handedly ("it doesn't take much money as the site is free. So, it's just the cost of my phone bills and Net about two hours every night updating the site.

But the site's core is its coming-out stories and emphasis on safe sex. These are the two most emotive issues that concern most gays. "Outing" even in the most liberated families is at best traumatic. Rakesh Sharma was 28 when he decided to come out. His mother, convinced that homeopathic treatment would "cure" her son, insisted on him taking the requisite dose of drugs daily. A heart-wrenching appeal and many tears later, she realised her mistake.

The site has many such experiences posted on it. A banker with a high-profile multinational shares his experience with a persistent, brawny Bollywood hero who refused to accept the termination of their relationship and threatened blackmail, a Damocles' sword hanging over the head of many closeted gays. There's also the story of Rahul and Vivek, their discovery of each other and the final desertion of Rahul who obeys his parents, marries and even fathers a child.

The heartbreak, the difficulty of finding a "safe" partner or even interacting with people of similar inclination are everyday problems that the stories address. Often, the writing ends up as a cathartic experience for the writer. Says Viresh Shah, a 36-year-old garment exporter who wrote one such piece, "The public perception of gays is that of drag queens, chhakkas or hijras (eunuchs); so, there's a genuine fear of coming out. I didn't write my story entirely for therapeutic reasons, but to some extent it helps you deal with your life." Elaborating on what his other compulsions were, he says, "I feel strongly about coming out. One reason for writing was that life can be wonderful when you come out. I wanted others to see that coming out is great." Chatterjee, though, tries to keep some kind of editorial check ensuring that these stories offer hope. He says, "It's important that the site helps all those who access it. I added this section as I feel it can also be a platform for gay literature."

The site has a chat room and a classifieds section not just for meeting but even for jobs and shelter. Says Aneesh Bhatia, a 20-year-old student, "Some parents react unpleasantly. So, many people are thrown out of their homes when they tell their parents about their sexuality." Jobs too can be scarce.

But, as is common with gays, the site so far has been kept low-profile for fear of prosecution. Indian law under section 377 of the IPC still considers homosexuality to be a punishable offence. Also, the Shiv Sena's strident stand on Fire, a movie with a lesbian theme, and the recent raid by the Mumbai police on a gay party have led the community to close ranks even further. So, this site will not tell you about the parties or even the best meeting places for gays. That knowledge is still classified.

The success of this venture (Chatterjee is contemplating taking advertisements soon) has led to the launch of another site in Mumbai about two months ago. But there are some criticisms. Says Dharmendra Suri, a 40-year-old academician, "Though the site is very handy, I find that it doesn't have a political agenda. And I think that it has a lot to do with the fact that the section it addresses is young and yuppie and isn't really politicised."

Others point out that only those with access to a computer and a Net connection and privacy will be able to benefit from it. Says Piyush Chauhan, a 34-year-old designer, also has reservations about the content. Says he, "There is too much stuff borrowed from the West. In India, the issue is already decided for us. I also feel the world view of smaller towns should be included. The gays there are more isolated." Defends Chatterjee, "I live in Delhi, I can only put stuff that I am familiar with."

 Isolation, fear, rejection, harassment are all part of a closeted existence. This site is the first link for gays willing to communicate with the world without the fear of reprisal. Says Suri, "The site was inevitable. Its value lies in the fact that it establishes the Indian gay's presence on the Net." A small step, but a step nonetheless.

Names have been changed to protect identities.Humrahi's telephone numbers are: 6851970/71. The lines are operational on Mondays and Thursdays between 6.30 pm and 9.30 pm

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