A hush-hush commitment ceremony in buzzing Bangalore eight years ago seemed strangely naive, even out of place. No family from either side, no friends or relatives; just the two partners preparing to take the plunge. Silver rings and vows were exchanged, a cake was cut, and music wafted into the ears of the ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ through earphones leashed to a Walkman. After three months of intense dating, exchanging lengthy billets-doux on floppy discs, and guilt-free confessions on the phone, Smruthi Narayan, 30, was coming around to say ‘I do’ in the privacy of a farm on the city’s outskirts to, hold it, Shwetha Pai, 29.
They met and got close while in college in Bangalore. There was a period of long-distance courtship too when Shwetha moved to Chennai to study journalism. “On crowded weekends, I used to wangle a bus seat next to the driver’s at half the fare just so that I could go to Chennai to meet her,” recounts Smruthi of those heady days. As the relationship matured, the bright young couple shifted to Hyderabad and have now bought a house there. “We have already started making post-retirement plans. Shwetha is someone I want to grow old with,” says Smruthi.
As Smruthi, with her sturdy frame, close-cropped hair and an evidently butch persona describes her electric chemistry with her introvert partner, the door opens into the fascinating world of lesbian couples who have ‘come out’. “Coming out is a continuous process,” she says. “Every time I meet someone new, I have to reveal myself all over again. It’ll be a lifelong process till homosexuality is seen to be as natural as heterosexuality.” Their parents couldn’t understand their sexual orientation and don’t talk to them. They have largely snapped ties with the rest of their family too. “I’ve told my parents that if I am ever allowed to marry anyone, it’ll only be Smruthi, yet the threats from the family continue,” says Shwetha. There is always the fear that someone—and not just from the family—will get physically violent with them someday. Above all lurks the fear of the social stigma attached to being a lesbian.
Currently, both of them work in online advertising. Smruthi and Shwetha revealed their relationship to their colleagues at an off-site office team-building camp. This helped them sensitise people at their workplace. Outside work, there’s a cheerful ghetto where they meet their friends from the community to discuss, ideate and even host peace parties. It’s a haven whose facade boasts affable bright pink walls studded with posters, minimalist designs and a large verandah overlooking a rock garden. On the more practical side, adoption, medical insurance and joint loans remain obstacles, but the couple is quite upbeat. “Knowing each other’s passwords helps. Also, we don’t want to wind up being a couple obsessed with kids,” says Shwetha. Up next: a settlement on property. “Later, we will look for a community home with a nice lake and lots of greenery.” Smruthi adds: “If it’s legally allowed, we’ll get married. If not, we’ll have one big splash wedding. Whose life is it anyway?”
A lot more lesbian couples are now taking the tentative steps of coming out. Many first talk to their intimate set of friends about how they are wired. Then they let it be known to close colleagues in the workplace. The family is a big step; they talk to the most broad-minded member first, use their help to break the news to the parents. “If we don’t take the step forward, how can we even expect people to be less homophobic?” asks Sonali, who has been living openly in a lesbian relationship in Calcutta. But it’s still a very tough call. Of the scores of lesbian couples we spoke to across cities, only a handful were willing to talk about their lives. Fewer still were willing to be featured with their real identities, let alone be photographed. Even lesbian couples in the more liberal professions such as advertising, journalism and fashion were not willing to come out. It’s a real invisible community, right among us, whose lives have rarely been documented. Most of them would rather be left alone, but some, like Sonali, feel it’s time they pulled off the shroud of shame. She has been living with her partner Alka for the past three years, along with her 18-year-old son from a previous marriage. “Rishabh and I are the best of friends. We regularly have fights over pizzas, computer games and clicking photographs. He leans on me,” says Sonali, 39, a former marketing executive. Her son—a real-life counterpart of the character Laser in the Hollywood film, The Kids Are All Right—is cool with the idea of his mother living with another woman.
Rishabh, in fact, hosted an informal engagement party for them at a plush restaurant in Mumbai. “It’s best to disregard taunts from classmates and neighbours,” says the teenager. At home, Alka, who used to run a catering business, plays the dominant role, ensuring that meals are on time and the house is spanking clean. But are others liberal enough to accept the “new” family? Not really, says Sonali, recalling how a travel operator had refused a holiday package to them because of their undefinable relationship. “Managing a relationship status is not a problem if you have the money. So financial independence is a must for a lesbian couple to keep sharks at bay. It’s sad but true,” she says. The lesbian couples we managed to encourage to speak out are all from cities and from middle-class families. The problems they face in poorer, rural settings can only be imagined.
A Day In The Life Of Sonali And Alka
- 8 am Alka wakes up, makes tea, prepares breakfast for her 18-year-old son Rishabh, packs his lunch
- 9 am Alka drops Rishabh to his multimedia class, before returning
- 10 am Alka wakes Sonali up. Prepares breakfast for her.
- 11 am Have breakfast together, plan the day
- 12 noon Alka goes to the bazaar, checks on groceries, medicine supply
- 1 pm Sonali pays off bills, checks letters and other official work
- 2-3 pm Have lunch together and take their afternoon nap
- 4-7 pm Since both are self-employed, they work from home, correspond through mails
- 7 pm Alka takes their dog out for a walk. Rishabh comes back home and Sonali and Rishabh have their evening snack together.
- 8 pm Alka goes to the gym. Being the president of the ladies committee in her complex, she meets the members of the housing complex, plans events, programmes.
- 9 pm Alka, Sonali and Rishabh watch TV together. Often Rishabh’s friends come over.
- 10 pm Have dinner together. Rishabh goes to bed.
- 11 pm Sonali and Alka read, chat
- 12 midnight Bedtime
Against all odds, more lesbian couples are emerging from the shadows of LGBT pride parades, rainbow conventions and clandestine meets, shedding the garb of their semi-secret lives. Coming out is as tough as you make it out to be, feels Monu Pipal, a property developer in Delhi. The assertive, independent, 31-year-old woman met her partner Shelly Simon four years ago at a wedding. The “hatke jodi”, as they call themselves, believe in living for the moment. “We’ve both been very self-sufficient, so our families are quite relaxed about our relationship. We even get invited to parties as a couple and my friends refer to my partner as bhabhiji,” she beams. But Monu had to trade her regular job for the construction business to avoid gossip from colleagues. Shelly, short and demure, is a guitar teacher and prefers to spend time with her students. Monu and Shelly’s mantra is quite simple: steer clear of neighbours, rally friends around yourselves and take problems as they come. “Why stress yourself over bank accounts, pension, PFs or property? When the time is right, we’ll find a way. We’ve even thought of adopting a child,” says Monu. The differences in background, religion and political views have only added to the zing in their relationship, they say. Both outdoorsy, they rarely spend weekends in the city and often go hiking. And when in Delhi, it’s about drifting through shopping arcades, churning out exotic red wine recipes, or just chilling out at home. “What we want is a secure home, lots of money, happiness and kids,” says Shelly. Just like any other couple.
Lesbian relationships like Monu and Shelly’s are precious to find in our country, so couples who are in one cherish it dearly. Most of them are ‘one-woman women’. They are in it for the long term with complete commitment. Also, many in the LGBT community feel lesbian relationships are more stable than that of gay couples who are thought to be more promiscuous. “There’s more fidelity and honesty among them than gay men, where physical attraction plays a big role. While men are built for discontinuity, women are made for continuity,” says gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi. Manjari and Radhika, a lesbian couple from Bharuch, agree. “The first time we met at an ancestral bungalow, we kissed and knew that this is for keeps. The sexual pull was hard to control, and liberating. Now, the passion is much more intense.” They have been attracted to each other right from their school days but had the nerve to accept it and get into a relationship only recently. Radhika was married before and has a son. “Living with a woman is much easier and safer. We don’t have to deal with the male ego,” she says. Their son Sunil may be just seven, but he’s quite happy having his two mothers come along for his annual functions and meetings in school. “It’s what you grow up with. As time goes by, there’s bound to be questions in his head, but eventually it’s the love that counts. And why does it need to come only from a man-woman relationship?” wonders Manjari.
For most lesbian couples, however, the support system is more fragile compared to heterosexual couples or even gay men. “The social stigma associated with lesbianism is very high. A lot of work has to be done if they want to live together. There are very few like-minded people they can turn to if there is a personal crisis or emotional turmoil,” says Maya from Sangini India Trust. What makes it worse is the lack of legal protection. The courts have several times declared that two adults are free to live with each other and no one is entitled to harass them, but the law does not recognise a homosexual marriage. Gay people, therefore, can’t inherit each other’s property or get life insurance, are not treated as next of kin by hospitals or schools, can’t adopt together, get visas as married couples, and so on. “Yes, all these problems exist. Property devolution is always a problem, while discrimination against couples is rampant. Often families harass them with support from the police,” says Anand Grover, senior advocate and director of Lawyers Collective. After years of struggle by the LGBT community in the US, only this week has their supreme court passed a law making gay marriages legal in some states. How long India will have to wait is anybody’s guess—it was only as recently as 2009 that the Delhi High Court ruled that homosexual acts among consenting adults is not a crime and not punishable. Before that, the over-150-year-old Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code said it was.
So, yes, it’s not easy living in a lesbian relationship. Does it put an extra strain on the couples, and are some of them in it just for a momentary high? “No way,” says Chandrayee, a 22-year-old pursuing her masters in sociology in Calcutta. “We’ll be completing two years this month and even our families know about us. We’ve made plans for exotic vacations, tried opening a joint account and plan to buy our house soon. It’s only a matter of time before I’m financially independent.” Even though her family, friends and professors tried to dissuade her, Chandrayee has stuck to her guns. Her partner, Reshmi, who’s training with the Calcutta police, feels the same. “We’ve invested too much. How can we just let it go?”
- Opposition from families can be verbal, physical and enduring; loose tongues and leering eyes subject couples to daily gossip and scandal
- India doesn’t recognise same-sex marriages, so there is no protection in case of domestic and other violence, no alimony in case of break-up
- Lesbian couples, like male couples, can’t adopt kids in India; if they raise a child together, only one of them is recognised as a ‘parent’
- Lack of legal fallback means neither can inherit the other’s property, or be a nominee in life or medical insurance, pension or provident fund
- Neither partner in a lesbian relationship is recognised as ‘next of kin’ by hospitals or schools, putting pressure on them to fall back on family and friends
- Housing societies look down on tenants and house buyers who are not openly ‘traditional families’; lesbians are forced to keep their relationship surreptitious
- Homosexual couples can’t open joint bank accounts, take loans, or buy property together unlike their heterosexual counterparts
- At death, neither partner in a lesbian relationship can take decisions on the funeral, as she’s deemed to be a ‘legal stranger’ to her.
By Priyadarshini Sen in Hyderabad and New Delhi