August 05, 2020
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Women Without Men

Lesbianism is not alien to India. Yet contemporary women face growing intolerance. Is it due to male insecurity?

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Women Without Men

That the lady is a woman, and I
Who lie so close beside her, am her lover
The stars will not shriek, will make no outcry,
The stars are sensible, and would not sever
Woman from woman or lover from lover

The Lion Skin by Suniti Namjoshi

THEY are the faceless, nameless ones. Often single. Many times, married. More often than not, NOT the hip trendsetting fashion designer or chef, graphic designer or Intach artsy. Just good old home-folk types: somebody's wife, anybody's sister, the knitter-natter-grandma-at-home, the bai that sweeps your floor, the matronly teller that cashes your cheque at State banks. They don't live in metropolitan highrises or penthouses alone, these lesbians, but in urban and rural, small-town and upcountry, lower and upper middle-class homes in Garhwal and Patiala, Bombay and Burdwan, Kochi and Chennai, Lucknow and Ludhiana.... And no, they're NOT who they are because MTV made them so.

"Cut out the exotica, esoterica," groans one articulate, incredibly resolved, self-confessed 'privileged' lesbian. "That kind of slotting projects a very real matter-of-fact human condition into an other-world, other-realm, hothouse malaise category". Name withheld on request, not because she seeks to be under wraps but because of reservations about being featured with lesbians whose politics and

projection methodologies she obviously vehemently disagrees with. The Indian Lesbian Movement has gone beyond mere closet or OUT, passion and preferential issues. Today, Lesbian Politics is the stuff of academic discourse, heated passionate debate and dissent within diverse lesbian organisa-tions arguing over modes and methodologies, forms and formulations of acknowledgement, acceptance and dissent.

Even as Fire-branding Thackeray thugs and theologists at Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Surat snort: "lesbianism and homosexuality came in with the converts, with the westerners, with the colonialists", women across the feminist spectrum are flashing back. "Have these people even read the sacred texts, known the traditions they evoke as clamour and cliché to persecute and intimidate?" asks Delhi-based Geeti Thadani, 37, lesbian and out-activist, writer and researcher, whose lesbianism has resulted in her being abused, beaten, threatened, burgled, heckled, reviled, almost disowned by family at the various and difficult stages of her tumultuous life. "What of the explicitly lesbian Radha Vallabhi traditions, Jaminiya Brahmin same-sex love tales, the concept of same-sex loving called shayatam/ svah isht painting, the evidence in theatre, cinema, painting, folk lore, life itself?" she asks.

 So the Indian lesbian exists. Then as now. Painter Bhupen Khakhar is categorical. "Of course she always existed. It's evident in the way you see women fondling each other. It's safe as long as it's not declared." Delhi-based Geetan Batra conducted a survey, circa 1993, of 100-odd small-town female emigres to metros and uncovered startling facts: 20 per cent had had lesbian experiences, most were married, many fantasised, hankered for lesbian relationships. "It would be more fulfilling emotionally, sexually, besides women don't kiss and tell," said many. Nargis Irani, an NRI lesbian activist, remarks: "Go to women's school and college hostels here. It's Saturnalia! At least 20 of the 200 women at the Delhi Pro-Fire protest were upfront lesbians."

The Poser. Was it ever easier to be Indian and lesbian? "To ask that isbeing simplistic," answers Irani. "This wasn't researched, compiled ever. The context is so diverse, the issues so complex, there's no way we can formulate easier or harder answers."

Yet, socio-historical data supports the belief that being lesbian was never easy anytime in patriarchal India—a country that has no term in the lexicon to describe gay women nor found them fit to deserve mention even in anti-homosexuality

laws, thereby doubly illegitimising and invisibilising them. Unless, as Kali for Women publisher Ritu Menon points out, it had patriarchal sanction—as with the Sindhi Waderas. "Landlords would marry off daughters scheduled to inherit vast properties to the Quran. Next they were provided humjolis or lady companions to spend lives, cohabitate with. Mostly Abyssinian slaves whose kinsfolk you still see in Gir in Gujarat". Such 'sanctioned' lesbianism was about what theatre director Anuradha Kapur calls the "aversion of the patriarchal gaze, a willed unawareness". A reaction that may have been economically, strategically suitable. "Invisibility is the only safe space," observes Delhi-based helpline counsellor Meena Tagore. "When sexualisation of space happens, problems happen." Says Aparajita, another Delhi-based lesbian: "Put me in a kurta, long earrings, I'll pass off as straight. Lots of women can't. They bear the brunt of being different. Where are their safe spaces? They don't exist." And how do women deal with lesbophobic aggressiveness, heckling? "I prefer to keep it non-confrontational. Distance myself," reveals Tagore.

Tellingly, even lesbians who throw themselves in the line of fire, agitate, are reluctant to 'come out' to family. Courage of conviction, manifest in collective cause action, fails many when it involves outlining their life choices to families. Reasons offered are valid, complex, varied: fear, social ostracism, desire to "not hurt" parents, absence of iconic role models.... "Who's out of the closet? All you have is film actress Rekha saying she's not against trying women," says Aparajita.

 But has media-generated awareness, the signboards along the Age of Information Highway helped the lesbian cause, helped acceptance any? Irani is ambivalent. "It's harder in some ways, easier in others. The new awareness also erodes the safe spaces. Paradoxically, there's comfort in support groups, communities, the coalitions we've built."

For most lesbians today, the issues go beyond mere sexuality, though sex and how they find it remains a big and troubled question. Sex remains a matter of furtive gropings, of a life lived in the shadows. Appalling for a majority of women not necessarily into casual sex by virtue of their sexuality. "That massagewali is not much different from the male masseur," who offers sexual fringe benefits, observes Irani wryly. Thadani is articulating an angst voiced by many of her ilk on Delhi-based Radhika Chandiramani's sexual health helpline Tarshi, when she asks: "Where are our meeting/cruising places? Where can we meet one of our kind?" In such situations, women seek beauty parlour sex that a college-going lesbian describes as "pedicures going well beyond the thighs". Many lesbians jamming helplines talk of adolescent dread—a fear that continues well into adulthood—of combating their deemed 'abnormalcy', of the no-one-to-talk-to situation, of enforced heterosexuality, of the inability to even mourn the loss or death of the loved one for who, if ever, would understand? Of lesbianism viewed as politics of the last resort for the 'ugly' woman, rather than conscious preference. As Delhi-based Karuna says: "Some friends think I moved in with a woman because no man would have me, that I'm lesbian because I'm fat, hairy." She breaks off uncertainly: "Sometimes I begin to believe that myself."

Why lesbophobia? Aparajita resorts to gallows humour to make a telling comment on male lesbophobia: "Only lesbians and nuns live autonomous lives without men. Nuns depend on the Pope. Lesbians only on themselves. Very male-threatening." Bangalore-based playwright Mahesh Dattani makes an astute comment: "For a woman to express sexuality is itself taboo. Transgressive sexuality even more so. Now she is a pro-active creature rather than passive receptor. Threat perceptions happen." Irani elaborates on Aparajita's point. "Not being needed can be frightening for men. So also the inability to influence Her, for men so used to being the sine qua non in women's lives." An interesting sidelight: 36 per cent men in an American survey revealed they were aroused by lesbian lovemaking fantasies. "But the idea of two women making love not for the pleasure of the male but for their own is threatening," says Irani.

Not men alone. Lesbians suffer female homophobic reaction too, reveals Irani. "Often, those of us who don't lead lives that lead into heterosexual patterns serve as a threat to women who haven't questioned the choices they've made. Due to fear, lack of exposure, opportunity." At times a lesbian's lived experiences serve as points of departure for the journeys straight women make into their own subconscious. Says Aparajita: "Lesbians are not like vampires, waiting. My own cousin stays in a loveless marriage. She thinks she needs a man to survive, though she works. Looking at us sometimes starts them on their own journey. Things open up. Some wonderful, some unpleasant. But they free you. Just knowing there's a community out there, living it as best as they can is empowering."

Not that homophobia alone generates the distorted image of the Ugly Lesbian/Gay, points out Akhila Sivadas of the Center For Advocacy and Research, a media watchdog overseeing representational anomalies. "Media swings range from virtual invisibility to mega visibility in times of crisis." Minority groups are only seen as placard-waving circus creatures in circus situations. What of their off-screen lives? Their problems, issues, in times of non-tumult? The solution? Consistent rather than photo opportunity-oriented reportage.

Lesbian concerns today? TOI Agony Uncle/psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh says the majority of his lesbian mail articulates women's reluctance "to live sham lives". Irani's stance reflects a maturing of concerns: "Our lives are about much more than death threats. In an Info-Age our spaces of silence will be taken away from us. We must decide how we're going to negotiate new spaces." That involves a redefining of lesbian as distinct from feminist agendas. "Many of us felt comfortable operating within the Women's Movement space as single feminists, as we thought coming out as lesbians would destroy that semblance even of unity." No longer. "Today we don't believe that things you can say as feminists could also be said as lesbians. Feminists would say it's okay to talk of female rather lesbian sexuality. Okay in the abstract, but when you get down to the nitty gritty: property, adoption rights, it's more complex. Then all that women's sexuality debates will get you is a big fat zero." For her, it's heartening that "when I stood announcing my sexuality at the Fire protest, straight women complimented me for my stance".

To the Indian Lesbian, her sexuality is no longer the "hip statement of the month", but, as they say, part of a daily, lived political reality. As one activist put it: "Lesbianism is not something you leave in bed when you get up and out in the morning." Going by the evidence, the Indian lesbian is no longer content to be confined to a silent, shadowy, furtive private space but all set to storm and assume her rightful public space.

(Some names are changed to protect privacy.)

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