Is homophobia ruining young lives in India?
By Amrita Mukherjee
The suicide of Priya Vedi on April 19, a doctor working in AIIMS, one of the premiere medical institutions in Delhi, has brought to the fore yet another aspect of the faulty social system in India, where people with alternative sexual preferences are forced to live a life of deception in a heterosexual marriage. Priya, in her suicide note and in a Facebook post has blamed her husband Kamal Vedi, also a doctor in AIIMS, for hiding his homosexuality from her before marriage and driving her to suicide by mentally torturing her.
Married for five years 31-year-old Priya wrote about her 34-year-old husband Kamal on Facebook:
We don’t have any physical relation till now… I found a fake gmail account in his laptop in which he was doing chatting with his gay friends and these messages were before of our marriage (sic). In spite of knowing this I decided to help him, to be as a wife with him. But he tortured me a lot mentally… And last night he tortured me emotionally so I am unable to take breath with him… You are not a human being you are a devil, who take away my life from me (sic).”
In fact, days before Priya, a Bengali television actress Disha Ganguly based in Kolkata also committed suicide by hanging herself in her room. Speculations are rife that it was her sexual relationship with another actress and the social stigma surrounding it, including objection from her own parents that drove her to commit suicide.
While same sex marriages are becoming accepted in many countries in the world and homosexuality is being accepted as a norm, same sex relationships continue to be a taboo in Indian society.
I remember it was in the late nineties when I had just joined journalism and I was assigned to do a feature on the situation of the LGBT community in India. Most of the people I met were closet gays. Barring a handful, who had the support of their parents and had come out, most lived in the fear of being discovered. We met around five men at a gay activist’s home and while doing their in-depth interviews, a female co-worker and I got really late. Our interviewees were kind enough to accompany us to a taxi stand and ensure two women went home safe. But days later when I met one of my interviewees in front of a park in South Kolkata he refused to recognize me.
I could understand his predicament. He feared being discovered, feared if I ended up asking him how his gay life was going. This is a fear that is the constant companion of most gay people living in India. In fact, during the course of the interviews some lesbians wouldn’t even give us their name they just spoke over the phone.
While all of them told us how difficult it was for them to survive as homosexuals in a society where parents even got traumatized to know about their children’s sexual preferences, one thing that they all unanimously said was they were all under immense family pressure to get married and some even said that they knew they would not be able to hold on too long and they might have to give in to an unhappy marriage to make their family happy.
Gay men forced into heterosexual marriages, is an issue that has been already touched upon by filmmakers like Madhur Bhandarkar in Fashion and Reema Kagti in Honemoon Travels. In Fashion a gay fashion designer gets into a contractual marriage with a model just to appease his mom and in Honeymoon Travels an NRI man connects with a woman on the internet, comes to India and gets married to her. They go on a honeymoon in Goa where she finds out he is gay. The film ends where she accepts his homosexuality with a smile but does not go into what happens after that.
In fact, the suicide of Priya Vedi, might have suddenly brought to the fore this reality, that many women have been living in India for centuries. Being trapped in an arranged marriage where the man is a homosexual is a common aspect in India, only women don’t talk about it and hence no one gets to know.
Someone I know got a divorce at least 15 years back after she discovered her husband was gay after 10 years of marriage. They had two daughters by then.
Like her there have been women who have chosen to end their marriages instead of ending their own lives, as Priya did. Since 2010 there have been more than two dozen divorce cases all over India where women have sought an end to the marriage because they could provide proof that their husbands were gay and their marriages were not consummated.
In 2014 a Bangalore-based dentist actually filmed her husband in bed with another man with a spycam. When she complained to the police the man was booked under Section 377 IPC, a section which looks at homosexuality as a criminal offence in India.
Staying in the closet
But most men who get into a heterosexual marriage prefer to hide under the veneer of a normal social life because stigmatization against the homosexual community is so vicious in India that anyone who talks openly about his or her sexual preferences is bound to embark on a lifetime of misery, as it happened with one of the most famous filmmakers Rituparno Ghosh.
The director made touching films on the subject of homosexuality and the mental struggle that people have to go through to find their own footing in the society. He had no qualms in showing off his sexual preferences in the clothes and make-up he wore. As a result what happened, suddenly the only thing that the media and cine goers wanted to talk about was his sexuality and his entire body of work that boasts of National Awards and some landmark Indian films was pushed to the background. Rituparno Ghosh died of a heart attack in 2013. Many people close to him say that the mental torment that he faced day-in and day-out to make his sexuality acceptable hastened the decline of his physical health. But he was one of the few celebrities in India who dared to wear his sexuality on his sleeves.
The dichotomous stand of Indian society on homosexuality continues to show in online communities where the pictures of a lesbian marriage in the U.S., where one of the partners Seema, was Indian, drew million likes and shares, but if the woman or man next door talks about his or her sexual preferences he would inevitably face jibes and questions that would become distressing.
I know an immensely successful Indian gentleman, who is settled in the U.S. and lives in with a man with whom he comes down to India for his holidays. He has never tried to hide his boyfriend but neither has he written on his T-shirt “I am gay” and walked around Kolkata streets. But that has not stopped family and friends, from asking him or his parents, why at 45 he hasn’t yet got married. Sometimes the questions are asked in front of the boyfriend.
Delhi High Court upholds punishment
As more and more societies in the world are accepting same-sex relationships and marriages the gay movement that had gained steam in early 2000 had seen hope in the Delhi High Court ruling where they said that Section 377, which holds sex between people of the same sex punishable by law to be unconstitutional in the case of consenting adults. But all hopes were dashed by the Supreme Court judgment in 2013 which upheld Section 377 IPC, said that consensual sexual acts of same-sex adults in private is a criminal offence.
According to the data collected by National Crime Records Bureau in January 2015, 778 cases were filed under Section 377 of IPC and 587 arrests were made in 2014.
In a situation like this it is but inevitable that more and more homosexuals would prefer to hide than come out. In certain professions like fashion, filmmaking, advertising, journalism homosexuals are still accepted as co-workers and performers but in professions like law, medicine, education or even the police or army, wearing your homosexuality on your sleeves might mean professional harakari.
How many patients would a doctor get if people get to know he is gay? Chances are none. In reality his professional prowess might have nothing to do with his sexual preference but in a country like India lopsided realities become the determining factor than logical reasoning.
In fact, the recent banning of the movie Un-Freedom, a movie dealing with homosexuality made by Florida-based director Raj Amit Kumar, go on to show how deep homophobia runs in the Indian system leading to complications that could have been easily avoided with a bit of understanding and acceptance.
Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com