|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 27, 2004|
|SOCIETY & THE ARTS: SEXUAL MINORITIES|
|Mixed Doubles |
A same-sex marriage and a Lesbian Day celebration create a storm and underline how homosexuals are asserting their rights
Two conservative Indian cities. Two unconventional tales. Last week, in the thick of the wedding season, a time of flamboyance and festivity in Punjab, the most conspicuous marriage was not the flashiest or the most extravagant. It was an unusual and defiant defence of personal rights by two girls, now talked about as Amritsar's lesbian couple. Twenty-five-year-old Raju eloped with 22-year-old Mala, a childhood sweetheart, married her in a Delhi temple and took her home to Amritsar. She stood proudly by her decision and her blushing "bride", as her reluctant mother looked on.
Far away in Thiruvananthapuram, another Indian city that territorially guards conservatism, hundreds of gays, lesbians and transvestites danced with abandon at the Museum Auditorium in the heart of the city. It was December 4, the day celebrated as Lesbian Day or Pranayinikalute Divasam by the sexual minorities of Kerala. Men dressed up as coquettish women and women flaunting machismo revelled, trying to free themselves from the identity traps of their bodies. They ignored the law, the naysayers, the critics and the moral police. Another Raju, also a 25-year-old, added to this story of confident rebellion. "I am on hormone tablets. I'll go to Bangalore soon for the complete surgery which will make me a woman. For just Rs 35,000 for the operation, I will gain freedom from my male body," he said displaying his growing breasts inside his T-shirt.
It is not just freedom from the body that the gay people of India are seeking. They want freedom from social hate and denial. Even now, the people of Amritsar accuse Raju and Mala of a bizarre union, fuelled by the "bad influence" of the Bollywood film Girlfriend that portrayed a lesbian relationship. Some psychologists too term it a deviant indulgence. But the girls are defiant. "We don't care about society and only death can separate us," says Raju, the tomboyish daughter of a middle-class Jat Sikh family, who is "husband" to the docile Mala and clearly the "man" in the relationship. While Raju wears her hair short, is clad in trousers and a jacket and rides a motorcycle, Mala, a submissive girl in a salwar-kameez, shows off her "chooda" (red wedding bangles) and sindoor, the traditional symbols of marriage.
Their worried families first informed the police which produced them in the local court. The court, however, allowed them to live "like friends" on the grounds that both were adults. But a legal expert points out that their union has no legal sanction. The girls threaten suicide if separated. While Mala's family is hostile, curiously, this incident has not evoked any reaction from the city's religious fundamentalists.
This grudging acceptance resonates in Thiruvananthapuram as well. "This is the best day of my life. Dressed as a woman, I am kissing my friends in front of the policemen whom we always feared," said Bubu from Kozhikode, who works in the Middle East as a mechanic. Unlike Punjab, Kerala has seen the slow but sure evolution of a gay movement. Now, there are at least three lesbian helplines and a few gay organisations and other NGOs working for their civil rights. Not incidentally, Shree Nandu and Sheela, a much publicised lesbian couple of Kerala, have led the way with their stoic conviction about their rights. This despite the fact that Kerala society, in the words of Maithreyan of NGO FIRM, is "authoritarian, patriarchal and conservative when it comes to issues of sexuality".
In the face of staunch criticism and censure, these two unconnected incidents prove that Indian society can no longer categorise the assertion of gay rights as deviant sexual behaviour. These are choices of conviction by people committed to themselves and to each other.