Millennials and GenZs lead from the front to call out homophobia as a colonial hangover
A reproduction of a late-18th century miniature from Nagor by artist Kailash Raj (Photo: Alamy)
LESBIAN COUPLE FATHIMA NOORA, 23, and Adhila Nazrin, 22, heaved a sigh of relief on May 31 when the Kerala High Court allowed them to live together, snubbing close relatives who had forcibly taken away and detained the former at an unknown location with the purported connivance of a few policemen. They were both delighted that they could now live without any fear of family pressures. Their kin had assured the court that they would leave the duo alone. “They were separated by family, but united by the court,” notes women’s group Vanaja Collective, that has supported them in their legal fight and continues to keep them safe in the homes of friends and allies.
But the struggle had just begun, the couple in love soon realised. Apart from cyberattacks from all kinds of “fundamentalist sounding” social media groups and death threats on the phone and on messaging platforms, they are also being persuaded through various channels by at least a few members of their families to return and lead “normal lives”, the Collective told Open. The young couple had met and fallen in love as school students while in Saudi Arabia and got caught by their parents upon discovery of their text messages. They had returned home to Kerala for further education. Both went on to do their Bachelor’s in English in different districts under the watchful eyes of their parents but managed to stay in touch and escaped from home the day their final-year exams got over.
They took shelter at the office of Vanaja Collective in the northern district of Kozhikode before calling up their parents to break the news of their vow to live together. Parents on both sides refused to give up, and they managed to take away Noora for “conversion therapy” believing that homosexuality is a disease—until the court stepped in and put its foot down on a habeas corpus petition filed by the lovesick Nazrin. By then, both had applied for jobs with an MNC in Chennai that, like many large corporations in India, is respectful of LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual) rights and even encourages their employees to be open about their sexual preferences. “We are optimistic that they will both land jobs with one of the corporations in Chennai, especially this being Pride Month,” says a person associated with Vanaja Collective. Pride Month is celebrated in June in the US and elsewhere with festivities to mark the Stonewall Uprising—violent clashes between police and gay rights activists in New York on June 28, 1969. Most private sector companies in India encourage their LGBTQIA+ staff to take part in these celebrations.
Now, contrast the struggle of Noora and Nazrin with the freedom that 17-year-old Bengaluru-based Sakshi Vasan enjoys. When the Class 12 student, a gifted Bharatanatyam dancer, broke the news of her sexual orientation as a bisexual to her mother two years ago, she was pleasantly surprised by her parent accepting her choice. In a phone chat, this young girl who wants to study gender psychology and work among transgender people, speaks of the latest trends in the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, including why new categories get added to this classification every year. “The second Q in LGBTQ2+ stands for those still questioning their sexuality,” she says. There are also “agender” people who are not yet convinced where they belong.
Homosexuality or any kind of sexual orientation other than heterosexuality is today widely seen by a vast majority of Indians not only as sinful but also as an illness that needs to be treated
The world of Vasan is a more cosmopolitan and broadminded India—far from the homophobic one Noora, Nazrin, and many others were born in—where openness is accepted and even appreciated. Yet, both represent the new-found assertion on the part of people who do not want to conform to the sexuality binary that Vasan’s mother Preetha Vasan, who teaches the Master’s programme in English at a Bengaluru college, argues is borrowed from the Book of Genesis, the Biblical world of Adam and Eve. Montana University professor Ruth Vanita, an expert on Hindu philosophy and gender and sexuality studies, agrees with her, stating that “homophobia, the irrational fear and hatred of same-sex desire, was imported to Asia from Europe, and is now a worldwide phenomenon.”
Most notably, there are mentions of same-sex behaviour, including those of females, in ancient Indian history and architecture and in the centuries that followed—a biting reality that conservative families in modern India may find too difficult to fathom and contest. “Much before the amorous duos and inventive ménage à trois in stone of Khajuraho in central India and Konark in eastern India, the sculptors of ancient India had a field day moulding clay into heterosexual and same-sex postures…. Similar terracotta plaques have been found in Bengal. Occasionally, women are shown as lesbian lovers. Were these plaques meant to propagate elevated notions of enjoyment? Were they made to titillate male viewers? We don’t know, but they enjoyed wide popularity,” writes historian, author and Ashoka University professor Nayanjot Lahiri in her 2018 work, Time Pieces: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India.
For her part, Preetha Vasan who has authored a book of poems based on the Mahabharata, brings up episodes from the epics that talk of men and gods transforming into females or eunuchs. “Lord Vishnu becoming Mohini is one example. The other is of Arjuna becoming Brihannala, the eunuch who taught, during their exile, dance and music to Uttara, the daughter of the king of Virata, who had offered the Pandavas shelter. There are many more such references,” she asserts. Interestingly, one of Vasan’s short stories, which went on to win a national writing contest and is now part of an anthology of stories by women writers from across India, is about a young woman coming out to her mother and sister about her lesbian lover.
Open also spoke to Leila J Rupp, the distinguished professor of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, for her views on the difference between ancient and modern Indian attitudes toward lesbians. “One factor is that [lesbians] weren’t always recognised as a category of relationship, in part because what women did among themselves wasn’t considered important. Women who loved other women might be viewed just as friends or co-wives. Another possible explanation is that British colonial attitudes shaped homophobia in places that didn’t have such views,” she says.
Even if homophobia is a colonial hangover, it runs deep in contemporary India. This is why a same-sex female couple I met in south Delhi hasn’t mustered the guts to come out of the closet. “It is unthinkable to approach our families. They see us as friends,” says Radhika (name changed). She regrets that although she and her partner are financially independent, both do not want to shock their conservative parents. “Among lesbian partners of our age [in the late-30s], maybe, we are ourselves conservative compared with younger people who have the courage to speak openly about sexuality,” she says. Her partner, who had previously been through a traumatic and abusive marriage, shares, “Many Indian men and women have arranged marriages under family pressure, not choice.”
Notwithstanding ancient depictions of non-heteronormative sexuality in the epics and art, and a civilisation that largely turned a blind eye to what happened between women behind the walls of their own homes, homosexuality or any kind of sexual orientation other than heterosexuality is today widely seen by a vast majority of Indians not only as sinful but also as an illness that needs to be treated. That was the reason Noora was put through “conversion therapy.” Globally, the Christian rightwing was at the forefront of this approach by investing generously towards finding a solution for this “curable disorder.” But after decades of trying, they too, seem to have given up in the face of scientific studies that show that one’s sexual orientation is a result of various biological, environmental, and psychological factors, and cannot be altered through external measures.
Parents on both sides refused to give up, and they managed to take away Fathima Noora for ‘conversion therapy’ believing that homosexuality is a disease —until the court stepped in and put its foot down on a habeas corpus petition filed by the lovesick Adhila Nazrin
On the other hand, in the US, the fatherland of such “movements”, there has been a rise in the number of young people coming out of the closet, just as it is in India and the rest of the world. Such a global assertion of sexual rights has stirred legal wars to replace archaic laws to secure rights for the queer community, an umbrella term for all non-heterosexual people. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that the Supreme Court of India in 2018 ruled unconstitutional was part of the British colonial law enacted in 1861, modelled on the Buggery Act of 1533, that prevented the so-called unnatural forms of sex.
A legal triumph alone is not the end of a battle, however, and a grassroots movement for acquiring more rights for queer individuals will have to continue its efforts, says Anjali Gopalan of Naz Foundation, which played a pivotal role in the courts to finally get homosexuality decriminalised. Gopalan tells Open that those within the LGBTQ+ community cannot afford to be complacent and expect that along with rights will come immediate acceptance of their identities in society. She insists on a community-based approach in a full-fledged campaign towards educating families across the country about sexual preferences. Gopalan is of the view that any couple that wants to defy families and live together must be aware of the consequences. “Being financially independent is key in these situations,” she notes.
At the same time, she argues that laws in any democratic country in the 21st century have to be holistic and must be supportive of all sections of society, especially the vulnerable groups. Same-sex marriages cannot be solemnised in India at present. Same-sex couples in the country cannot, therefore, inherit the property or savings of their life partners. They cannot adopt a child or have one through a surrogate mother. Amidst the resurgence of LGBTQ+ people worldwide calling for equal rights, India still has archaic laws governing such groups, lament activists. “Family is not what it is made out to be. A family is where you have all kinds of harassment taking place, including child sexual abuse. Family is about power, not exactly rights,” Gopalan argues.
Academic literature mirrors that sentiment. In her paper titled ‘Family Violence: A Focus on India’, Uma A Segal dwells on various types of family maltreatment—spousal, child, elder, sibling, filial, and so on. She states that it is traditional norms that condone violence within families. “Themes of the sanctity of the family, and patriarchal prerogatives have dominated family relationships and prevented intervention,” she notes.
Aruna Desai, co-founder of Sweekar—The Rainbow Parents, a support group for parents of LGBTQIA+ individuals, dismisses the suggestion that the institution of family is at risk because of same-sex unions. “India has a huge population, which perhaps is more than required. Many case studies prove that same-sex couples can also be good parents if they are legally allowed to marry. There are favourable surrogacy laws abroad where lesbian or gay couples bring up children very well as responsible parents. Favourable laws will, therefore, only strengthen the institution of family, not destroy it,” says Desai, who founded this initiative years after her son came out as gay. Sweekar, which translates as acceptance, offers workshops through local groups in Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune, Nagpur, Delhi, and other Indian cities. “Many parents are proud of their children and they feel emboldened after interacting with us and other parents,” says Desai, who adds that her organisation’s role is to play an ally, a term that comes up often in LGBTQ+ circles.
Meanwhile, Professor Vanita, who is an alumnus of Delhi University and has a son with her same-sex partner, offers a more nuanced view of the institution of a family, irrespective of sexual preferences. “Most people want to have children. Because same-sex partners have no legal rights in India and are prohibited from adopting, such relationships do not seem viable to families. That was the case in most countries until same-sex partnerships and adoptions were legally recognised in most functioning democracies. Some married men have extra-marital relations with other men, and as many or more married men have extra-marital relations with other women, including sex workers. The choice to marry [the opposite sex] and have same-sex relationships on the side is available to both women and men. For women, the venue is more likely to be domestic,” she notes.
Again, literature and art in India have often portrayed this domestic nature of female same-sex relationships, for instance, in the story Lihaaf (1942) by Ismat Chughtai, which is said to have inspired Deepa Mehta’s movie Fire (1996). For the new generation, though, the field of action is getting bigger. Gen Zs, like Vasan junior, draw inspiration from the romantic life of the US-based young couple, Sufi Malik and Anjali Chakra, who met on Tumblr a few years ago and became advocates of same-sex relationships through social media sites and YouTube. They also voraciously read same-sex romantic fiction and other works, including regional Indian ones, that put the spotlight on lesbian or gay relationships. Their choice of books includes Aristotle and Dante: Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz; and Playing the Role of Herself by KE Lane. Equally iconic among lesbians is the movie Elisa & Marcela (2019), directed by Isabel Coixet.
Literature and art in India have often portrayed this domestic nature of female same-sex relationships, for instance, in the story Lihaaf (1942) by Ismat Chughtai, which is said to have inspired Deepa Mehta’s movie Fire (1996)
Advertising professional and author Julia Dutta, who has been in a relationship with a woman for the past 23 years, complains about the “cloud of dust” that families create for themselves when confronted with the reality of same-sex partnerships. She blames patriarchy for the heteronormative bias against lesbians and gays and people of other sexual inclinations. Dutta also talks about the deep insecurities that the LGBTQ+ community suffered until a decade or so ago. “In the absence of a legal bond, your partner can leave you at any time. And then if your partner passes away, you inherit nothing from her and in some cases, the other partner may be forced to move out. This non-acceptance by society eats you from inside,” says Dutta. But she is glad that the younger generation is far more assertive about their choices and wants the government to expedite laws related to same-sex marriages so as not to be anachronous to 21st-century ideals.
For her part, Vasan junior says that one’s sexual orientation is a personal matter and those who do not accept it or view it as an illness need to progress in life. When she spoke up about her sexual orientation in her school, she found allies, and also nods of disapproval from people she thought were friends. “A classmate said, ‘I looked straight.’ She also said she loves me but she thinks what I am doing is wrong. That is not acceptable to me,” says the teenager.
The momentum certainly is on her side with entrepreneurs setting out to launch products for the LGBTQ+ community. While gay dating apps have existed in the West for over a decade with a focus on short-term “flings”, one such homegrown Indian app, named AYA, founded by UX designer Sunali Aggarwal, helps the Indian gay community find partners for long-term relationships. Increasingly, activists are using art and legal means to shine a light on the plight of the lesbian community in India—besides those of gays, bisexuals, and others—and their portrayal and struggles. More books are being written about female same-sex love. Hangouts that cater to the community in many Indian cities and towns are proliferating faster than one could imagine a decade ago. Alongside, the verdict of the Kerala High Court has renewed interest in lesbian lovers and their battles along with other members of the queer community.
But as Anjali Gopalan has warned, it is easier to win legal rights than to win social acceptance for their identities. For all the erudition and articulation of the millennials and Gen Zs who dare come out of the closet at an early age, securing the backing of policymakers to champion their cause is easier said than done. What is in order is an overhaul of mindsets clouded by colonial-era laws and entrenched and concomitant prejudices.