There was a time when indulging in and depicting homosexual indulgence was no legal offence. Today, gay and lesbian rights activism involve a matter  mostly addressed and supported by the academic and financial elite, says sarah schmitt
JUST recently, France introduced equal marriage as well as adoption rights for same-sex couples. In an interview with French television, Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau, the first gay couple to get married, made it a point to put something straight: their decision to tie the marital knot should not be seen as a political one – it was no propaganda for a good cause. What motivated them to take this step was love. Yes, love, love, love.
As much as they may have emphasised this point, it took a long time for the heat of the political debate to cool.
The mass demonstrations that took place in France over a period of several weeks and often counted more than 100,000 protesters each, even witnessed a man shooting himself in protest. Though the most acrimonious protesters are copycats, members of extreme right-wing groups and devoutly religious Catholics, the equalisation of same-sex marriage in France has drawn a lot of attention and also encountered resistance from the core of its society – France being the 14th country worldwide to introduce same-sex marriage. Their European neighbours having taken this much-debated decision, Germany, too, has initiated the process leading to the equalisation of same-sex marriage, likely to be completed by the end of this year.
In India, Section 377, which criminalises homosexual activities, was repealed by Delhi High Court on 2 July 2009. Ironically, it was Western ideology, in the form of the British Raj, that first introduced this law in 1860. Prior to this, indulging in and depicting homosexual indulgence was no legal offence and found acceptance in both Islam and Hinduism. Many Persian, Urdu and Arabic poets, such as Abu Nuwas, addressed homoerotic issues in their works; European chroniclers were shocked when they encountered the prevailing lax attitudes towards same-sex love in the Caliphs’ courts. One must only recall the paintings and sculptures of Khajuraho or consult ancient Hindu texts such as the Kama Sutra to convince oneself that homosexuality used to be present in Hindu culture as well.
Nevertheless, even when same-sex love was romanticised and practised more freely in the old days, institutions that allowed it to be chosen and lived out, in refusal of marriage, were rare.
Today, gay and lesbian rights activism involve a matter mostly addressed and supported by the academic and financial elite. In Kolkata, as in other Indian metropolises, debates and speeches broaching the issue are held at universities; film festivals and annual gay pride parades take place all around the country, attracting an increasing number of people each year.
One of the five or six gay rights organisations in Kolkata is the Dum Dum Swikriti Society, founded in 2003 and now counting around 70 members. With financial support solely coming from membership subscriptions, the organisation has not had an office of its own for the past six months; to organise projects and share their experience, members meet in public places or, when the rare opportunity arises, in each others’ homes. For though their families may show some tolerance, living separately with a partner is an inconceivable thought for most, even if many of them have been in a relationship for years.
“Most of us have remained unmarried. Though our parents have gradually learned to accept our sexual inclination over the years, we try to be as independent as possible. By arranging parents’ meetings, we aim to inform families about our sexuality and make them accept us the way we are,” says Santanu, an active member of the organisation.
Two lesbians who have withstood conventions and built up a life together are Malubika and Akanksha, among the main organisers of Sappho for Equality, a support group for lesbian and bisexual women near Hindol Park in southeast Kolkata. In 1999, they purchased a flat and have been living together since. During the buying process, they also became aware of the discriminatory regulations related to inheritance law, insurance, adoption rights and provident fund.
For lesbians, the situation is quite different from that of their male counterparts. Though single mothers, unlike single men, have the right to legally adopt a child, the amount of self-determination they may exercise depends, to an even larger extent, on their financial means and family background.
“Lesbians generally face great difficulties, especially those coming from a less affluent background and those living in rural areas. They will usually not have the chance to leave their homes on their own and thus find no way of interacting with other lesbians to share their experiences. We regularly receive calls to our helpline from women who have no other way of interacting with us other than over the phone,” says Akanksha.
Both organisations have managed to create a space of their own and grown over the past 10 years, drawing support from cultural organisations and academic institutions, closely working together with doctors, counsellors, lawyers, psychologists and social workers. They publish magazines and information brochures, address prevailing stigmas and reach out even to more rural areas, where they try to shed light on the issue of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and distribute condoms. Still, legal, cultural and social discrimination is part of their everyday lives, often leading to isolation, in many cases entailing depression and other severe mental illnesses. Losing one&’s job once the employer discovers one&’s sexual orientation, thus having to give up one&’s professional life, is not a rare phenomenon.
“Often, the person concerned then has no choice but to engage in sex work as a last resort. It is a real dilemma. When given the choice of starving now or dying of Aids some years later, what other option do you have?” asks Susanta, a member of the Dum Dum Swikriti Society.
In most parts of the world, there seems to be a general belief that homosexuality is not natural; day-to-day homophobia latently slumbers in the minds of many. With more light being shed on the existence of homosexuality within “normal French society”, sources now unanimously confirm a heavy rise in documented homophobically motivated acts. This year, SOS Homophobie, an aid organisation for homosexuals, observed a triplication of calls reporting homophobic misbehaviour compared to the same period in 2012.
Meanwhile in the USA, Minnesota has passed a law introducing equal marriage rights for homosexuals as the 12th state of the country, which will come into effect in August. Until 2011, the official policy proclaimed by the US military on the issue of accepting homosexual army members went under the slogan “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT). The “gay ban” that dictated US army members conceal their homosexuality was only annihilated when top Pentagon leaders removed all doubts and certified that its repeal would not undermine the military&’s ability to recruit or to fight wars.
Acknowledging this, let us for once take a moment to ignore all political tensions and send our congratulations to Autin and Bruno and wish them a peaceful and loving marriage.