India: Gay marchers break new ground

Sunday was the biggest day in the life of one 26-year-old insurance agent in Delhi, yet he came to the city’s long-awaited first gay parade hiding behind a mask. “I have to remain invisible,” he said. “If my parents see me on TV, I won’t be able to go home.
And if my colleagues recognise me, there’ll be hell to pay in the office.”

The gay insurance agent is typical of millions of Indians condemned to lead a double life since they risk becoming social outcasts and even criminals if their sexual preferences are revealed.

Though the setting up of advocacy groups and helplines in recent years has given India’s homosexuals a voice and some solace, they are still largely a hidden and persecuted community. But in a sign of changing times, India’s gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the traditional hijra transsexual community came together for the first-ever Delhi Queer Pride Parade at the weekend.

“We’re not protesting, we’re cele­brating,” said Leslie Esteves, a member of the newly formed Delhi Queer Pride committee. “This year for the first time we felt confident about organising a parade in the capital.”

Many came in masks, but several who have partially “come out”, such as a 35-year-old lesbian chef, joined the parade without any disguise. The chef’s sexuality is known and accepted by her family and at work. Her “straight” family even marched in solidarity alongside her. Yet she remains cautious. “I’m not 100% out,” she said, not wanting to be named. “Let’s face it, India is still a very conservative society. Moreover, the law sees us as criminals.”

India does not explicitly outlaw homosexuality but under an 1861 penal code enacted by the British colonial government “carnal intercourse against the order of nature between any man, woman or animal” is punishable by imprisonment up to life. The law is mainly used against paedophiles, but the high-profile arrest of four gay men in 2006 in Lucknow highlighted the fact that across India corrupt police sometimes utilise the law to blackmail and even rape homosexuals.

On Wednesday, a Delhi court began hearings on a petition by a gay advocacy group demanding that consensual adults be exempted from the 1861 law.

“Anybody who leads a double life doesn’t feel good about it,” the insurance agent said. “I feel like screaming at the top of my voice that I’m gay, but I don’t have the courage. If I tell my parents they’ll force me to go for therapy or get married. And if I tell my office colleagues I’ll become a target of taunts and sexual harassment, and could even lose my job. “

Gays and lesbians feel trapped between the law and social prejudice. For some, suicide becomes the only way out. Two married women discovered in a lesbian relationship by their families burned themselves to death last month in southern Tamil Nadu state.

“Many Indians still believe that homosexuality is deviant behaviour which can be cured,” said clinical psychologist Radhika Chandiramani. “Several of my colleagues use aversion therapy to treat patients, sent by families­, with electric shocks and drugs.”

But Sunday’s march gave many cause for hope. “I feel history is being created here,” said the chef, as she marched arm in arm with her parents through the streets of Delhi.—