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Talking Gender And Sexuality in India

In conversation with the Editor-In-Chief of a national Gay & Lesbian magazine

We chat with Udayan Dhar about the changing perception of LGBTs in India and their depiction in popular culture

A Pride March by LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) community in Mumbai, India

We at My Big Red Bag are always up for a good laugh (petty jokes are our guilty pleasure), but if there is one kind of joke that doesn’t get us smiling, it is the “happy and gay” & “lesbo” innuendos, usually delivered with a snide wink. We are glad that Bollywood has finally managed to break its stereotype of the effeminate gay man (lesbian women are still a no-no in the prudish film world), but we are tired of every male film star trotting out the same stale line of “gay encounters with Karan Johar” (subtly implying that they are good boys who don’t know any gay men apart from their host).

The legal status of India’s LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual & Transgender) community has for centuries been linked to the notorious Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes “carnal intercourse, against the order of nature”. Ironically, it is widely believed that we were much more open about sex and sexuality before the British implemented this law during their occupation of India. In a major boost for the LGBT community, the Delhi High Court in 2009 struck down this provision, ensuring that sex between consenting individuals of the same sex in private is no longer considered a crime. But in an unfortunate display of stone-age regression, the Supreme Court recently overturned the High Court’s judgement. Fortunately, there was widespread protest against the SC’s bigotry, including from within the government, indicating that Indians are finally becoming more open-minded on matters related sexual orientation and gender identity.

A large credit for this change in our conformist, “pretend it’s not there” attitude goes to several activists and organizations who publicly declared their homosexuality and canvassed for greater awareness and sensitivity towards the LGBT community. My Big Red Bag in conversation with Udayan Dhar, the Editor-in-Chief of Pink Pages, a national e-zine for the LGBT community. ( Editor’s Note: Last week we published Udayan’s touching tale of coming out gay and another reader’s fable on homosexuality – we urge you to give both a read)

The genesis of Pink Pages and where it is now

Pink Pages was launched in 2009, very shortly after the landmark Delhi judgement decriminalizing homosexuality. It is the country’s first national magazine for LGBT (Editor’s note: magazines in the past have mostly focused only on the gay community, the most famous of which is Bombay Dost which was founded by activist Ashok Row Kavi in 1990) and it is distributed online every quarter, free of charge. We started Pink Pages to provide a platform for India’s LGBT community to share and discuss matters that impact their lives in a safe and secure manner.

Pink Pages is truly a community initiative, with a large bunch of talented students & young professionals volunteering their time and effort to produce engaging and relevant content for the LGBT community. You can find information on the people behind Pink Pages here.

On attitudes in India towards LGBT

There has definitely been a positive change in attitudes since the Delhi High Court verdict that decriminalized homosexuality. This has been brought about by more open discussions in the mainstream media on LGBT issues in India. Additionally, several gay and lesbian youngsters have started to “come out” in their homes, colleges and workplaces. All this, coupled with Indians being generally more open to diversity, has led to a significant attitudinal shift which I believe cannot be undone by the SC ruling.

I admit that this acceptance of the LGBT community is more prevalent in metros right now, but things are gradually changing in smaller cities too. In that sense, our journey is no different from that of the LGBT movement in other parts of the world. Last week Hyderabad hosted its first Pride March, and earlier in the year Gauhati and Ahmedabad also had their own Pride March (India’s first Rainbow Pride Walk took place in Calcutta in 1999 – 15 people attended. Since then, Pride Marches have taken place in Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai & Bhubaneshwar and have been drawing thousands of participants).

Within the LGBT community, transgender people are exposed to negative stereotypes and inaccurate assumptions to a greater extent than gays & lesbians. As you know, there is a large section of marginalized transgenders referred to as hijras in India with whom our society has a love-hate relationship – on the one hand they are considered auspicious for important milestones such as marriage, birth and house warming; but apart from this they are misunderstood, abused and ostracised. As a result, the problems that transgenders encounter on a daily basis are different from gays and lesbians and must be tackled from that perspective. (Editor’s Note: Typical to India, it took an “outsider” like William Dalrymple to spend time with the hijras and highlight their plight in his excellent City of Djinns)

Advice for LGBT’s

Coming out is a life long process. Even the most “out” people have to constantly fight against assumptions people make and all forms of subtle homophobia. LGBTs struggling to come out must remember that there are so many of us who have made that leap of faith and have never regretted doing it. It’s the most liberating experience after which you can concentrate on things that really matter in your life.

I would strongly encourage those struggling with being a LGBT to seek help from fellow LGBTs, community leaders and local support groups.

The potrayal of LGBT in cinema

Mainstream movies like Dostana and Bombay Talkies have helped to get the LGBT conversation started. They may not portray our community in exactly the way we want, but we should also realize that no one movie can ever capture the diversity of the queer people. It’s good that progress is being made and film festivals like Kashish in Mumbai will encourage more gay and straight film makers in India to work around gay issues.

The role of workplaces

I strongly believe that a diverse and inclusive workplace is good for business – if people are secure in the knowledge that they will be valued for their skills and not judged on their sexual orientation or gender, they will naturally perform better.

To begin with, companies need to ensure that their equal opportunities policy prohibits discrimination based upon sexual identity and gender identity or expression. This needs to be backed up by diversity training for all employees, and LGBT issues need to be explicitly addressed in this training in order to sensitize employees. Finally, companies can help set up LGBT support networks, ensure their leadership regularly reiterates their stand on diversity and if possible, choose a LGBT role model who can support and inspire other LGBTs in the organization.

On sensitizing the “straights”

LGBT people are part of the diversity that makes our world interesting and fabulous. Supporting equal rights for LGBT people is akin to supporting equality for all.

On the battle ahead after the Supreme Court judgement

A curative petition may be in the pipeline – it’s being discussed. We’re also optimistic that the next government will have ministers who are sensitive towards LGBT issues, so that we can engage constructively with them.

On the recent LGBT Youth Leadership Summit

Several organizations and individuals working for the LGBT community – such as Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment (MINGLE), Humsafar Trust (started by gay activist Ashok Row Kavi), Queer Ink (India’s first queer publishing platform) and others – came together to organize India’s first Youth Leadership Summit in Mumbai this February. The purpose of this summit was to identify potential leaders amongst the LGBT youth and groom them for future leadership roles. These youth leaders are expected to act as evangelists in the Indian LGBT community by working on various projects related to family issues, coming out, sensitization in universities and workplaces, and special initiatives like the LGBT History Project.

We were very excited when we got over 100 applicants from different cities in India, of which we selected 35 LGBT Youth Leaders. Going forward, we plan to make this an annual affair and take the summit to a new city each year.


Post script: Here’s a quick primer on the mostly misunderstood LGBT acronym, courtesy Mark Kaplan, a renowned diversity expert:

“L, G and B stands for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual and refers to sexual orientation. T stands for Transgender and refers to gender identity. Gender identity refers to how one experiences and expresses  gender and biological sex. Sexual orientation refers to how one is oriented in love/romantic relationships. We all have a sexual orientation – whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual. And we all have a gender identity.”

Image courtesy: Pink Pages

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