For gays in India, fear is way of life

Activists working to challenge laws

Ponni Arasu, Arvind Narrain, and Siddharth Narrain are activists with the Alternative Law Forum in Banglalore, India, which is working to repeal laws against homosexuality. Ponni Arasu, Arvind Narrain, and Siddharth Narrain are activists with the Alternative Law Forum in Banglalore, India, which is working to repeal laws against homosexuality. (Emily Wax/Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post / November 23, 2008
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BANGALORE, India - Even with the white horse rented, his gold-speckled turban fitted, and the wedding hall lined up, Mahesh did not feel ready to get married, at least not to a woman.

The shy computer engineer is gay.

But Mahesh went ahead with the elaborate ceremony in May because someone he had befriended online blackmailed him - threatening to tell his parents unless he paid $5,500.

Severely depressed and suffering from insomnia, Mahesh recently swallowed a dozen painkillers. He survived. But his blackmailer heard he was in the hospital and demanded more cash to keep his secret.

Three months later, Mahesh said he is broke and taking several antidepressants. He is still married.

"I really don't want to die. But I also don't want to keep lying," said the 24-year-old, who spoke from a counseling center and asked to be called by his first name. "I feel so trapped. According to the law, my blackmailer can report me and have me arrested."

That's because in the world's biggest democracy, homosexuality is illegal.

The Indian penal code describes the act as "against the order of nature" and declares it punishable by 10 years to life in prison, longer than most rape or murder sentences.

But several human rights groups are making a historic challenge to the law, imposed by the British in 1860, in the New Delhi High Court. The effort to repeal the law is seen as a test case of India's commitment to secular democracy, with some legal specialists saying that moral or religious arguments cannot trump constitutional rights in a democratic society. A verdict is expected before the end of the year.

The challenge comes during a time of sweeping social changes for India's younger generation. Three-quarters of the country's 1.1 billion people are younger than 35, and more of them are living away from home and working for multinational companies, which often have policies that protect employees from discrimination based on their sexual preferences.

Many young gay men and lesbians say they find slightly more acceptance working in the international call center and information technology industries. They also take heart from the broader trend among young Indians of favoring so-called love marriages over arranged partnerships.

"There's real hope that the growing freedom in love and in career mobility for new India's young generation can start to dissolve boundaries for gay and lesbian Indians, too," said Arvind Narrain, 33, a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, which is pressing for the repeal of the law. "But there are still a lot of problems, especially with blackmail and harassment, which is made possible by the law. We have a long fight ahead."

Being gay is increasingly accepted in India's artistic and literary communities. Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen and writer Vikram Seth have backed the push to decriminalize homosexual acts, launching an effort among filmmakers and fashion designers to speak out in behalf of gay rights.

A new Bollywood movie called "Dostana," or "Friendship," breaks new ground with two gay characters. Still, the Hindi heroes pretend to be gay to save money on rent and seduce their alluring roommate - more "Three's Company" than "Brokeback Mountain."

In reality, gay and lesbian Indians say, they have few places to meet openly. Studies show that they often lead dangerous, closeted lives, with high rates of suicide and mental illness. Lesbians have reported being fired from their jobs and raped for not being feminine enough.

Most gay Indians are married, often with children, and have covert relationships with lovers, activists said.

That's part of the reason blackmail has become a thriving mini-industry here, illustrating just how powerful the law is in daily life.

Even in cosmopolitan cities such as Bangalore, the gay community is seen as a secret club where a special pass is needed to attend gay nights at an underground bar.

Throughout India's history, homosexuality has been largely taboo. Nonetheless, the transgender community had some social acceptance in the cultural traditions of Hinduism and Islam in India, and some tribal groups see lesbians as having mystical powers.

But European missionaries and British rule further demonized homosexuality, and the country's pulpits are to this day bastions of antigay rhetoric.

India remains a largely conservative nation. Not only is marriage a societal duty, it also drives economic activity, activists said.

As India's middle and upper classes expand, so do the enormous dowries given to grooms and their parents by brides' families.

The dowries, though technically illegal, almost always include a car for the new couple, along with an apartment and often large amounts of wedding gold.

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