Closets are Claustrophobic
The 2nd of February, 2016 was a momentous day for the LGBT community in India as the Supreme Court admitted a curative petition on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The hundred and fifty-six year old law prescribes a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for any sexual act that does not lead to procreation. Although very few arrests have actually been made for the violation of Section 377, the law is often used to harass homosexuals, gay men being its most common victims. Countries across the world, particularly in the West, have done away with similar laws in their constitutions citing a disconnect with modern notions on human rights and freedoms. In India too, there is a steady growth in the demand to do away with Section 377. The Delhi High Court passed a judgement in 2009 rendering the law inapplicable to consensual intercourse between adults. The Supreme Court however overturned the Delhi High Court’s ruling in 2013 by re-criminalizing homosexual intercourse, technically making about seventy-five million Indians potentially eligible for life imprisonment.
“Homosexuality is being sexually attracted to a person of the same-sex” explains Professor Shalini Sharma, one of MIT’s student counsellors. She is very particular about using the word sex and not gender. “Sex refers to one’s physical attributes whereas gender refers to one’s psychological identity” she clarifies. Dispelling popular misunderstandings on homosexuality she mentions how a whole lot of studies indicate that homosexuality is entirely biological. “It’s innate, not learnt”, she explains, going on to emphasize its strong biological origin. She acknowledges cases where homosexual behaviour might be impressed upon someone but maintains that by and large homosexuality must be seen as a biological phenomenon, one which is in no way pathological. “It’s shameful that they have something like Section 377” she says, expressing her stance on the archaic law.
It is extremely difficult to determine the proportion of homosexuals in a population because of the complexity of human sexuality coupled with the massive social stigma associated with non-heterosexual sexual identities. Some studies suggest that up to a tenth of any population may be exclusively homosexual (Alfred Kinsey, 1948), making it obvious that there is a massive demographic in India that continues to remain hidden in plain sight. Considering the lesbian, bisexual and transgender demographics in addition, it becomes clear that the number of LGBT people in India is massive yet deafeningly silent. “They bottle it all up because there’s always a fear about how they’re going to be treated if they speak out”, Professor Sharma explains. She shows how important it is for a homosexual person to be able to be open up about their sexuality and be accepted as a worthy individual. “The agony of being isolated and denied the dignity they deserve can be extremely painful” she says. She recounts the instance of a student who was seeing her who feared going home because he would be subjected to ridicule and rejection as a result of which he would go into self-imposed isolation. Professor Sharma shows me a coming-out letter to show how trying it can be for a person to come clean about their sexuality. The letter, read out by Sir Ian McKellen for Letters Live is addressed by Michael Toliver, a gay man, to his homophobic parents, explaining homosexuality and his own stance on it. He is careful not to alienate them while striving to stand up for who he is. “An accepting family can make all the difference”, the counsellor mentions. “Many of the people I’ve seen here come back to me and tell me how grateful they are for the acceptance they have received”.
Mere misconception and misinformation are often enough to build massive stigma in people, stigma that goes on to do immeasurable harm to the lives of gay people, forcing them into silent isolation. Fitting in is never easy, widespread ignorance only makes it that much harder. A small survey reveals the opinions of the average MIT student on homosexuality. Quite a few seemed to suggest that homosexuality is a choice and that it depends on the atmosphere in which a person grows up, neglect and misguidance being the watchwords.”Homosexuality might be caused by misguidance during one’s childhood” opined Rishikesh, a Computer Science Engineering student. Others were uncertain,” I’m sure not if it’s a disorder but gay people certainly don’t deserve to be neglected” felt Rohith, a student of Mechanical Engineering. Despite being unclear on what homosexuality means, most seemed to feel that they would be accepting and supportive of anyone who happens to come out to them.”I would be happy if someone came out to me – I’d respect them for being brave enough to come out” expressed Sakshi, a student of Industrial Production. Many emphasized on the fact that they would not let this change their relationship with the person.”I might be shocked initially but this won’t change my relationship with them” assured Sagarika, a Print and Media student. Such acceptance is extremely welcome, especially in a society that continues to remain deeply homophobic.
There are numerous organizations working in India that aim to change the lives of LGBT Indians for the better. The Humsafar Trust, Sangama, the Udaan Trust and the Naz Foundation are a few of the multitudes of organizations working in this field. Saathi in IIT Bombay made history in 2011 by becoming India’s first official college-based LGBT group. The fact that it received official recognition indicates a level of mature inclusiveness that is as rare as it is commendable. While support groups and organizations with a physical presence remain few and far in between, the internet, thanks to the anonymity it provides, is an important source of support and help. Cyberspace abounds with resources for the LGBT community with websites like those of Gay Bombay, Orinam and Gaysi Family among others providing content catering to the Indian setting. Ranging from information on gender identities and coming out to mailing lists and crisis helplines these websites can provide the support and advice otherwise inaccessible to most people.
To be informed is key here. Correct information can go a long way in helping the people of the LGBT community come to terms with their identities and to be comfortable and confident in their own skin. It would make a massive difference if society in general were better informed, because the stigma in our society arises from sheer ignorance and indifference, in Jodi Picoult’s words, “Gay rights is not something most of us think about – because most of us happen to have been born straight” and this is all that needs to change.