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Breaking the silence over India’s lesbian taboo

A Victorian-era law that still survives makes it illegal for Indians to enter into gay and lesbian relationships. Lesbian rights advocates say the law affects them in insidious ways.

Queen Victoria of Britain refused to believe 'it' existed. Nearly 150 years later, Indian right wing Hindu fundamentalist groups fulminate that 'it' is un-Indian: a wicked import of the 'decadent West'.

Ever since the days of the British Empire when 19th century colonial educationist Lord Macaulay formulated a law forbidding homosexuality, lesbianism has been treated as a crime in India.

No woman has ever been prosecuted under the infamous section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal". But lesbian rights activists say the law is used to harass and threaten women in or even contemplating same-sex relationships.

In December 1998 Hindu hardliners belonging to the Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva) political party did more than fulminate. They went on the rampage after a screening of the film Fire, which sympathetically portrays a lesbian relationship between two unhappy sisters-in-law. They tore down posters, vandalised cinemas and threatened moviegoers.

One unintended by-product of the protests was publicity. The word 'lesbian' made newspaper headlines across the country and led to the birth of the Delhi-based Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI). An umbrella group of human rights, women, gay (male homosexual) and lesbian organisations, it wants the Indian government to repeal Macaulay's law.

"No lesbian may have been picked up and flung into jail because of this law… But it is used to blackmail lesbians, force them to consent to marriage and be invisible," said a CALERI spokesperson.

"Women have been harassed, attacked, blackmailed, coerced into marriages and sexual relationships, have lost their jobs, housing rights, family property… and have been prevented from protesting by being threatened by the police and their immediate social milieu," the group said in a report. "Anyone who looks, behaves or lives differently from the norms laid down by a traditional, patriarchal structure is made to feel shame."

Activists have campaigned against section 377 since 1994. In 2001 Naz Foundation (India) Trust, which advocates gay and lesbian rights and HIV/AIDS support and education, filed a petition with the Delhi high court seeking to exclude homosexual sex from Section 377.

The law, Naz argues, not only violates Indians' right to life and liberty, but also impedes the effective control of AIDS and is discriminatory. The case is still in court. "This law has now been scrapped in England whereas in India it is still in force," a CALERI spokesperson said.

The intense psychological pressure, partly brought on by the law, can lead to suicide in extreme cases. According to Bina Fernandez of Stree Sangam, a Mumbai (Bombay)-based lesbian advocacy group, 30 women have died in joint suicides "because they felt 'since we cannot live together, we will die together'… And these are only reported cases."

Says Geeta Kumana, chairperson of Aanchal Trust (aanchal means the protective fold of a sari, suggesting women protecting women): "We are so used to being treated badly in India that sometimes we don't even realise our human rights are being abused."

When parents find out their daughter is a lesbian, Kumana says, they take her to the police thinking it would scare her and hence the homosexuality will go. The vulnerable woman may then succumb and break up with her girlfriend or commit suicide.

Academics like Giti Thadani dismiss the argument that lesbianism is something new and alien to India. Scholars delving into ancient Indian literary history found similar evidence. Many ancient temple sculptures depict lesbianism. And in a sample study among lesbians in Mumbai city, researcher Vrushali Deshmukh was told by many lesbians that they discovered their sexual orientation only after marriage. The researcher says this is because of social conditioning, which prepares girls for marriage, and collective attitudes to sexuality.

Many believe that the 1998 backlash against Fire is part and parcel of rising Hindu religious fundamentalism, which consigns women to their traditional role as wife and mother. In 1998 columnist Arvind Lavakare lamented: "Granting that lesbianism exists in our country, is it necessary to make a film that shows it, however artfully, to the impressible and uneducated female population of millions, especially in mofussil [small, non-metropolitan] areas, towns and cities? After all lesbianism is abnormal sex, isn't it?"

Not until the 1990s did lesbian groups emerge – typically in large urban areas with educated, confident and economically independent women. In the late 1990s, two professional women who fled the city of Kolkata (Calcutta) under family pressure eventually returned and founded a group called Sappho (named after the Greek poet who lived about 660 B.C. on the island of Lesbos).

Sappho founder member Malobika says: "Many girls have had to run away from home to avoid physical and mental torture. At the moment, we are trying to find a home for one such girl who was sent away to a relative's house in a distant place when she revealed her sexual orientation. She was ill-treated there too. In desperation she called us… Though an only child, her parents have disowned her."

Although Kolkata this year became the first Indian city to witness a gay march, caution is still a watchword for groups like Sappho. Malobika and others may hesitate if invited to speak in a public forum, decline giving out their phone numbers or be quoted by name.

The organiser of June's gay march in Kolkata, Rafiquel Haque Dojah, said: "We got many emails from gays and lesbians saying they wanted to join the march, but are afraid to come out publicly."

Despite obstacles more women – using many strategies – are breaking their silence. As one member of Stree Sangam says: "Many of us have never married and some of us have been or still are in marriages… Lesbian existence itself is a political act."

Ranjita Biswas is a freelance writer based in Kolkata and specialises in women, environment, health, and arts and culture. She also has published books of fiction.

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