June was a watershed month for homosexual rights in the West. On 10 June, a court in the province of Ontario, Canada, declared same-sex marriages legal. Since the federal government has not appealed the decision, Canada in effect has become the third country in the world, after Belgium and the Netherlands, to legalise same-sex marriages, and hundreds of same-sex Canadian couples have already taken advantage of the ruling. Two weeks later, on 26 June, the US supreme court struck down laws banning sodomy, which are still on the books in 13 states, ruling that the state cannot make “private sexual conduct a crime”. And four days after that, the British government made public a plan to give lesbian and gay couples the same rights as their married heterosexual counterparts.
The homosexual community in South Asia, especially in India, has been making news as well. On 29 June, the city of Calcutta hosted the first-ever gay pride march in the Subcontinent. Though small in the number of participants, it was an important start, and there are other indications that the community is making its presence felt. The Indian Council of Medical Research is debating the adoption of guidelines that would allow lesbians and single mothers to use reproductive technology to conceive babies. The BBC reports that The Boyfriend, a recently-published Indian novel dealing with love between an openly gay man and a young boy who feels unable to pursue his homosexual instincts, “has raised hopes within the country’s largely invisible gay community of the chances of coming out of the closet”. And in Nepal in May, the Blue Diamond Society, an NGO working to promote homosexual rights, held a beauty pageant for homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals in Kathmandu’s National Theatre.
These developments notwithstanding, homosexuals in South Asia are a rather persecuted lot. Even in the big cities, where conditions have improved over the last couple of decades, and where there is now some limited semblance of social life for members of the community, especially for those who are wealthy and have access to clubs and the Internet – there are significant hurdles in the path. Homosexuals are still subject to many forms of discrimination, in particular housing and employment. In Bombay, “people have been kicked out after their sexuality was revealed”, says a gay activist who set up an Internet service called GHAR (Gay Housing Assistance Resource).
If gay men have a difficult time, the strongly patriarchal nature of South Asian societies ensures an even worse treatment for lesbians. The oppression and discrimination they face has been rationalised on the basis of claims about gender, culture, tradition, values and morals. One noteworthy recent instance of anti-lesbian activity was the Shiv Sena’s campaign to stop screenings of the 1999 film Fire, a work centred on a lesbian relationship, combined with virulent attacks against its director Deepa Mehta and the actors who played its protagonists, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.
As in the case of Fire, the growth of religious extremism and militant movements has negatively impacted the status of gay men and lesbians. Religious nationalists have often opposed public discussion and artistic displays of or about the community. The self-appointed bearers of their own narrow conceptions of what constitutes morality, these movements have tried to deny any historical basis to same-sex love in South Asia. (Those who mistakenly believe that our region has no historical tradition of homosexual love should read Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai.) The Jamaat-e-Islami even recommends capital punishment for those convicted of same-sex romantic involvement.
Conditions in rural areas are particularly difficult. The relative anonymity provided by cities and the social spaces – clubs, parks and so on – are not available in rural areas. Here again class, caste and gender make a difference. Gay men among the rural elite, such as those from landlord families, often use their social positions to engage in forcible sex with poorer or lower caste males. Such instances often lead even progressive groups to condemn homosexuality. One should note, however, that such acts are instances of violent exploitation based on social and economic power tantamount to rape – and are condemnable for that reason. They do not offer any reason to oppose homosexuality per se.
What makes all these forms of social discrimination particularly odious is that gay men and lesbians lack legal protection in all South Asian countries. For example, after independence India adopted the British penal code dating to the 19th century, and few changes have occurred in the intervening years. Section 377 of the code relates to homosexuality: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine”. The situation in Pakistan is mush worse. Apart from civil law derived from the British penal code, there is also a religious law calling for up to 100 lashes or death by stoning. In Sri Lanka, sex between men is punishable by 12 years in jail, while the existence of lesbianism is not even acknowledged in the penal code. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal all have similarly repressive laws on homosexuality.
These laws are not implemented often; ie, there are not many instances of homosexuals actually being imprisoned for their sexual preferences. But they are frequently used to harass, blackmail and extort bribes. And because same-sex love is legally unacceptable, many gay men and lesbians marry members of the opposite sex – with consequent deception, frustration and misery for all concerned.
Thus, the laws, which should be meant to protect people rather than discriminate against them, especially those regarding sexuality, must change. The scrapping of South Asia’s anti-homosexuality laws is important – often the law must change before social mores do. Legal protection is probably the only way that South Asia’s homosexual community can be guaranteed social rights, rights against exploitation and, importantly, health rights.