Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hyderabadi Homosexuals and the US Consulate

A timid smile on meeting someone for the first time, words exchanged while waiting for a movie to begin, the possibility of a new relationship while chatting over tea, and the affirmation of being who one wants to be in the company of others. Moments like these marked the Rainbow Film Festival in Hyderabad organized by the US Consulate and Wajood. It was a wonderfully quiet and well spent evening, watching films that reflected the actual struggles and tumult of living a wholesome life. Among the audience, they were a shared bond of understanding and compassion as most of them came to witness a cinema which spoke directly to the audience there, who were either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or who had LGBT family members or friends or merely those who were curious and came with an open mind. It is during these congregations that we make inroads by widening the horizons of our tolerance and acceptance to include those who did not fit in previously.

And yet, one might ask, why would someone feel threatened and want to thwart such attempts. Why does one feel violated against, when a group of people wants to gather together to watch films? That’s exactly what happened a few hours prior to the event. Annapurna Studios was threatened not to screen these films as it would provoke violence. An MP from a minority community gave a hate speech on the Urdu news, claiming that it violated Islamic and Hyderabadi tradition. Such eventualities only tend to excite unwanted fear, anger and insecurity. It made people feel that some of them are not part of this society, worse still, that they are not human or Indian enough to even watch films collectively. In fact, the studio suggested that the screening be hosted at another venue as it had high stakes involved, keeping the organizers on tenterhooks. Finally through the assurance of protection on the behest of the US Consulate, the event did take place peacefully.

We’ve often heard some people voice out that homosexuality is a western import. And I often smile at their ignorance. Men had intimate relations with men and women had intimate relations with women through all ages, in all societies and, of course, in India too! Even in our literary tradition be it the ancient Indian texts, such as Vyasa’s Mahabharata to medieval material in the Sanskrit and Perso-Urdu tradition, we have several instances of same sex love. (One could always refer to Ruth Vanita’s and Saleem Kidwai’s Same-Sex Love in India.) Homosexuals are everywhere. And they haven’t come from the west. And we have them in all shapes, sizes, classes, castes and religions. (Yes, honourable MP, Muslims included.) Historically and, ipso facto, traditionally, Hyderabad has always been extremely tolerant towards diversity of sexualities. No community or religious leader should restrict or destroy the conditions of living a meaningful life for others, by prescribing for all lives what is only liveable by only a few. 
Rainbow Film Festival

It is a very sorry state of affairs that our own government has not taken a clear stand on homosexuality in India. It’s dismal that in Hyderabad, where there are so many of us, we have few allies. The US Consulate is one among them. It did not take a Hillary Clinton to tell us that gay rights are human rights on International Human Rights Day, for we knew that much before. Yet, the fact that she proclaimed it only brought to light how much still needs to be done for the LGBTs all over the world. The act of a consulate endorsing the arts and fostering the rights of a community goes a long way in creating spaces of love. Above all, in this case, the US Consulate’s intervention is also a political act as it calls attention for the need to act and support the LGBTs among us who are still in a state of limbo in the eyes of the Indian Law. I am sure, in time, we will have more allies, a greater number of people who have the openness and understanding to regard all people in society as equal.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Seeing More LGBT Faces

Since last week, while I’m here in Hyderabad, and reading about Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean coming out and the flurry of emotions it’s caused, I’m bewildered. I have always been enthralled by those who dared to love themselves at a time when they were given to understand that they were obnoxious. Especially those who dared to affirm themselves at the risk of their own ostracism. And yet, through it all, they honored their own humanness.

Each coming out story is a testimony of how beautifully diverse we all are. Despite our loves, attractions, ages, skin colors or castes, each one of us has a unique narrative weaving itself among a myriad of others.  Yet what makes everything even more intriguing is the way in which each of them is influenced by the others, rubbing their traces onto the others, thereby altering them.

My own coming out took twenty nine long years. Coming from a Catholic background, where gay is synonymous with shame and guilt, I chose a life of celibacy for eleven long years.  Ensconced within my own pseudo- religious closet cocoon, I had admitted only within the confines of the confessional as well as over some pins-and- needles sharing sessions with some of my closest friends that I was attracted to men.  I always sought clarity as to why God made me the way I was, and His only reply was that He carved me in the palm of His hands, fashioning me in His image. Undoubtedly, He made me unique and perfect! And in His perfection, He also gave me my sexual orientation. Three years later, as I look back at myself, I’m surprised at my streak of rebellion while I was in the Jesuit order. There was some part of me that always questioned authority; some part of me that often gnawed at the veneer of convention. 

Yet nothing prepared me for the day, when my own twenty-year-old sister attempted to share her life with me. It was an afternoon while I packing my stuff to get to Chennai, where I was doing my philosophy.

“I’d like to share something with you,” she said.

“Go ahead, Ancy,” said I, making myself comfortable while reclining on the bed rest. 

“I don’t ever want to get married.”

The moment she uttered the words, “I don’t ever want to get married,” I shuddered and grew pale, realizing the highly volatile ground she was navigating. I had always known where my sister’s leaning were towards. Her sexuality was conspicuous, though none of us in the family dared to admit it. 

 Umpteen times earlier I served as a confidant to several friends. Yet, that day, I was scared. I was really scared. Instinctively, I knew that the same fears I hedged myself from through my choice of being in the religious order were beckoning me and, worse still, were mocking me.

“Why would you say that? Perhaps you’re confused!” I lied, steering away from the direction this conversation was gravitating towards. 

I continued, “You have a long way to go, Ancy. In time, you’ll think differently.” 

I could see the light of hope waning in her eyes. The yearning of wanting to open up to somebody getting bleaker by the moment.  She looked crushed. And yet, through the moments of silence between our words, I knew she hoped this conversation would end differently.

And then, not wanting to give up on my sister, I said, “Ryan* is a nice guy. He likes you very much.”

“I don’t like him. He’s a liar.” Then she goes on to narrate an incident when she caught Ryan red-handedly spinning a yarn. 

“Oh, come on, Ancy! All of us tell lies once in a while. Cut some slack on the poor guy. But he likes you very much. It doesn’t matter if he takes a drink once in a while. All of us tell white lies.”

She looks at me quizzically and admits it. Perhaps she just caves in, knowing that it was useless. 

After a while, she gives me that smile, playfully mischievous. She says that she’ll talk to Ryan and give him a chance.  She makes me believe that things will get better. And two hours later, while I was at the railway station on my way to the seminary, Ryan and she have a little moment together when I was chatting with my parents. Seeing the two of them together, I hoped that day I was some help to my sis.  

Now, whatever possibilities I might think, I know it would only be conjecture. I can never fully fathom what must have gone through her mind those few hours when she decided that everything was over for her. Planning every little detail of her last minutes of life to prove to her confidant (a particular nun) that the nun mattered to her, Ancy had managed to take her own life by taking her last breath in the river where she often swam in. Like Virgina Woolf, she had stones on her lifeless body when it was recovered hours later. 

I didn’t have an opportunity to speak to her at length, after that day when she was about to open herself to me. But I rue the fact that I didn’t do what I ought to have done.  To open myself to her and listen to her, keeping aside the false sense of propriety that my family, society and religion had instilled in me. 

Something which I discovered about my sister after her death was that she had a good hand at writing. I read her diary entries about her feelings of confusion, desire and guilt mixed with her overbearing desire to be faithful to God. Through her writing, she wanted to break even from her inner tumult and come out honestly. Her death has taught me the importance of being honest to myself. 

Though she wasn’t as fortunate as I was, I, myself, am grateful to all those who came out before me. It made me realize that I’m not alone. There are so many of us in the midst of our uncertainties, careers, relationships and the everyday humdrum activities of our lives, who have to deliberate whether we can afford to come out. Each time we come out, we change a little of the world we live in. We do our bit in making a difference. Sadly, while in some places in some countries more people are coming out and making progress in terms of LGBT rights, we in India are still in a rudimentary stage when it comes to LGBT rights. Though some amazing things have happened over the last three years after the Delhi High Court judgement, we have a very long way to go.

People need to see more LGBT faces. They need to see more of us in our ordinariness, doing our daily chores at homes, pursuing our goals in our universities and our work places, speaking about our lives, hopes and disappointments and, most importantly, being comfortable about ourselves.

*Name changed