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Orinam, a Chennai-based voluntary collective and online resource combating prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people on building an inclusive society.
By L. Ramakrishnan
As I write this, a crisis is unfolding in the life of Mala K.*a young woman from Chennai, whose parents discovered that their daughter is attracted to other women, not men.
Initial response: Panic. What will others say?
It’s a close knit and conservative society; everyone’s business is everyone else’s. A lesbian daughter would make them the laughing stock of the entire community.
Second response: Let’s cure her of this ‘disease’.
She is rushed to the psychiatric ward of a private hospital, where, fortunately, the doctors tell the parents homosexuality is not an illness, and that medical science has no way to change her orientation. Others of her kind are less fortunate – drugged with anti-depressants or hormones, and administered electric shocks by unethical physicians – in futile attempts to make them heterosexual.
Third response: Let’s pray the homosexuality out of her.
She is dragged to a religious camp in a secure compound in rural Kerala, where dozens of people are currently attempting to rid her of her same-sex attraction through ‘prayer’ and mental torture.
While these responses may appear extreme, they are not at all uncommon. It is far worse if the child expresses cross-sex identification, i.e. if their boy wants to live life as a girl or vice-versa.
LGBT In The Indian Context
For many Indians, mention of lesbian-gay-bi-transgender (LGBT) issues invokes images of hijras, members of that highly marginalized community of ‘neither men nor women’ who eke out a living through seeking alms or sex work. Alternately, the term conjures up images of decadent, sex-crazed youngsters, wilfully ignoring their traditional Indian values and upbringing.
In this article, I hope to address some common questions that non-LGBT people ask about LGBT issues. Next, I wish to discuss why all of us, and women in particular, should be allies in the struggle for equal rights that LGBT people are engaged in.
Ten Common questions That Non-LGBT People Ask
1. Is homosexuality a mental illness? This one’s easy. No. Decades of research have led the World Health Organization and professional associations of psychiatrists and psychologists to conclude that homosexuality is not an illness. However, hostility and harassment from an ignorant society can lead homosexual individuals to experience low self-esteem, depression, and even suicidal tendencies.
2. Is homosexuality abnormal? Well, if you use the term normal in the statistical sense of ‘commonplace’, yes, homosexuality is rare. But then, so is left-handedness. And we no longer consider left-handedness an abnormality, only a variation in nature. Further, in a society which despises homosexuality, we do not know if it is as rare as it seems, as understandably people are averse to being open about it.
3. Is homosexuality unnatural? By natural, do you mean ‘found in the natural (non-human) world? If so, then homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender are natural – documented in over 450 species.
4. Is homosexuality becoming more common? We certainly hear more about homosexuality, and possibly are seeing more openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people, than, say 20 or 30 years ago. But is this because of increasing numbers? Or is it because of increasing visibility, and the fact that fewer Indian newspapers and magazines are shying away from discussing the topic?
Is homosexuality becoming more common because of increasing numbers or due to increasing visibility?
5. Did LGBT people exist in Indian history or is it a Western import? You will be surprised at how widespread, yet false, the notion is that homosexuality is foreign to Indian culture. Scholars such as Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, and Devdutt Pattanaik are among those who have discussed same-sex love and transgender people in Indian culture, history and mythology.
6. Do bad experiences with men such as abuse or violence to girl children or adults make women lesbian? No. If they did, there would be millions more lesbians on this planet.
7. Is homosexuality the result of bad parenting or undesirable company? No. While the evidence on genetic bases for homosexuality is suggestive of a biological pre-disposition, the jury is still out on this. What is certain, however, is that bad parenting or the company we keep do not influence something as intrinsic to the human experience as sexual orientation.
8. I think my child is gay/lesbian/bisexual or transgender. What should I do? In brief, don’t panic. You need to separate your concern about your child’s well being from fears of what others will say or feel about it. Find yourself resources, connect with other parents of LGBT children, speak to an LGBT-affirmative counsellor, and find out from your child as to what you can do to be supportive. Do not, repeat do not, attempt to change him or her by any means. It will only cause your child and you untold grief.
9. Is being LGBT illegal in India? No. The historic July 2, 2009, ruling of Delhi High Court declared that the infamous Section 377 was unconstitutional to criminalize consensual relationships among adults. Current activist efforts are focused primarily on getting the Supreme Court to uphold the Delhi High Court ruling of decriminalization.
10. Is same-sex marriage legal in India? No, and it isn’t likely to be, for a while. In July 2011, Gurgaon Additional Sessions Judge Vimal Kumar ruled that a same-sex female couple facing harassment and violence from their families was entitled to the same protection accorded to male-female couples persecuted for inter-caste, inter-religious or same-gotra marriages. This, however, does not constitute declaring same-sex marriages legal, though it has been misrepresented in this way by the media.
Why We Should Be Allies Of LGBT People
As women raised in patriarchal societies (that’s most women and most societies), we are all aware of gender-associated expectations and roles, and how these often serve to keep women in a subordinate position to men.
Gender-associated differences in behaviour, appearance and roles, are among the first differences a child is made aware of when growing up. Boys and girls are expected to like different things and to be treated differently. While some gender differences may be rooted in biology, many are socially enforced.
Thus, if a boy is shy, introverted, uninterested in sports, or likes stereotypically ‘girly’ colours or hobbies, he is bullied, teased, or ostracized by peers and adults. If a woman is assertive and refuses to yield to stereotypical expectations of femininity at home or the workplace, she may invite derisive comments, abuse, and even violence.
This enforcement of gender roles rooted in sexism and misogyny is the root cause of LGBT discrimination. A gay man is considered an inferior man because he is “like a woman” as stereotypes go, and hence every effort is made to make him “become a man”.
Conversely, a woman who prefers intimate relationships with women is viewed as transgressing the patriarchally imposed boundaries of womanhood that presume her availability to men.
A gay man is considered an inferior man because he is “like a woman” as stereotypes go, and hence every effort is made to make him “become a man”
In 1999, plans to hold a national lesbian conference in Sri Lanka led to irate letters to a prominent national newspaper, calling for convicted rapists to be let loose on the lesbians, ostensibly to force them to return to heterosexual womanhood. On receiving a complaint from the local LGBT civil rights group against the letter because it promoted violence against (lesbian) women, the Press Council not only endorsed the newspaper’s right to publish the letter to the editor, but also maintained that the complainant, Sherman de Rose had no standing to complain, as he was a man! The phenomenon called ‘corrective rape ’, where men rape lesbians for violating patriarchal dictates of heterosexuality, has assumed epidemic proportions in South Africa.
In India, incidents of family members separating same-sex couples forcefully and violence against LGBT people are ubiquitous, and hugely underreported. In Kerala alone, 24 suicide pacts have been documented between 1996 and 2004, highlighting the urgent need for support systems for lesbian and bisexual women.
These intrinsic connections between sexism and homophobia make LGBT people and women of all orientations natural allies in the struggle for gender equality and elimination of gendered violence. Only by working together can we combat prejudice and violence, and ensure that more LGBT people do not have to experience the same fate as Mala.
*Names changed to protect privacy
For more information: Email [email protected], and check out our list of recommended reading at http://orinam.net/recommended-reading/
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