Sunday, April 16, 2006

Gay Space

The other day I did something singularly enlightening. I watched a movie.

Don’t get me wrong. I do get out. But the movie I saw was Brokeback Mountain, which is a good movie, no doubt. Not spectacular. Good, excellent in parts. That wasn’t what prompted this. It was everything else.

I saw this movie with a friend on a DVD at home and I quite liked it. Not because it had a gay theme or it was what they term “bold” or anything, but because it had a nice feel to it. Because few movies have been able to show unconditional love so well, let alone homosexual love between men. Because the lovemaking scenes were extremely well shot. Because like most exceptional films, the movie captures certain moments frozen in time, because it shows the travel through time and space extraordinarily well. Because it fills you with a bittersweet symphony of emotions and quite a lot of food for the thought.

What really set this thought process off was a lazy Sunday brunch in a snooty restobar in a tony Pune suburb. A group of my friends, all between the ages of 26-32, all known to be highly erudite, extremely sophisticated, very well informed in terms of art, literature, popular culture and current affairs. The kind of people who would understand Cubism and the Blue Period. The ideal set if you’re looking for intelligent company in the world of the challenged.

Or so I thought.

I was sitting pretty on my third cosmopolitan filled up with the best brunch money could buy, on a very happy high, listening indolently to several animated conversations at once. Then someone said, “oh, have you heard? Its true. Aditya’s gay!” Aditya being the best-loved boy on the social scene. I had met Aditya. He was extremely handsome, nice, funny, sophisticated with a wicked sense of humour, London-returned with a seductive British accent, a spiffy sense of clothing, old moneyed, understated and chivalrous to the core. Apparently they had their suspicions all along because he was 27 and hadn’t even remotely been linked with any girl. In the same breath, that they would slash any book or movie, they meticulously began to dissect this boy who was a large part of their social circle, how he’s a stain on this upper middle class parents, the reasons as to why he’s gay, the repercussions thereafter, life for him from this point on, now that everyone knows…

The feeling of content peace in my heart began to spiral downwards into my belly making a vicious knot on some feeling which I still cant identify and simultaneously left a filthy taste in my mouth. I know people are hypocrites. Thats fine. I can deal with that. But this entire volte-face because of one boy’s sexual orientation is something I refuse to put up with anymore.

I remember another time when this dirty feeling had hit me. Hard. Ironically, there was a movie involved there as well. Boys don’t cry. My friend and I had gone to watch that movie, At the age of 19, it was quite emotionally scarring to watch. But what was more scarring was the reaction of the audience.

Just to give you a backdrop, we were sitting in a movie hall in uptown Bombay, Sterling to be precise, Sunday afternoon. The crowd was the usual motley bunch, young people and old people alike. We were probably the youngest there.

Anyone out there who has seen the movie will agree with me when I say its one hell of a difficult movie to watch. The raw pain and the sheer emotional, physical and sexual violence still send violent shivers down my spine. There were five others in the theater who thought that way. The others laughed their way through it all.

They laughed when they saw Hilary Swank struggle to cover her sexuality.

They laughed when they realized that the character of Lisa actually fell in love with another girl

They laughed when she was gang raped by two men she once thought friends.

They laughed uproariously when the social worker asked her if she had been raped and she said, she doesn’t know.

They laughed when she died in the end.

The Indian audiences defense mechanism when faced with an uncomfortable situation. They laugh. Mature.

Six years later, the situation hasn’t changed much.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a vitriolic rant because I couldn’t watch a movie in peace. It’s the entire attitude shift when the word homosexuality emerged. And more so, it’s the Indian attitude to it.

We’ve all seen the usual tryingly rehearsed discomfited expression a man has around a gay man. Like there is potential harm to his virtue as a man. (What virtue, one might ask but that’s another long story there.) I personally still don’t see why every heterosexual man needs to think that every gay man will be attracted to him but whatever.

We have all seen body language change in front of two gay men.

We also have seen it change pretty drastically and diametrically I might add when the two gay people in question are women.

We have all lived through the elbow nudging, the snickering the video camera slant jokes.

We have tolerated the use of words like queer, faggot, fag, pouffe, femme in several derogatory contexts and laughed at all the portrayal of homosexuality in mainstream pop culture.

We have cultivated a homophobia that wasn’t ever a part of Indian culture. Not that the homosexual man is treated any better in Europe and the Americas but at least their existence is acknowledged. At least they can sit in the same room and make self-deprecating sitcoms about being a mo in the real world.

In fact, The West sees India as the country that gave humanity the first, most scientific and most explicit treatise of
love. The temple carvings of Khajuraho depict sexual practices more advanced than most of its contemporaries.

Indian mythology is full of instances where people (read Gods) change gender at will, often for sexual purposes, to satisfy another person, political reasons, or even ego-directed reasons. Lord Krishna did it, and even the sagely Brahma is known to have taken the female form, but then that is not in the purview of homosexuality. The only thing these instances serve to highlight is that sex, change of sex or sexual behaviors was never taboo in ancient India.

Then why now? Why the steady digression from being one of the most evolved culture since the history of the world to one that doesn’t even know the norms of social behaviour? Why is it that our country is the only developing democracy that will physically shudder around a homosexual man, who will deride his effeminate quality, who will physically be ill when he realizes that one of his closest friends and colleague is gay? (I swear I know somebody who reacted like that)

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, was enacted by the British in 1860. It criminalizes what it calls, ‘sexual offences against the order of nature’. It does not in any place define what constitutes the order of nature, but the judicial pronouncements that have come over the past
one and half century has extended the application of this section to all forms of sexual expressions that is possible between two male persons. Every time the law or the authorities have come across instances of lesbianism, there has been a thus far unsuccessful attempt to apply this law to them as well. Homosexuality in India stands criminalized because of a mid 19th century colonial law. (so are fellatio and cunnilingus but that again is another story)

Very few
cases on this law have actually reached the upper courts in all this time, but the law continues to be a compelling tool of subjugation. It provides the impunity to a venal protection system to extort money, blackmail, indulge in violence, and extract other favors, including sexual favors, by dangling this law on homosexual males and transvestites and transsexual persons. It impedes sexual health promotion activities like HIV/AIDS Interventions amongst same sex attracted males. It discourages reporting of male rape, and therefore encourages such rape, often by police. In sum, it disrupts the social existence of all same sex attracted persons, erodes their dignity and self-respect, and reduces them to a sub-human level of existence. All because some guys like other guys. ..

Far be it from us to question or even try to change the law. Hell, we can’t even keep our streets clean. But maybe we can keep our minds a wee little more open to the feelings of others. Maybe gay bashing in India can be elevated to the real issue that it is than being stationed in its position of locker room talk, maybe a certain friend of mine could openly proclaim he’s gay without fear of losing his job, maybe one day a gay man can walk away from another group of men knowing he will not be derided.

Maybe I’m kidding myself. But I hate the feeling of not being able to do anything at all. But if anything that goes against the order of nature is deemed criminal, that maybe one should sit up and smell the mocha. the order of nature by itself is changing. And the last time i checked, Buddhist philosophy claims that change is the only permanent thing.

So that balmy Sunday morning, I did the only thing that made sense to me at that point. I put down my share of the money and made my way home.

Inconsequential? Perhaps. But at least I can sleep at night.