Being Gay in Bombay

October 6, 2014 • The World at Yale • Views: 2671

By Rudi-Ann Miller

“I want to start off by showing you John Abraham’s butt,” said Parmesh Shahani, gesturing at the image of the Bollywood star as he addressed the gathering of twenty. What ensued was an insightful narrative of the gay male experience in Mumbai, the LGBT struggle in India and the modern Indian identity, punctuated by Bollywood clips, fashion, and Shahani’s ebullient humor.

Parmesh Shahani is a 2014 Yale World Fellow and author of the book, “Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India.”

“Being gay is a very Indian concept,” Shahani’s asserts. Indeed, queer India has a protracted history from gay and lesbian subtext in Kama sutra and other Vedic and Sanskrit texts to the temple carvings that decorate the country. Historians Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have shown that homosexuality was widely tolerated, and actually flourished, until the adoption of British colonial law in the 1860s.

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Erotic statues from the Khajuraho Group of Monements, built between 950 and 1050 AD (Courtesy Creative Commons)

Known as Section 377 of India’s penal code, the law was struck down by the Delhi High Court in 2009, decriminalizing homosexuality in the city. However, the landmark decision was reversed four years later by the Indian Supreme Court, alleging, “The Court is not in the business of protecting the rights of minuscule minorities.” “But then what is the Court in the business of, if not to protect minuscule minorities?” Shahani says perturbed. To add to the confusion, in 2014, another progressive Indian Supreme Court judgment declared that transgender rights were human rights and protected under the Indian Constitution. Thus, in contemporary India, it is legal to identify as transgender yet illegal to engage in homosexual activities.

Nevertheless, Shahani remains focused on providing a framework to facilitate discussion about homosexuality in India, which may lead to eventual acceptance. One challenge is creating a language to delineate the varying sexual identities in India. While Western terms in the LGBT spectrum are a starting point, Shahani maintains they are not perfectly aligned to the Indian context.

Moreover, work needs to be done to reconcile the concept of ‘Indian-ness’ with homosexuality. Gay men of India, Shahani believes, are not as radical as men in the West. “In the West, the story is you’re gay, you are rejected by your family or community, so you leave to go to San Francisco or New York, have a lot of sex and at some point someone fights for marriage rights so you can go back home and get married and start following the heteronormative script.” On the contrary, Indians are extremely family-oriented and don’t want to isolate themselves from their communities. Most, instead, hope for traditional outcomes including an arranged marriage or marrying within one’s caste.

One strategy to gain acceptance may be to use Bollywood as a mechanism for change. The 2008 Bollywood hit “Dostana,” whose stars include the perfectly sculpted John Abraham, was instrumental in enabling conversations about homosexuality at a time when India was suddenly ready to talk about LGBT issues but did not have a framework to do so. In the film, two straight men pretend to be a couple to snag an apartment rental, then end up falling for a third roommate, a woman. On the surface the film was problematic for the LGBT community: it was silly, elitist, and parodied gay men. However, on a sub-textual level, it was beneficial because the director and codified a sense of acceptance even within the laughter and obvious stereotypical depictions of the gay community in India.

With or without the histrionics of Bollywood, Shahani believes it is essential to record the experiences of LGBT individuals in order to further human rights and equality in India.

Rudi-Ann Miller is a sophomore in Silliman College. She can be contacted at rudi-ann.miller@yale.edu.

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