Conversations on Homosexuality

IPC Section 377 — Unnatural offences: 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 term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Just a few years after the Delhi HC declared that this law was against the right to equality guaranteed by our Constitution, the Supreme Court revoked the judgment, condemning members of the LGBT community to a life outside the law again. In such an environment, even an anonymous interview is a brave step to take.

RainbowI went to the interview with an undue sense of expectation, prepared to be tactful, sensitive … but X surprised me. He certainly didn’t subscribe to the tropes popular media abounds in. But neither was he a victim. He says he’s never felt the need to foreground this aspect of his personality above others. I expected some distress, and definitely justifiable anger against a largely intolerant society, but he wore his tag with ease and spoke with calm.

Tell us about yourself. To whom have you spoken about being gay?

I’m 26. I’m a research scholar at the Institute, and have been here since 2011. I wanted to do this to increase awareness about homosexuality within the Institute. I don’t think there is enough open discussion about this here.

I’ve always known that I was homosexual. School was a different deal — I never thought about this there, and focused on my studies. The first I’ve come out is to friends from college. They don’t treat me differently and they’ve kept their promise of support throughout.

I have spoken about this to a few friends from the institute, but have never come out openly because I do think it’ll adversely affect my career here. I am yet to talk to my parents. It is a struggle sometimes, because my family has expectations about marriage and all that. But I have other things to do, like my research. I don’t look at my sexuality as a burden, and I don’t always think about it. Society has made it seem very complicated, but I don’t think it’s so. At some point of time, you’ll have to tell the family and that weighs upon you. It’s like telling them about a bad grade/failing a subject — you just postpone it because you’re afraid about their reaction. But with friends, it feels like perfidy, hiding something of such consequence from them. But I also expected them to get it, which is something I can’t take for granted with my parents, or strangers in the Institute.

Is the campus LGBT-friendly?

Since I’m not an undergrad, I don’t socialize much because research scholars work alone mostly. As far as I can see, there is not much open talk about it in insti. I haven’t witnessed any anti-homosexual incident on campus.

I haven’t talked about it to a faculty member either. But in the recent protest against section 377 (IITs against Section 377), I did see some faculty names among others in the Google form, which was quite encouraging.

I never felt the need to approach Mitr or get external counselling, and neither am I part of an online forum or support group. Maybe I just didn’t feel the need to talk to anyone about it to anybody else. No, I don’t feel isolated by that.

What is it about general reactions from society that most annoy you?

There are many misconceptions — people think sexuality is a choice, while in reality, it’s natural. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be homosexual because it is the ‘road less travelled’. Though we divide gender and sexuality into discrete units for our convenience, they are fuzzy areas. Not all homosexual males are ‘feminine’, and not all heterosexual males are ‘masculine’. I am not saying that a male being more feminine is bad, but just that one cannot apply such labels to one form of sexuality without exception.

There are three types of sexualities in general — homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality. Though there are physical differences between the genders, there aren’t any for sexualities, which makes them less tangible and harder to understand. Homosexuals are those who get romantically and sexually attracted to the same gender as themselves, heterosexuals to the opposite, and bisexuals to both.

If I were to be introduced, I wouldn’t say I’m homosexual — I have many facets to my personality just like you. Personally, I don’t feel the need to identify myself as homosexual, over my other roles.

Even though we say we’re democratic, we have the mindset of the feudal age with respect to our definitions about masculinity and femininity, and these norms are rigid — to transgress them is ‘abnormal’ or ‘unnatural’. Homophobia is linked to patriarchy and is similar to male domination over women. Anybody who does not conform to the norm of the heterosexual male is ‘inferior’ or ‘abnormal’. Patriarchy is socially conditioned, and both men and women learn it as they grow.

The average person talks only about homosexual males. This is because it is a particular blow to masculinity, which is also why they are also assigned a different gender altogether, and why they are ridiculed for being more womanly (and therefore ‘inferior’ to the Heterosexual Male). This is why movie representations are so clichéd. We stick to what we know, because it is convenient.

Also, people assume that the numbers of homosexuals have increased in recent times, and that ‘modern culture’ has been imported from the West, and we’re trying out ‘hippie’ culture like them. It’s more an increase in coming out and not an increase in homosexual populations. Then there is the use of religion as a justification for being homophobic. I’d say keep religion out of it — don’t use that as a card against homosexuality. As a secular nation, any rational decision must be taken independently, without the influence of any religion.

And Section 377?

We need to understand the history of the Indian Penal Code. In India, we’ve always been an open-minded people. But with the British came new norms of morality and restrictions, and IPC comes from that. Our society was aware of different sexualities since ages ago.  But section 377 subverts that by creating labels like ‘normal’ and unnatural’. Who decides what is ‘normal’ anyway? Nature plays unscalable games.

The arguments like paedophilia and zoophilia to support section 377 are logical fallacies. I do not see any valid reasons for not allowing consensual relationships between adults of the same sex.

Is there anything you would like to convey to the student body and the members of the LGBT community on campus?

Don’t feel inferior as a person, you’re just the same as everyone else. It will take time to come to terms with it, but read about it online and talk to support groups (such as Orinam) or Mitr.

And if someone tells you that they’re gay, take it like a friend would — accept it and learn to understand it. To be frank, I had a bizarre conversation with a friend in my lab, and when I said I belong to the Turing side, he was completely ‘jolted’ (in his own words). But later, we had healthy discussions which, I think, made him more open to thinking about different sexualities. In addition to changing the Constitution, it is all the more important to make people from different cultures and religions understand.

T5E also asked Mitr about their stance on the LGBTQ community on campus. The following is Mitr head Dr. Sivakumar’s reply.

One afternoon, about 15 months ago, Mr. Karthik Rajkumar* walked into my office at the DoST building to discuss an issue. It was about the LGBT community.  At that time, I had no clue what a student with such an orientation goes through. He wanted to hold an awareness campaign and to start a support group. My stance at the time was that sexuality was a personal choice — and frankly speaking, I thought homosexuality was more an unusual orientation than a normal one. And who, I argued, would benefit from a support group if we were to start one, seeing as the issue is a very personal one? What started as a request from him turned into an argument. He spoke to me about how people perceive homosexuals and how it is difficult for one to come out. To me, it again looked as if it was a personal choice.

My colleague was also in my office and he also participated in the conversation.  Karthik went back with a sore heart.  I told him that I would sit down and discuss this with him again later. After Karthik left, my colleague and I were still trying to understand this. In the middle of that conversation, my colleague brought out a scenario common in hostels. Unwittingly, the students invariably dress in attire that is revealing. His question was about what would run in the mind of the homosexual student in such situations. It was a Eureka moment for both of us! The homosexual student is silently suffering such situations day-in, day-out for fear of being branded a social misfit or an outcast. The situation at home only harms him if he reveals his orientation. Battling this everyday is hard for these students who are caught in-between an orientation that is natural and the fear of losing the environment that is nurturing them. Note that almost every gali uttered by students in the hostels pertains to a gay orientation! Uttered without knowing that a student with such an orientation would feel even more miserable for no fault of theirs! How will he or she come out in the open to announce this orientation?

Once I understood this difficulty, together with Karthik’s help, and with the help of Dr. L. Ramakrishnan of Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII), we organized a program at CLT on LGBT awareness.  We also got a student representative from IIT Bombay to come and take part in the discussion.  We had the Director’s approval to go ahead with having a support group in place to help them cope with the struggles these students face. Karthik did conduct a survey after that and the raw data (since the form was not scientifically prepared) indicated a considerable population of students felt they had an LGBT orientation. One of the biggest problems we face is the formation and sustenance of the support group.  We need to identify at least one student who has come out.  Professional counsellors were ready to initiate the support group activities.  But, we needed at least a few in the group for it to sustain…  If there is any way by which we can find a solution to this problem of getting these students to come out and take the help of the support group, it will be wonderful.  In the coming academic year, we are planning to conduct an awareness program in relation to this.

We now have at least two alumni who have come out and are now doing their higher studies in the US, a place where they do not seem to have the difficulties they faced here in India in terms of acceptance. They are ready to help in whatever way possible to help create awareness among students at IITM.  We plan on inviting them next academic year to help with this effort.

*Karthik Rajkumar’s story has been published on T5E; you can find it hereA report on LGBT issues in campus, along with a few relevant interviews, can be found here.

Disclaimer: The views are not to be construed in any manner as the official views of IIT Madras.
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