The Shrinking Universe
Gay, but not carefree
A homosexual in India is up against not just the law but also social ostracisation.
Most people have mixed feelings when it comes to gays, lesbians and homosexuality. There are, as there usually are, extreme reactions. The conservatives would have us believe that homosexuality is unnatural and therefore execrable and condemnable. They agitate for more stringent legislation against gay people and are smugly satisfied with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises carnal activity “against the order of nature” and therefore, gay sex. At the other end of the spectrum exist the activists who stridently proclaim that gayness is superior behaviour and a sign of great creativity, for, many of the world’s leading artistes have been known to be gay. And somewhere in between are the liberals who have mixed feelings. While they vaguely believe that it is the right of the individual to choose whether to be gay or straight, they’re not quite sure how they’d handle it if a member of their own family announced that s/he was homosexual.
However, the human race has no choice but to address the issue of homosexuality seriously today, for, there are far too many lesbians and gay people in the world who are articulately refusing to be marginalised. Although there exists an acronym LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender) that collectively refers to people preferring to have same-gender relationships, I will, for the purpose of this article, restrict myself to the use of the term homosexuality to refer to both gays and lesbians. I do so because I am not proposing to examine issues pertaining to bisexuals and transgendered persons in this piece, for, these merit independent exploration.
Certainly over the last decade or so, awareness on the subject of homosexuality has increased. Indian film-makers have addressed the issue in films such as “Fire” and “Girlfriend”, even though they have, unfortunately, portrayed homosexual behaviour as arising from emotionally traumatising events, thereby implying deviance. Books such as Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History edited by Ruth Vanita and Salim Kidwai have been published and have also received awards. Homosexual behaviour is also being written about, even if only sporadically, in popular fiction where gays and lesbians are not being portrayed as caricatures. NGOs for LGBTs have sprung up in most metropolitan cities, even though most, but not all, of these organisations have to do with the protection of gay people in the context of the management and prevention of HIV/AIDS. Gay pride parades have taken place in some of the metros without their participants courting arrest. Politicians, gay rights and other social activists, NGOs, intellectuals and even the judiciary have urged the government to review Sec 377 of the IPC and make homosexuality legal, or at least, not illegal. All of these notwithstanding, gays and lesbians continue to be misunderstood and marginalised, largely owing to the ignorance that shrouds the subject of homosexuality.
Tackling the issue of whether homosexuality is normal or abnormal is the first step in understanding the phenomenon. Going by evolutionary theories, the absence of reproductive mating would imply that same-gender relationships are unnatural. However, the fact that homosexuality has been referred to in ancient historical literature (including in the Laws of Manu) coupled with how widely-practised homosexual behaviour is, suggests that this thinking be reviewed. If a phenomenon assumes the magnitude and proportions that homosexuality does, then obviously, it has to be factored into the theory of natural selection. At the risk of oversimplification (I am certainly not an expert in evolutionary biology), it is conceivable that for the survival of the species in an over-crowded planet, the human organism has evolved some form of procreational balancing mechanism and therefore, homosexuality, far from being against the order of nature, is actually built into the natural selection process in some complex manner and actually ends up providing the human race an evolutionary advantage.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association is one of the keystones that mental health professionals have used when it comes to diagnosing mental disorders. Interestingly, the first and second editions of the DSM labelled homosexuality as a sexual deviance. In 1973, when the second edition was being revised, there was much controversy surrounding the inclusion of homosexuality and in its third edition, a new term was introduced — “ego-dystonic homosexuality”. The term simply means a person who engages in homosexual behaviour but is unhappy and indeed, deeply distressed about it. As a result of this there were multiple therapeutic interventions that such persons were subject to, ranging from psychoanalysis to aversion therapy (application of an aversive stimulus such as a mild shock every time the individual was shown a photograph depicting a homosexual act). Finally, sense prevailed and by the time the revised version of the third edition of DSM was released, homosexuality was quietly eliminated from its ambit. And it has stayed that way for the fourth edition as well.
Traumatised by society
Having worked with a fair number of lesbians and gay people in fairly intensive psychotherapy, I know that the only mental health problems they really face are the social consequences of their choice — the marginalisation, the experience of humiliation, the social pressure to go in for straight marriages, the subterfuge associated with their search for partners, the lack of ready availability of resources that can help them respond to their inner dictates and the near-impossibility of going public with their relationships even if they are lucky enough to find long-term partners. It is important to remember that homosexuality is not only about sex. It is more about relationships. People with a homosexual orientation can have intense, complete and committed long-term relationships only with people who share their orientation, and these relationships, like any other, include both emotional and sexual intimacy. And this is the biggest problem that Indian gays and lesbians have. There are very few spaces where they can meet and court each other. Add to this the fact that they come up against large masses of homophobes, and you can well imagine why their cups of joy don’t particularly run over. As a result, many force themselves into straight marriages that they cannot sustain, thereby causing havoc to the life of the hapless spouse as well. And those who cannot do this end up either leading extremely lonely, frustrated, single lives or become commercial sex workers. There are, however, the lucky few who do manage to come to terms with their homosexuality and find like-minded partners who they “marry” and settle down with.
Theories abound when it comes to why some people are homosexual and I do not propose to examine the nuances in detail. Some people believe that hormones are responsible. Some have it that masculinity and femininity are on a continuum and depending on where precisely one locates oneself on it, one could be gay or straight. Others believe that childhood events and the nature of the relationship with the opposite gender parent are implicated. And still others maintain that gayness is the natural state of all human beings and that straightness is the deviance. Whatever the reasons that are responsible for homosexuality, it is important to remember that homosexuals are just a group of people who have made a conscious choice to practise a different form of life. Hopefully, in the foreseeable future, the law too will see that alternate sexuality is just an adult choice and not an aberration. Until then, let’s just leave them alone to choose their partners and get on with their lives, just like the rest of the world does.
The writer is a psychiatrist, columnist and author. His latest book, The 24x7 Marriage, is due out in late 2008. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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