Almost a decade ago, the film ‘Fire’ provoked a violent reaction from more conservative sectors of Indian society, society., Some claimed that the depiction of a relationship between the two female protagonists was against Indian culture. Quite ironically, what is believed to be the film’s inspiration, -"Lihaaf" (the quilt), is about a little girl who witnesses a lesbian love affair. It was written in 1941, and even banned by the state government at that time. The author, Ismat Chugtai, was tried for obscenity, a charge she challenged and was eventually dismissed.
The legal persecution of homosexuals in India has its roots in the nation’s colonization under the British Empire. A majority of the world’s anti-gay laws trace back to an 1860 law, which British colonizers used. This law continues in India today. While section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalizes homosexuality, it says that only homosexual males can be penalized, leaving lesbians outside its purview.
This is what defines lesbians in the country, a group that is believed to not exist. Despite the annual show of presence and numbers in different parts of the country during the gay pride parade, lesbians continue to remain one of the more closeted groups amongst the LGBT community.
Criminalization of homosexuals makes them vulnerable to arrests with a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, which makes the penalties for gay sex far steeper than for crimes such as murder or rape. LGBT people often suffer repetitive harassment in the form of extortion, discrimination, ridicule, physical and sexual assault by government agencies, depression and despair arising from a life of duplicity – people forced to lead surreptitious lives by lying to their families and the spouses they have been forced to marry. Suicide is often the only avenue out of this cycle of violence. The irony is that there have been too few cases against lesbians since the implementation of the act, allowing many conservatives to use these statistics to ‘prove’ that female homosexuality is alien to Indian culture.
Section 377 does not specifically talk about same-sex marriages, allowing gay and lesbian couples the space to exploit this loophole. Yet, it is a situation fraught with uncertainties since it also allows law enforcers to interpret the law as they want by leaving such marriages and couples at the mercy of any and every law enforcer’s whim.
More recently, another film – that otherwise would hardly have made a dent commercially – ran into trouble with conservatives in 2004 because of its flagrant "lesbian content." Ironically, it also faced the ire of lesbian groups in India because of the portrayal of the lesbian protagonist as a psychopath.
This has been the case with a lot of commercial films dealing with the topic, when the lesbian is almost always against a social or family dysfunction which appears to become the driving point of her sexual orientation, thus feeding into the logic of alternative sexuality being a dysfunctional sexuality.
It is because of representations like this that are even more dangerous because they reinforce the traditional family as the right place of the Indian woman. And anyone seen as challenging this venerated institution then becomes the target of punitive action by self-proclaimed upholders of "culture" from within the community, or even the state.
The condition of the LGBT community has to be understood with the knowledge of women’s role in Indian society, where public spaces are not only gendered but also heterosexist. In a sexually-repressive society, even women in heterosexual relationships understand sexuality mostly through violence. Caste and class distinctions ensure that heterosexual couples endure brutality and death for transgressing these barriers so the plight of the lesbian can only be imagined because violence against lesbians is inextricably linked to violence against women. Women rarely have avenues for redress, making the case for lesbians even more poignant.
Since the state protects women against domestic violence and marital rape, the widespread prevalence of these forms of violence and its tacit, societal acceptance are reflected in the small number of reported cases. But since lesbians challenge the very basis of this patriarchal order by completely excluding men from it, they are denied even this state protection against domestic violence and marital rape. They are often forced into heterosexual marriages by their own families as "a remedy" to their "sexual malfunction." There have been innumerable instances of lesbian couples forcefully separated by families and the community, and forced into heterosexual marriages. In other instances, they are legally persecuted like the case of a widowed mother of an 8-year-old boy from the eastern state of Bihar, who was charged with the abduction of her 19-year-old female partner. Many of the cases documented are of couples from small-town backgrounds and belong to the lower-middle class, having little or no exposure to the ‘western culture’ or urban queer rights discourse, which challenges the ‘alien culture’ discourse.
Patriarchy, in denying any sexual agency to women, ensures that they endure violence both as women and as lesbians since they are unable to play the primary stereotypical roles assigned to them – the good wife and caring mother. What makes homosexuality even more difficult is invisibility not just in the social domain, but also from political groups.
"Fire," failed to become a common forum for diverse rights organizations.
Lesbian rights groups that were attempting to bring the discourse into the realm of homophobia were, in fact, chastised by other rights groups for ‘derailing the larger debate of artistic freedom and democratic rights.’ Thus, the issue of sexuality in the discourses on class and caste are very often seen as trivializing these more serious issues, a reflection of the seriousness, or lack of it, with which lesbian issues are viewed so what one witnesses is a total social rejection despite the obvious prevalence. It translates into a lack of support systems for these groups, and restrictions and controls on women’s mobility allow them little access to the organizations. Even grass-root organizations are often clueless about sexuality issues and are unable to provide any support to these women.
This is what makes the first dedicated lesbian helpline in Chennai a truly path-breaking initiative.The fact that there are enough people in need of such a forum was evident, and even before the helpline was incepted in early February, the phones had already started ringing. Currently, most of the counselors are gay men, but the success of the venture is expected to draw more lesbians to volunteer. The call centre offers counseling services relying on qualified volunteers and GLBT advocacy groups as well as groups already engaged in offering psychotherapeutic services to lesbians have welcomed the move by joining hands with the helpline service. The challenges right now are enrolling enough qualified people to attend and document the calls, and finding a space for these groups of sexual minorities within mainstream society, where their daily existence is not circumscribed by the furtive lifestyle, continues to be an obstacle.