Thursday, March 22, 2007
Growing up Gay in India
I'm waiting at the live shot position here with the World News Asia team in CP in Central Delhi. I'm glad I've got the chance to chat with Anjali after the "Growing Up Gay" piece runs because it brings up so many interesting issues.
Setting up this story has been incredibly difficult. We set out to survey the challenges and unique perspective that gays and lesbians in India face. Being gay in India can get one thrown into jail in this country because of a section of the Indian Penal Code (Section 377) which criminalizes same-sex relationships.
The law, drafted in the 1860s when the British were still ruling the subcontinent of India, states:
"Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature ... shall be punished with imprisonment ... and shall also be liable to fine."
Not only is there a law against it -- but there is a such a social stigma that goes along with being gay in India that there is a reluctance to talk about the issue openly.
It took many weeks to find people who were willing to go on-camera to talk. Those that chose to felt it was important to help us try to understand a world which is largely hidden from view.
Gautam Bahn, an activist and author I interviewed, mentioned that it is almost a bigger deal to be unmarried in India than it is to be gay. He underlines the incredible societal pressure that many young Indians feel to get married.
"Marriage is seen as an eventuality, not as a possibilty," Mario D'Penha a 25-year-old gay Indian tells me.
It was the night that I interviewed a guy who asked me to call him "Shankey" that I found to be one of the most interesting. He's married to a woman and they have three kids together. He says he regularly has sex with other men. He felt compelled to talk with us because he says there are so many Indian men like him.
It was sad to think of this guy's wife at home wondering where he was -- having no idea that he was talking with CNN about being gay. I worried about the health and safety of his wife as well.
"Shankey" painted a picture of a rather promiscuous life of sex in public parks with other men who may be returning to their wives and families.
Of course, there's no way of knowing how many men there are or even how typical this behavior may be. But, for this one guy, I worried about his wife -- on top of feeling bad that he had to live a double life.
One of the issues I didn't get to cover in our piece was the difficulty that HIV/AIDS prevention groups have in targeting messages to gay groups. In a country where such relationships are illegal, very few messages are geared toward gays and lesbians. Some of the lesser-educated guys I spoke with told me that there are some here that don't know about the potential risks involved.
There are incredible social divisions among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community here. Even the term "gay" can be considered to apply only to an educated, English-speaking, wealthier class here.
Author Gautam Bhan says: "Caste and religion and class are all identities that are acceptable. They're traditional. A sexual identity is very disconcerting to Indian society."
There are also social divisions within the Indian gay community. Among the predominantly Hindi-speaking community, some men identify as being "kothis," a sort of feminized male identity, Bhan writes in his book. Hijras are another sub-set of gay life. "Hijras include men who go in for hormonal treatment, those who undergo sex-change operations and those who are born as hermaphrodites," Bhan writes. Many are simply referred to as "MSM" or men who have sex with other men.
Bhan says young women are often those most willing to hear his story:
"When we as activists will go to a college and talk about sexuality, the first people to understand us are single young women -- always. Because they, living in a city like Delhi, know exactly what it means not to have sexual freedom. to feel watched all the time, to feel like their sexuality is controlled or policed, to reel like they have to hide or lie about what they do -- and they instantly get it."
Over the past 10 years, gay and lesbian lfe has emerged in pop culture. The movie "Fire," released in India in 1998, depicts a lesbian relationship. When the movie hit theaters, it sparked an outcry.
There is a budding gay life here and some in the wealthier LGBT community have gay nights at bars, groups of friends and freedoms which may not exist for poorer gays in India. This was a fascinating story to get to cover -- and I found it became dinner conversation among friends in India -- curious to hear what I was finding.
You can watch my report here
-- From Seth Doane, CNN International Correspondent
ABOUT THIS BLOGHear from CNN reporters across the globe. "In the Field" is a unique blog that will let you share the thoughts and observations of CNN's award-winning international journalists from their far-flung bureaus or on assignment. Whether it's from conflict zone, a summit gathering, or the path least traveled, "In the Field" gives you a personal, front row seat to CNN's global newsgathering team.