Rayman Mathoda was driving down Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles in the year 2000 when she decided that she had made a mistake. She needed to live her truth and get back together with her girlfriend whom she had broken up with earlier. She could not go back to India to start what she believed would be a false heterosexual marriage.
When the couple reconciled, they came out to their families in India over email. It went south, she recalled. The families rejected the couple and their hostile response scared Mathoda — she did not feel safe going to India.
“It made me decide to stay back in the US,” she said. “Until that moment, we both wanted to move back to Delhi and live and build a life in India.”
Mathoda is among many LGBTQ Indians who move or stay abroad where they can embrace their identity, find love, and live with more rights and little stigma. Now, many look to their motherland with high hopes after the Indian Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case on legalizing same-sex marriage. The court reserved judgment but a ruling could come in the weeks ahead.
More than a dozen petitioners are asking the court for the same rights granted to heterosexual couples, such as eligibility to adopt, open joint bank accounts, and cover their spouse as part of their insurance.
LGBTQ Indians throughout the world hope that the five-judge panel will rule in favor of same-sex marriages to build on the historic 2018 Supreme Court decision to decriminalize consensual gay sex, which was a relic of the country’s colonial past.
The opposition to same-sex marriage comes from religious groups and the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which says it recognizes many forms of relationships but views legal marriage as an arrangement between a man and a woman.
It is unclear how long the court will take to announce a decision, but if legalized, it would make India the second country in Asia to recognize same-sex marriages.
Mathoda stayed in the US, because she could not see a life in India with her now-wife Avantika Shahi in the face of family opposition. The lack of legal rights for their union further sealed her decision not to return to India. She also worried about how the negative view of the LGBTQ community in India at the time could affect her in other areas of her life, such as her career.
“It was blatantly obvious to me at that moment that it was not possible for me to have a high-level job or success in India,” she told CNN.
Her parents have yet to accept her wife and four children, Mathoda said, and she laments being ostracized from her communities and family events.
“They told me, ‘You are not gay,’” she told CNN, adding that her family thought she was being influenced by external factors like Western culture. “They regretted allowing me to come to America. They thought they had made a huge mistake in letting all of that happen because they lost me, and I fell under these influences.”
This resistance against homosexuality as a part of Western culture has long existed in India. However, experts argue that it’s not homosexuality, but homophobia that was imported from the West. The arrival of British colonialism with its Victorian morals violently suppressed homosexuality in India, according to Rohit Dasgupta, a scholar of queer culture at the University of Glasgow.
Britain’s anti-sodomy laws subsequently became Section 377 in India, he added. “When it came to India in the guise of Section 377 for the first time, it put into statute that homosexuality is criminal.”
There is historical precedence in Indian culture that suggests homosexuality was accommodated, if not celebrated, Dasgupta said. Sculptures and monuments at historical sites such as Khajuraho and Konark are “examples of acceptance and accommodation within those ancient Indian cultures, which was completely wiped away through this subsequent bringing of Victorian morals.”
Nevertheless, the view persists that non-heterosexual relationships are not part of Indian culture. This was made clear to Aditya Gupta when he came out to his parents. Gupta used an alias and asked that his real name not be published because he fears for his physical safety during his visits to India.
“I come from a very conservative family. They’re Hindu nationalists and associate with organizations that identify with that ideology,” he said.
“They put me through religious conversion therapy. They told me they will take me to a doctor to get a hormone test. It was a violation of my individuality,” Gupta added.
So eight years ago, when homosexuality was still criminal in India, he requested his employer to transfer him to the United States.
“It was a self-imposed exile,” he said. “The decision was that I’m not going to come back.”
Gupta went on to find a partner and fall in love, but he hasn’t told his friends and family about it to this day. In the US, the couple bought a house together and they share finances. “We share life milestones together that you celebrate in a marriage,” he told CNN.
In India, his cash isn’t eligible to be shared with his partner, who is an Indian-born US citizen. But that’s just one obstacle to having the same rights as married heterosexual couples in the country. The couple now wants to start a family, and they want the child to be Indian too. But the country’s law places limitations on surrogacy, on adopting a child as a same-sex couple, and even on an unmarried male adopting a female child if Gupta were to apply as individual because his marriage in the US would not be recognized in the Indian government’s eyes.
“We are married in the US, but we are not married in the country that we were born in. It’s a big deal for us,” he tells CNN. “When we go back to India, we have to pretend that we are bachelors. It takes a huge toll on your mental health. You’re constantly living a lie.”
While there are still many in India who oppose same-sex marriage, public attitudes have shown a shift over time to support LGBTQ rights.
In her book “Bollywood’s India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Contemporary India,” author Rachel Dwyer, a scholar of Indian cinema and cultures, argues that Bollywood films over the last two decades have told stories that are a reliable guide to understanding the nation’s changing ideas.
And certainly, while films of the ’90s and early 2000s used LGBTQ characters as a comic factor or a tragic character, Bollywood has explored queer stories more seriously in recent years through films like “Badhaai Do,” which dives into lavender marriages and “Maja Ma,” which shows the suppression of queer desires — all set in small-town India instead of big, urban cities, as Dasgupta points out.
Dasgupta himself is a gay man who lives with his partner in the United Kingdom. He has gone on to become a Labour and Cooperative party councillor in the London Borough of Newham, where he has earned a reputation as a leader for social justice and equality. He told CNN he has talked with his partner about the possibility of moving to India, and while many factors stand in the way, a big logistical factor for the relocation would be acquiring a visa for his partner, applying for which wouldn’t work under the current legal framework for same-sex couples. He wonders if a Supreme Court ruling in the favor of same-sex marriage would make that move easier.
The Indian Supreme Court goes back in session in July after its summer break. A ruling in favor will also encourage Mathoda to apply for overseas citizen status in India for her four children, and give them the rights that children of heterosexual Indian parents are given.
For Gupta, the ruling may help him live out his dream of having a big wedding in India.
“We had always wanted to do a big fat Indian wedding. But over the years, with what we went through, it made us feel like ‘let’s get married, but we don’t have to tell.’ We yearn for a party, with our parents and siblings giving us their love and blessings,” he said, adding that he would invite them and tell them: “The law recognizes it. It’s on you now.”