Gay life in India: interview with local gay boy Raj from Delhi
India has been backflipping in and out of the closet over the past decade.
Just as we were getting ready to show off our new moves from our Bollywood dance class in Delhi's gay clubs when we visited in 2016, we discovered that being gay in India had became illegal – again! More specifically, a very old law dating back to the British Colonial days: Article 377 of the 1861 Indian Penal Code, criminalised homosexuality with up to 10 years imprisonment. In 2009, this law was invalidated by the Delhi High Court, but in December 2013, the Indian Supreme Court reintroduced Article 377, stating it was for the government to strike it down. Thankfully the Supreme Court overturned this law in September 2018 in a landmark decision.
Remember, this is a country with a popular of over 1.3 billion, so that's a very large LGBTQ community pushing the way forward.
Indian society is well known for being very conservative, with marriage (between a man and woman!) more of a social statement above everything else, with arranged marriages still the norm in most parts. Yet public opinion on homosexuality has shifted in some pockets of India like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, which have their own gay pride parades, weekly gay parties and even LGBTQ film festivals.
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So what's the reality? We've always found a different treatment of foreigners to locals in every country we've visited in Asia where homosexuality is either illegal or likely to get you into trouble – like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia. In India, the old anti-gay laws were used by the police more as a way of getting a bribe than anything else, as we found when we almost got arrested going to a gay club in Delhi. Despite this, we strongly believe India is safe for gay tourists, which was confirmed by local boy Raj who we met at the gay club in Delhi.
Raj requested his identity be kept anonymous, so we have used the name “Raj” as his alias. Raj also has a very cute lifestyle blog about his relationship with his boyfriend and their life in Delhi.
Hi Raj, where are you from and what do you do?
Namaste Nomadic Boys – welcome to India and to Delhi! I am Raj, a 28 years old trainee doctor, born and raised in Delhi. I live in Delhi with my boyfriend, Rhys (also an alias name), who I met at university. We've been together for 8 years.
Why did you ask us to make your identity anonymous?
Since that awful Article 377 was re-instated into law, it has effectively become a validation for all sorts of bullying and harassment of the LGBTQ community in India. Added to the social stigma we face, it is just too risky to be openly queer in India, especially for young folks like me. Luckily that has now been overturned, but society here remains very conservative, so I have to be careful.
Being anonymous is not my choice, neither do I like it. But since I belong to a very traditional family, I have no option than to hide the gay side of my identity in public. Even on Grindr for example, it is rare to see anyone with their real names on display.
Are you out to anyone at your work, friends or family members?
I came out to my father a few years ago, but this went horribly wrong. He exploded! There were a lot of tears, and arguments. He took me to a series of psychiatrists and counsellors to try to “cure” me of this “disease”. Turns out I can't be cured (surprise surprise!) so we have since agreed to ignore the issue and not talk about it.
My closest friends know about me of course, and they have no issue with it. You do see a huge difference of opinion towards homosexuality by the older more conservative generation like my father, compared to the more accepting, open minded millennials who see as normal human beings and not freaks who need to be cured!
What's it like living as a gay couple in Delhi?
It is not without its share of headaches. All of our close friends know about us of course, and share in our life. However, we are careful not to divulge too much about our relationship to neighbours who we know would take issue with us if they knew we were sleeping together. For them, we just let them believe we're room mates or cousins, and keep them at arm's length.
Fortunately Indian men are generally very docile with each other in public, which allows us a degree of leverage to get away with a few tender moments. But we do have to be careful not to refer to each other by our private nicknames in public like “my love” etc.
Are there any risks to your job prospects in India if you’re openly gay?
Sadly very much so, especially in the medical profession. Can you imagine in this very conservative homophobic society having any problems at all bending over and coughing for a *gay doctor*!? As a trainee doctor it is a huge risk because I don’t think anyone would want to be examined by a gay doctor, no matter how qualified they are. So at work, I maintain the pretence that I have a fake girlfriend who I drop into conversation when I need to.
Do you think the situation will improve for the LGBTQ population in India?
Of course! Although it seems a very slow process, especially when you see the antipathy in society, I am hopeful it will eventually get better. It has in any case considerably improved over the past decade, especially with greater visibility of LGBTQ issues in the mainstream media, which helps to normalise us. Today we even have excellent local gay tour companies like the Delhi based Serene Journeys.
Are there any famous openly gay Indian celebrities?
Not many as this would cripple your career as a celebrity in India. Having said that, we do have a famous gay prince called Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, who is the heir apparent to the throne of Rajpipla in western Gujarat state. He divorced his wife in 1992 and publicly came out in 2006. His family disowned him of course – publicly, with an ad in their local newspaper!
He was on the news recently for opening his palace doors to LGBTQ victims who have also been shunned by their families for their sexuality. He has been interviewed by Oprah after coming out, which for me was such an inspiring thing to see:
Are there any gay pride or other gay events in India?
Not many people know this, but Kolkata led the way in 1999, hosting India's first ever gay Pride event called the “Rainbow Pride Walk” with just 15 people attending.
But it wasn't until summer 2008 when larger Pride events started to take place for the first time in Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Bangalore and Pondicherry. They have been taking place ever since, with a growing influence online.
Here's a summary of some of my favourite annual gay events in India taking place throughout the year:
- Mumbai Pride: the Queer Azaadi Mumbai (QAM) gay pride takes place in February.
- Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival: every May the Kashish queer film festival takes place in Mumbai.
- Chennai Pride: takes place in June, with a range of other events taking place alongside it organised by the Tamil Nadu Rainbow Coalition.
- Bangalore Pride: the Bengaluru Pride and Karnataka Queer Habba is a festival that takes place in October and November.
Any advice for gay travellers visiting India?
It's really not as bad as the law makes it out to be. Yes gay sex is illegal. Yes society is fundamentally conservative (where else in Asia isn't it?) but there's a huge gay population here waiting with open arms to welcome you.
As you boys discovered, having a Grindr profile definitely helps you connect with local guys and find out what is happening in the gay scene.
And of course, putting all the gay stuff aside, India is rich with so much history, beautiful temples, incredible food and so much culture to discover.
Why are Indian men so docile with each other in public?
Guys holding hands in public is the cultural norm in India. It is a sign of friendship amongst men, but nothing to do with sexual orientation at all. Personal space and privacy take a back seat when you live in a very crowded place like India. Hence men holding hands and touching/fondling each other publicly are not frowned on.
Despite this, I feel more comfortable holding hands or hugging my straight male friends in public than Rhys. I think it's because we have been brought up with such a restrictive moral code that any display of affection for your partner is considered “wrong”. So however much we want to shake off those homophobic feelings, they still linger.
And finally, what's this about erotic religious carvings depicting anal sex?
Hahahaha – we do have some of the best temples in the world right? You're thinking about the famous Khajuraho Temples in the Madhya Pradesh province in central India. Well, I love these temples – they're very beautiful medieval monuments and one of our most famous UNESCO World Heritage sites. Basically they have a range of really intricate carvings depicting the traditional lifestyle of women in the medieval ages, which includes some super erotic carvings.
It is believed that the erotic sculptures are a way of giving importance to the love of life and to general wellbeing. During the medieval era there was a common belief that having erotic sculptures or “alankaras” would bring luck and considered auspicious.
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