If the Inuit have a hundred words for snow, in India, we must have a hundred ways to discriminate. Accidents of birth, immutable realities — state of origin, caste, diet, religious sect, skin colour, gender — are treated with deep-seated, often inherited, bias. It is tough to watch children encounter these, suffer them, learn to navigate them. But, at least, there were laws intended to obliterate these biases.
For India’s homosexual children, until September 6, 2018, this was not so. For young people considering coming out (or as Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown prefers — “letting people in”), an outdated law added a facet of ugly legitimacy to hate and homophobia.
A generation of Indian parents is raising their children to be innocent, even defiant of all bias; creating islands of understanding and acceptance rather than mere tolerance. An act of radical optimism, when pitted against the actual law, it felt foolhardy.
Founder of Yoda Press, Arpita Das’s daughter’s first crush at 11 reminded her of her own first crush at 11 except it went like this, “Mum, I find this girl very cute.” Das laughs as she recounts the incident, “She said, ‘But I don’t think she likes me…’ and I told her, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll go through a lot of this.’”
With teen girls of my own, I, too, revisited a moment from my youth. “Someone called me lesbian today,” my 13-year-old said. “What did you say?” I asked. “I told her, ‘Firstly, lesbian is not an insult, okay’.” Like I did in my teens, my girls, perhaps, present as atypical for their gender. But my peers were harsher.
The worst was when bullies used to aggressively suggest I go out with a particular boy. Delicately built, with a beautiful face, he didn’t play football or roughhouse like the rest. Part of the same awful joke, we avoided each other with great discomfort. Like me, he’s married with children now, so that college misconception was broken. But, at that precarious time of life, a misfit in more ways than just stereotypical gender tropes, I, too, experienced some misdirected homophobia. It helped me add nuance to my children’s privilege, which comes also from our liberal home environments and politics. They are aware that gender is a spectrum. That gay men and women come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of flamboyance. For a school project on author Vikram Seth, my 13-year-old gave his activism against Section 377 as much importance as his bibliography. Das has also noticed that conversations in school are less reactionary. As rainbow flags pop up on kids’ social media accounts and pre-teens discuss gender spectrums, finding your identity is becoming a gentler, more fulfilling process.
But young people have not had an easy time. Navin Noronha, came out in his twenties, though his mother wished he’d let people in earlier. “The law had me believe that there was something wrong with me,” Noronha says. His hilarious stand-up routines don’t mince words about how Section 377 poisoned the well. “Always in the background, a looming ghost that haunted most of us… People often used the law to extort money or instil fear, saying they’d out you to your family. On dating platforms, people remained anonymous…”
There are those who are not safe, even at home. L, a gay teen, isn’t out to his very religious family yet. He has seen what bias legitimised leads to: “Forced marriages to people you aren’t attracted to. Mental anguish at being unable to live your true life.”
Suicide, the leading cause of death for teens aged 15-19 in southeast Asia, is often attributed to academic or social pressures and mental health issues. But homophobic stigma means it’s impossible to find reliable data on anxiety caused by unsupportive environments (and bullying) for kids of a sexual minority. Worldwide, LGBT adolescents are most likely to attempt suicide. (Conversely, a study in the US done between 1999 and 2015 revealed that legalising same-sex marriage resulted in a decrease in suicide attempts by LGBT youth).
The data cannot tell the stories. And, as long as the law existed, the community couldn’t tell its stories either. After reading Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue, Simran Mendon, a queer teen, says, “I wanted to read more! How little we see of the LGBT narrative which has so much complexity and dynamism. These stories need to be heard. A writer myself, I craved to write LGBT stories. But I always stopped myself, afraid.”
More stories mean nuanced representation, more conversation and opportunities to empathise and understand. The vocabulary finds space to stretch its wings. Das says, after her daughter read Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan, she referred to herself as pansexual, “I admit I had to look it up.” Discussing this with my 17-year-old, she says, “Isn’t that the ideal though? To be able to fall in love with someone for who they are… regardless of where they are on the gender spectrum.”
Popular culture can do with discarding clichéd homosexual tropes. Veere Di Wedding offered a mature, affectionate view of a gay couple who play proxy parents to the film’s protagonist. For many parents, it was a heartwarming affirmation of our own experience, having had gay couples in our circles who have helped raise our children.
Similarly, the transgender character Kukoo in the Netflix series Sacred Games is treated with a sensitivity bordering on reverence. When she tearfully reveals her “secret” to her gangster boyfriend Gaitonde, the tenderness of his reaction reflects evolved, empathetic storytelling. This is how society changes.
With Section 377 read down, it is time for the real work to begin. On stigma. On legislation. Noronha reminds us we have miles to go, “I want better housing and beneficiary rights, medical benefits and more.” As he travels across the country, he hears stories of hope. “Queer youngsters are talking about their identity. They’re not making a big deal about it. Their friends are chill, too.”
We hoisted our eldest on our shoulders at Mumbai’s first pride march. This year, she walked alongside us taking pictures. But that wasn’t the only difference. We saw fewer masks and far more parents, holding up signs, shouting slogans in support of their beloved rainbow children.