Rupa Mhatre (name changed) is among the last to exit the just-arrived red state transport bus at the Mumbai Central depot. Pulling her sari over her head to shield against the rain, she runs for cover. The 49-year-old, who has travelled 12 hours by bus to meet me, begins without preamble, “I want to tell my story.”
From a small village in northern Maharashtra, Mhatre is an unlikely champion of the LGBT cause. She grew up in a village without hearing of the word “lesbian”, let alone about a wider movement, until her own sexual awakening.
The year was 1984. It was love at first sight. She was in Class X when Aparna moved into the neighbourhood after marriage. “Our houses were 55 feet apart — I once measured it with a scale — so we would see each other every day. She was very beautiful and I was smitten,” says Mhatre. The two soon became inseparable, even though Aparna was seven years older. “Whenever her husband would travel for work, she would stay over.”
Neither found a name for their attraction to each other. It survived Mhatre’s marriage and the birth of her two children. “I hated being with a man but each time I returned to my parents’ house, I would be sent back. My only solace was Aparna,” she says. But things between them took an ugly turn in 1998.
That was an important year in India’s queer movement. Self-proclaimed protectors of Indian culture vandalised theatres screening Fire, Deepa Mehta’s film on two sisters-in-law in love, and inadvertently gave the oxygen of publicity to the LGBT cause. “The gay rights’ movement had been gaining momentum but the voices of women were unheard. It made lesbian women realise there were others like them,” says Chayanika Shah, a member of Mumbai-based rights group LABIA — A Queer Feminist LBT Collective.
But by then, Aparna had chosen to end her relationship with Mhatre, presumably at her husband’s behest. Furious at being abandoned, Mhatre filed a criminal case against her lover’s husband. Over the next few days, as the case unravelled, the two women had no choice but to “come out”. “I was foolish. I brought immense shame to my partner, my family and myself. The papers called us a Fire couple. Aparna left me,” Mhatre says. Disowned by her parents, and estranged from her husband, Mhatre found help from LABIA (known as Stree Sangam at that time). “We counselled her through the case and the toughest years of her life,” recounts Shah.
Today, Mhatre lives with her current partner and son. Her daughter, who lives in a city not too far away, is aware of her mother’s orientation and supports her. “But my son does not know that my ‘friend’ who lives with me is my lover,” she says.
Shah says that for Mhatre to live the way she wants after she has been outed is no less than heroic. But that she is no poster-girl of Indian queer life points, among many other things, to the invisibility of women. “In many cases, unable to deal with pressures of marriage, lesbian couples either run away or commit suicide, or go to a collector or district judge and request them to have them married. Many such cases are reported in media but, unfortunately, they are never viewed as stories of protest or as a fight for LGBTQ rights,” says Shah. For years now, Kolkata-based Sappho for Equality has been tracking suicide cases through newspaper reports, sending a fact-finding team wherever possible.
Though embedded in the larger queer movement, women and their needs are apart from the gay men’s rights movement. “Our issues and needs are different. For one, sexual health is not that big a concern among homosexual women. The men’s gay rights movement gained momentum in the 1990s because HIV/AIDS became a huge concern. But women’s voices were subdued,” says Shah.
The LBT movement has its roots in the women’s rights movement. Conversation around homosexuality among women dates back to the 1980s, during workshops or conferences organised by women’s rights groups. In 1987, two women cops from Bhopal got married and were thrown out of their jobs — the first public avowal of an Indian lesbian relationship. Like Shah, the early activists found “safe spaces” in women’s groups. “When I first realised my attraction for a woman, I went and opened Our Bodies, Our Selves. I was then an active member of the women’s rights movement. I knew there is a whole chapter in the book on women who love women, and I felt validated,” explains Shah. In the 1980s, many women from upper-class and upper-caste backgrounds also realised the urgency of becoming financially independent. They left their cities or the country and returned or came out to their families once they had established themselves.
A few years after Ashok Row Kavi launched India’s first LGBT magazine, Bombay Dost, in 1990, its editors sent the letters from lesbian women to Stree Sangam, eventually dedicating one page to queer women’s issues. “It was a good idea but do we get a say on what else goes in the magazine? It’s when we couldn’t negotiate that we decided to start our own zine in 1997. But we were unable to bring it out,” says Shah. “We had no idea how to reach out to queer women, where to go looking for them. We did not have a hidden code of knowing where sex happens in public spaces. For women, it’s never been about public spaces; it’s always been private spaces. Most women have found partners in school, college or their neighbourhood. And how do you articulate lesbian needs when women’s sexuality itself is not talked about?” says Shah.
Sonal Giani, who was part of the core team that founded Humsafar Trust’s LBT group Umang, says, “I realised that women go through a long, long journey before they come to terms with their own sexuality and reach out. Female-bodied persons are conditioned to be quiet, they are taught that their voice does not matter. When there is an intersection of religion or lower caste, this conditioning is even deeper,” says Giani.
Malobika, who is a co-founder of Sappho, says that when they started work in 1999, they were taken aback by the nature of issues faced by women. “In one case, when parents found out about their daughter’s orientation, they got an anti-social element to enter her room at night to sexually assault her and then marry her. They thought that was better than being a lesbian. In another, the girl’s brother demanded sexual favours from her sister in exchange for keeping her secret. Tired of the rape, she agreed to marry but eventually killed herself. Now how does one separate this from patriarchy?” she asks. For a queer woman in India, sexuality is just one of the many factors hemming her in. “It may get more complex for a queer woman from, say, a minority community like Muslims. That is why while gay groups view their rights through the prism of sexuality, we ally with groups fighting for rights of women, Muslims, Dalits and other minority communities,” says Malobika.
Sustained efforts by LBT groups and the safe space of the internet have made lives a little easier for women in metro cities. But Shah says that mere decriminalisation will not help women. “I am not just a queer person but many more things,” she says.
Pushing her plate with a half-eaten samosa away, Mhatre asks, “Will I be able to live with my partner openly if Section 377 is scrapped?” Unaware of the ongoing battle in courts, Mhatre has continued to live her life on her own terms. “I was lucky that my parents came around eventually, left me with property, land and means to survive. My partner and I are educated and work as teachers. But not everyone is fortunate enough to even find a partner. Things have changed but women in villages still continue to live under the shadow of their families, unaware that others like them exist.”
Mhatre, who has formed a local network of lesbians in her village, recounts the time when she first came across the word “lesbian”. “My parents had begun to doubt the nature of our friendship. Sometimes, I would overhear my father asking my mother if I was a lesbian. One day I picked up the courage to ask mom what it meant. When she explained it to me, I lied to her, but I was happy that there was a word for how I felt,” she says.