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Saturday, August 20, 2022

Straight lines of exclusion

As his male friend plants an excited kiss on 30-something virgin Pinu Patel after winning a lottery,he wonders whether he might be gay.

As his male friend plants an excited kiss on 30-something virgin Pinu Patel after winning a lottery,he wonders whether he might be gay. Parvati Balagopalan’s Straight,a funny tale of a London-based businessman’s confusion about his sexual orientation adds to the list of recent Hindi mainstream movies that talk about homosexuality. Notwithstanding its obsession with stereotypes,mainstream media finds it increasingly difficult to ignore a contemporary social reality — the confident coming out of the sexual minorities of the country. However,gay love even when it comes up as a theme to be parodied in Bollywood is all about well-educated,urban characters (both in Kal Ho Naa Ho and the more recent Dostana). The other end of the rainbow spectrum consisting of ‘kothis’ ( a man who adopts femnine modes of behaviour and dressing),hijras,and MSM men,homosexuals from lower-middle and working class backgrounds is largely underrepresented in mainstream cinema and theatre.

Even in most plays by Mahesh Dattani — who has received critical acclaim for his portrayal of homosexual relationships — gay working class men are mostly peripheral characters (except in the play Seven Steps Around the Fire). The audience is never led into the mind of the chowkidaar who sleeps with the owner of a posh apartment in On a Muggy Night in Mumbai or the auto-rickshaw driver who has a surreptitious liaison with Nitin in Bravely Fought the Queen.

This exclusionary politics ensures that inspirational narratives of homosexuals from lower social strata,who fight deep entrenched prejudices,the apathy of the state and the class politics within the queer community to assert their individuality remains unheard. Take the case of twenty-four year old Simmi Sharma. Simmi has traveled quite a journey — from the reticent back-bencher in a nondescript government school teased for his effeminate mannerisms to being a successful performer at Ramlilas,a beautician and a gay man who proclaims his sexuality in a country where draconian laws curb self-expression of homosexuals and where the state mouths platitudes about an imagined Indian culture.

In the ongoing case in the Delhi High Court challenging the validity of section 377 of the Indian penal code,the government contended that homosexual traits are the reflection of a perverse mind which could adversely impact Indian culture if decriminalised. This stand reaffirms the notion that homosexuals constitute a Western-educated elite minority whose orientation is shaped by Western cultural practices and pose a threat to indigenous ‘Indian’ culture. The government’s stand denies the existence of thousands of men like Simmi for whom the assertion of sexual identity is complicated by the class-divide within organised queer spaces. The degree of sensitisation towards homosexuality remains low and the lack of an elite English education limits exposure to scholarly discourses on sexual rights of minorities. Thanks to the efforts of organisations like the Naz Foundation in Delhi,there is some awareness regarding their rights. However,a comprehensive understanding of the direction which the gay rights movement is taking is difficult to achieve given the level of education of most of members of the MSM community,hijras and kothis. Simmi appears perplexed at the nuances of the legal tussle ensuing in the Delhi High Court and what it means for people like him.

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But it is people like Simmi who are the vulnerable targets of police harassment. “Unlike an educated person,these men do not have access to proper legal arsenal to defend themselves,” says Rahul Singh,a member of the Naz foundation,who has been working with the kothi community for a considerable period of time. In an alarming incident in Bangalore in December 2008,activists of Sangama (an organisation working for kothis and hijras) were arrested on charges of ‘unlawful assembly’ when they went to the police station to enquire about the arrests of some hijras. Shilpa,a 28-year-old kothi recounts how a policeman in an upmarket Delhi locality asked for sexual favours before lodging a complaint regarding a lost phone.

As the gay community comes together to fight archaic laws,deep-entrenched prejudices and an insensitive government,it also faces the challenge to look within to prevent the perpetuating of a class divide within this queer space of liberation. In an introduction to the queer anthology Because I Have a Voice,first published in 2005,Gautam Bhan observes,“Ideally,queer spaces would be free from the hierarchies and the exclusionary politics of mainstream society.” However,the accounts of men like Simmi and Shilpa show that much remains to be achieved in this regard.

First published on: 28-03-2009 at 10:33:03 pm
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