There is something lacking about the gender discussion in India. Our country lacks a public figure who has “come out of the closet” and used his/her clout to transform the contours of the public perception of the LGBT community today. There has been a tremendous backlash against Karan Johar who finally, in a biography, informed the world about his homosexuality. But his declaration was seated in caution; he had been safe in his announcement: “Everybody knows what my sexual orientation is. I don’t need to scream it out. If I need to spell it out, I won’t only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this. Which is why I Karan Johar will not say the three words that possibly everybody knows about me.” And then he wrote, “They say, ‘Why don’t you speak about your sexuality? You could be iconic in this country.’ But I don’t want to become iconic anywhere. I want to live my life.”
To say that he doesn’t want to be ‘iconic’, implies that he’s not ready or doesn’t want to go out of his way to change the perception of the marginalised, often beaten down, LGBT community in the country. Karan Johar just wants to live his life. To be fair, that really is his prerogative. Johar’s choice to simply exist, without ruffling feathers of public perception concerning the community, is his will. No one can or should force him to do anything, because coming out in a country that is overtly and manically averse to acknowledging, leave alone accepting homosexuality, is in itself a traumatic experience. It’s a personal experience fraught with terrifying dilemmas. The fear of being ridiculed and ostracised can be paralysing. Having said that, one cannot deny the fact that if Karan Johar, who enjoys a substantial degree of respect and admiration in the country, did take the reigns to reshape the collective thought concerning the LGBT community (one that rarely finds a mention in mainstream conversations in India), it would be liberating for many.
But that’s a separate conversation. What is important to note is that India is yet to find a public icon with considerable clout, who can initiate a dialogue towards changing the perception of homosexuals in India. The country is yet to find itself a vocal, mainstream figure who can tirelessly work towards altering the narrative associated with the community.
When Freddie Mercury died of AIDS, the western world momentarily collapsed in shock. It was stunned that one of the most flamboyant iconoclast, known for his unconventional, yet ingenious compositions, had kept his sexual leanings a secret. But the aftermath of his death also launched a telling argument: had Mercury — a man with an ever-growing empire of followers who could woo, seduce and influence the world — been vocal about his homosexuality, it could have helped an entire generation of gay people and also encourage a large section of society become more aware and perhaps accepting about homosexuals. In similar vein, the likes of George Michael and Ellen Degeneres made it a point — even though it was immensely difficult for them to come out — but they made it a point to steer and shape the identity of the LGBT community in UK and the US today.
For George Michael to declare that he was gay in the 1990s, at the peak of his career, was life-altering — not only for himself, but for countless young men who grappled with accepting their own sexuality, before admitting to anyone else. It was life-altering for men and women who had internalised the shame and fear of not being able to align to the “norm” of gendered sexuality. Michael taught a generation of people that it was okay to be gay. For them, to watch a boisterous, immensely talented superstar signing, dancing and being openly proud about his sexual leanings was empowering. Michael had seen his lover, Anselmo Feleppa, suffer from HIV/AIDS and watched Feleppa disintegrate before he passed away. It fueled the singer to openly campaign for LGBT rights.
The absence of such a popular, not-give-a-damn-about-the-world, nonconformist icon in India even in the 21st century, is mortifying. No popular figure who can command concrete influence over people has risen to the occasion, take on the mantle and said, “Damn it, why should homosexuals in this country conceal their sexual orientation because certain conceited bigots find it uncomfortable or prefer deluding themselves of living in a supposedly sanitisied world? Why should homosexuals step over their level of comfort to make others feel comfortable?” It’s the absence of such a voice that has perhaps largely contributed to homosexuality to remain a hushed topic in India.
Across the globe, it’s the fear of the ‘other’ that has prompted the sidelining of the minority in society. The LGBT community in India has been continuously shoved into the periphery. If we had an individual who was recognised, respected and applauded for his/her work in the realm of mainstream culture — a realm that is considered the ‘normal’ — then it would convey an important message: homosexuals are ‘normal’ people, with equal measure of charisma, talent and intellect, if not more. And that’s the overarching goal — conversations about homosexuality need to enter the sphere of the ‘normal’. Someone has to take the lead, someone has to spearhead the conversation about transcending archaic gender binaries. Someone has to do it now.