Why it’s more important than ever for the LGBT community to come out of the closet
A few years ago, when the world believed that India might be a tolerant place, progressive even, accessory label Fastrack released a commercial that was hailed by the hip and queer everywhere. A bright pink closet shudders at the centre of the screen. When the double doors open, an attractively tousled girl in a flouncy dress stumbles out. Another girl, wearing a leather biker, a swagger and coiffed hair, follows. The chemistry is theatrical, crackling. One smirks, the other giggles; glib text appears across the screen – “Come out of the closet. Move on.”
On December 11, 2013, when the Supreme Court decided that ‘unnatural sex’ between two consenting adults was an offence under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, it became a little harder to strut out of the closet. Of course, it was never easy. In a society unable to deal with the idea of sex for pleasure, a culture where 45-year-old film stars giggle and claim they are virgins, talking about sex continues to be a painfully awkward experience.
Before they passed what is widely being hailed as a regressive and medieval law, the Supreme Court’s judges considered some painful questions of their own: what is unnatural sex? Did they know anyone who had tried it? Were there any members of the legal fraternity who confessed to being gay?
If one were to consider retired Justice Singhvi’s description of what goes ‘against nature’ (which includes fellatio), the number that confesses to enjoying it could not be called miniscule. Yet the possibility that judges of the country’s highest legal court had never met a homosexual person made me wonder — is the LGBT community paying an unfair price for staying under the radar? Apart from the gay pride march (where activists make sure there are enough masks to go around) what if homosexuals, like most others in this country, usually find themselves in company where sexual preferences are not discussed, and any mention of specific sexual acts one finds enjoyable are met with immediate censure, or worse, harassment?
The worst possible outcome for the LGBT community – that a Supreme Court ruling should push people deeper into the closet and wipe out a cautiously thriving gay culture – is belied by a loud and politically active movement. Indians are enthusiastically (though still anonymously) admitting to a love for ‘criminalised’ acts in magazine sex surveys. Shortly after the judgement, politicians, religious leaders and members of the mental health community spoke up for gay rights. Mia Farrow decided against visiting India with her girlfriend. “It is hard to be a fence-sitter anymore,” says Harrish Iyer, an equal rights activist. “When entire nations are speaking up in support of the gay movement, how can you stay silent?”
On the day the Supreme Court gave its verdict, Harry Gill (26) recalls how profile pictures on gay social networking site Grindr began to disappear. Gill, who outed his sexuality to friends nearly five years ago, is yet to tell his parents. He believes the conversation has now acquired urgency; he recently found himself in a charged dinner-table debate with his father, whose reaction to a minister’s recommendation to arrest all US diplomats with same-sex partners was to declare homosexuality “anti-constitutional”.
In this moment of persecution, the need to come out, to stand up and be counted, may have become more immediate than ever before. “Coming out is not just a personal confession, it’s about taking a political stance. It’s not going to be easy, but I have a strong support group and I don’t stand to lose my life or inheritance, which is a very privileged position compared to many. Since I have a choice, I should exercise it,” Gill explains.
But if the decision to come out as homosexual becomes a moral responsibility, could it run the risk of marginalising those, who despite “having a choice”, as Gill describes, still do not commit to a clear position? If a movement must be loud and proud, in other words, where does it locate those who are silent?
It is necessary to guard against over-fetishising this moment of ‘coming out’, as if a single grand declaration to the world (god forbid, on Facebook) could be enough to save one from a thousand awkward face-to-face confrontations. Vikram Doctor, journalist and founder of Gay Bombay, says, “I find the idea a bit hilarious because really, you’re coming out all your life, to your family your friends, your colleagues… The hardest thing was coming out to my bai.”
To privilege ‘coming out’ over ‘staying in the closet’ is also problematic because there are several members of the LGBT community who do not have the option of a grand declaration, but who have long been outed and are suffering
Christy Raj, a transgender woman and Gender Identity Disorder counsellor in Bengaluru, has changed seven homes over the past two years. Every time landlords and neighbours discovered she was sharing a home with her lesbian partner, Raj and her girlfriend were driven out. While there are no official statistics on transgender suicides, Raj estimates them to be the highest among the LGBT community.
“What about the hijra, the effeminate 12-year-old boy and the butch woman in a ladies’ compartment?” historian Mario D’Penha asks. “It is usually gay men with access to private bedrooms who oppose the idea of claiming one’s queer identity. They say, ‘Why fight the law? What stops people from having the kind of sex they want?’” The merit of coming out, D’Penha believes, is that there’s a value to accepting difference. “It reduces the spaces for people who laugh and smirk and joke about a kind of life without experiencing it at all,” he said.
Quite frequently, we are guilty of concealing acts considered ‘criminal’ by the state. Children smoke, adults drive under the influence, everybody watches pornography. We don’t see the need to admit to these illicit pleasures unless caught. So why come out about sexual orientation at all?
Counsellors with Gay Bombay, who frequently counsel the parents of LGBT children, see why remaining silent about one’s sexual orientation might seem like a more convenient and hassle-free option to kids in the future. “But what is more critical,” says Doctor, “is whether people choose to remain silent for reasons of privacy or hypocrisy.”
From a perspective of self-preservation, it is riskier than ever to admit to being homosexual. To come out, for a gay person, as for a victim of sexual assault or rape, can include a million different indignities, not least of which is the fact that one’s sexual identity becomes one’s primary identity; that one is always, and only, occupying a sexualised and gendered world.
Yet in the year that has passed, from December 2012 to this past one, both communities, closeted for their own reasons, have learnt an important lesson: the testimonies of those who can afford to speak up make it easier for others to break their own silences. Perhaps one reason #sec377 has met with such opprobrium (and the reason it must continue to do so) is not because it delineates specific physical acts as offences, but because it robs us of the right to be sexually autonomous individuals, who choose when to come stumbling out of our own closets.