When lesbians think their safety depends on invisibility

As recently as July, when smaller marches were held in several cities, she kept on her mask and avoided the cameras. “I didn’t want my family to see me on television,” said the 31-year-old software company manager.

But then the social pressures faced by many women — to marry, to be a dutiful wife, to bear children and carry on the family line — hit her with special force, given her sexual orientation, and forced her hand.

Just two days after participating in the July march with her partner, she found herself in her hometown of Moradabad, a conservative community in Uttar Pradesh, being taken by her family to ‘see boys’ as they lined up candidates for an arranged marriage.

“I realised after the third meeting with potential grooms that I couldn’t live this way,” Sumati said. She told her family she did not want to marry and, when pressed for her reasons, she explained. Then she left home, certain that her relationship with her family had been broken beyond repair.

Coming out to her family was, in one sense, a relief, and she earns enough from her job to continue living independently in Delhi without help from her relatives. But unless she is willing to change her life to conform to her family’s expectations of a proper Indian woman, she said, she cannot return to Moradabad.

“My family won’t talk to me, and my uncles will either force me into a marriage or kill me,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone. She sees no possibility of reconciliation. “To my uncles and my father, ‘lesbian’ is a dirty word,” she said. “Unless I get married, there’s no way back for me.”

As she spoke, her partner listened, nodding. She, too, will be in the gay pride march next month, but she will keep her mask on. Her family lives nearby in Delhi and is even more conservative than Sumati’s.

Gays and lesbians in India seem to have more freedom than just a decade ago. Nightclubs now hold ‘pink’ nights in most of the major cities; India’s first gay-themed bookshop, QueerInk, is staging a gay and lesbian festival in Mumbai this week; the Gay Pride marches have drawn more women each year since their tentative start in four cities in 2008.

But, says Lesley Esteves, a writer and journalist in Delhi, Indian lesbians face very different challenges than gay men do. As women they have considerably less control over their lives than their male counterparts.

These issues may be common to many Indian women, but Lesley said they were amplified for lesbians. A woman who reveals that she is a lesbian risks disinheritance. And in parts of the country where women must have permission from their families to work outside the home, the option of moving out to live one’s own life does not exist.

Support from society

Lesbians in Nepal face similar pressures as in India to marry men and often struggle for financial independence, but a key difference, Sunil Babu Pant, a founding member of the Blue Diamond Society, which works for gay and lesbian rights said, was the level of support from civil society.

“Many women have to make a choice — either they give up their personal desires, or they run away from home,” he said. “But the level of reconciliation with families is higher compared to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.”

Compared with Nepal, the laws lag behind in India. Same-sex relationships are no longer criminalised, thanks to a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in 2007, but there are no measures barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And the country is far from being lesbian-and-gay friendly.

“Our safety depends on invisibility, and you find greater invisibility in the metros” — the large cities, said Lesley. “In small cities like Bhopal, it’s much harder to hide.”
That, in part, is what drew 26-year-old Monideepa Bandopadhyay to move to Calcutta from the small town of Barasat. There have been cases where lesbian couples have been threatened with violence by their families.

“It’s not ideal here,” Monideepa said. “Say the word ‘lesbian,’ and men feel threatened, they think of porn actresses. You can feel very unsafe if you’re open about your identity. But at least here there are other women like me. I can have a relationship without too much fear.”

In Delhi, Sumati and her partner are excited about the Pride March next month, but also nervous. “I worry all the time,” she said. “I worry that my uncles will come here someday and force me back to Moradabad.”

Lesley says that despite the progress India has made in the last few years regarding gay rights, the reality remains harsh, especially for lesbians.

“It’s great to have pride marches,” said Lesley. “It’s great to be able to come out without fear of being prosecuted. But lesbian rights are still harder to fight for — it’s not as ‘respectable’ as joining the fight for women’s rights in general, and there has been more organising by gay men than by the lesbian community so far. As women you’re not supposed to possess desire, let alone ‘alternative’ desire. And that’s still the bottom line.”

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