TV & Radio
FEATURE - India's secretive gays stepping out of closet
Mon Sep 12, 2005 7:20 AM IST
By Krittivas Mukherjee
KOLKATA, India (Reuters) - Under the glare of twirling blue and red strobe lights, two lithe Indian men dance to the beat of a hip-hop number at a disco in the heart of Kolkata.
Nearby, other men snuggle in dark, smoke-filled corners -- some hugging and kissing, others sharing drinks.
In this rare gathering place for Indian homosexuals, there are no women.
"This is the coolest place in town where we guys can relax with our partners after a hard day's work," Achinta Vaidya, a middle-aged businessman, told Reuters.
"Here we don't have to worry about society and its moral custodians," Vaidya said, sitting next to his male partner.
Elsewhere in Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta, there are dimly-lit cafes where only women go.
India's gay community is trying to lift the veil of secrecy in a country where public hugging or kissing invites angry stares and even lewd comments.
Gays are seen more openly in discos and pubs in big cities, gently pushing the envelope of what is acceptable in public.
In big cities like Mumbai, a handful of gay and lesbian clubs have sprung up but membership is based on recommendation.
In the past year, three Indian lesbian couples hit the headlines as they struggled to stay together despite pressure from society and their families.
TOUGH LEGAL BATTLE
It isn't easy for India's gay community to come out of the closet. For one, the legal system is stacked against homosexuals: a law enacted in 1861 by British colonial rulers makes homosexuality a crime.
"We are seeking to decriminalise homosexuality," said Anjali Gopalan, spokeswoman for Naaz Foundation, a health group fighting for gay rights, which has challenged the law in India's top court.
"The state can't interfere on the question of two consenting adults' sexual preferences."
In April, the Supreme Court asked the federal government to explain why the law banning homosexuality should not be repealed.
The law -- often misused by police looking for a quick bribe from men whom they catch cosying up in parks or lanes -- makes homosexuality an offence, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Dozens of gay men are arrested each year on charges of homosexuality, but most are acquitted because of lack of evidence.
"There is increasing awareness now that homosexuality is undeniable," New Delhi-based Gopalan told Reuters.
The government opposes Naaz Foundation's plea, saying it wants to keep homosexuality a crime to preserve a "healthy, moral environment" in society. The case comes up later this month.
But gay and lesbian support groups are using a new argument, saying the need for making homosexuality legal was not just a social question, but directly affects the fight against AIDS.
In India, there are an estimated 45-50 million homosexuals who gay groups say are at risk of contracting AIDS.
They say gay couples hesitate to seek information about AIDS or get medical help if they feel they are infected with the HIV virus because homosexuality is a crime.
"Unless sexuality is recorded, there's no way that AIDS can be countered," said Ashok Row Kavi, a Mumbai-based playwright and one of India's leading gay rights activists.
Health officials are taking note, and even though homosexuality is banned, some government-aided AIDS campaigns are run through groups which promote gay and lesbian rights.
"There is a smokescreen behind which these gay groups have to operate their HIV/AIDS intervention programmes," said Kavi, whose Humsafar Trust was the first such group to receive government funds.
India's state-run National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) is trying to push for change from within the establishment.
"It's a huge paradox that the government recognises MSM (men having sex with men) groups as a vital link in the fight against AIDS but will not make homosexuality legal," NACO chief S.Y. Quraishi told Reuters.
India has 5.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, around the same as South Africa which has the world's highest number, and most HIV transmission is through the heterosexual sex route.
In Kolkata, gay groups have come together and are promoting gay rights by holding a colourful parade each year and organising film festivals, all under the watchful eyes of the police.
"Homosexuality (in India) is a grey area. Society doesn't want to discuss it," said Sanjeev Mitra, a gay rights activist. "But the time has come to break this status quo."