No country for gay men?

“When I look at these waves, I realize that as life goes on, each day looks the same. But it is only when I look back, that I realize a lot has changed!” 

Gouresh muttered these words as we walked back from the golden waters of the Agonda seaside. We were visiting his hometown, Morpirla, a tiny picturesque village in southern Goa. The sun was setting along the shoreline, and we began walking towards the bus stop to head back to the village. As we stepped into the small bus, Gouresh continued reminiscing. “Before, there used to be only two buses in a day. The first-aid boxes hanging there are the latest addition,” he said while we made our way to some refurbished shiny seats.  

When Gouresh first came to Mumbai in 2005, after his schooling in Cancona, he was in awe of the city. Hailing from a corner of the earth where the locals knew every minute detail of each other, he found himself amid a social structure where neighbours were not aware of each other’s existence.  

But this also meant that he was no longer under constant surveillance – that of his parents, his neighbours, the other villagers, the poder, and his schoolmates. This was also his first time using the internet. Even though he always knew that he was different from his friends, he could not articulate what it was that set him apart. He used to feel out of place in their company. He had come across terms like ‘homosexuality’ and ‘gays’ in the newspaper and feared that he "he had homosexuality". 

Hours spent on the internet, however, assured him that he was fine. He got to know more about alternative sexualities. Bollywood did its bit. "Dostana made me feel good about myself," he laughed! But still, the fear lingered. He wondered what the people back home would do if they ever got to know.  

Gouresh is one example of the thousands of gay men who stem from India’s small towns – a world where, even for a boy, the only options are to find a permanent job and get married as soon as possible. That side of India, where men are expected to grow a moustache as an expression of their masculinity. In a nation as big and diverse, a large chunk of India's gay community is not even aware of their own inherent sexuality and differences and are left confused by their own desires. 

Many such villages and small towns in India have a sizable amount of queer folk who do not have the confidence or even the vocabulary to express themselves. When presented with better infrastructure and opportunities, they get to connect to gays from urban areas and metros and move to the bigger cities if they can afford it. Plebeian problems like those of roti, kapda or makaan may seem out of place in a glossy magazine but bizarrely enough, for several LGBT people, the struggle is to ensure their right to life. Self- expression, human rights, self-acceptance are literal terms far outside of their purview. Yet, their fight takes on many dimensions, those of facing society, facing parents, and facing themselves while eking out a livelihood.  

Santosh, 27, from Koparde, a village near Satara, recalls the incident where his father tied him to a pole in their farm on a cold December night. The reason – he played a female role in a play at school. In a conservative Maratha family like his, entering a kitchen is considered being emasculating for a man. Wearing a saree on stage and embracing a boy was enough to make his father and uncles see red.  

 "Pun mala lai bhari vatla," (I felt amazing!), says Santosh. Even though the experience of it made him physically ill for the next couple of days, he was happy that he could gather the courage to take part in a play. When he took on the part, he realized that he indeed liked men! He knew he liked that feeling but was shattered inside by his discovery. When asked about his plans, he blatantly admits that he will be marrying a girl of his parents' choice!  

"People like you in Mumbai still can't live with your boyfriends in peace, there's not even a one percent chance of us being able to do it! “Baap jeev gheil majha” (My father will kill me!), his statement underlines a pertinent urban-rural gap in gay society. We assume that gay men are often forced into straight marriages, but in several of these rural pockets, the men opt to marry girls for reasons of social acceptability. 

Chatahedi is a village in the Berasia tehsil of Madhya Pradesh. It is where our next protagonist, Manish grew up. He is the youngest of 4 siblings and lives with a joint family. Manish is now in the final year of college. As a lad, he started feeling an attraction towards his schoolmates of the same gender. This freaked him out. However, he remembered the print ads painted on the bus stop he used to get down at for college. The ad claimed to offer treatments on all sex-related issues. Convinced that he was afflicted with something unnatural, Manish made his way. “Hum bhi toh mareez hee the naa? Chale gaye wahan!”  When he went to the make-shift medical center which was, in reality, the back of a van, the 'doctor' laughed at him, closed the door of the van, and took off Manish’s clothes. Innocent of the quack’s motives, Manish went along with the charade, thinking that this was the treatment that was in store for him. He later realized that his ignorance had cost him dearly. The incident left him so shook up that never ventured into the area again. He continues to live with his parents and siblings, watching his siblings get married as he wrestles with the options of running away from home or getting married himself. 

Born into a farm labourer’s family in Benkatti, around 90 km from Belgaum, Ponnan had suffered from breathing troubles as a child. In all such cases, the first choice for the villagers was to make a pilgrimage to the nearby Saundatti- Yallamma temple. This temple was infamous for its devadasi tradition, which has all but fully stopped now. So, when Ponnan's parents took him to the temple, the priests told them to leave him behind as a servant to the goddess. Knowing the temple's reputation, they could not dare to do so but were ready to keep Ponnan in their custody for a week.  

When Ponnan entered adolescence, he realised he was attracted towards men. Fortunately, having been exposed to Devdasis and their male counterparts, he was aware of the concept of men having sex with men. When his father came to know of Ponnan’s homosexuality when he was in college, he calmly asked him to leave the house and stay at the temple henceforth. Ponnan looks back on the incident and says, "That was very nice of Appa, he didn't beat me." Ponnan made his way towards Belgaum and started working there. He cannot go back to his family but meets his mother sometimes. 

Among all the aspects of social morality that are so important to the middle class, the poor cannot afford some of them and the rich cannot bother. Accepting the sexuality of the child is one of these aspects, in my opinion. Ponnan’s parents will not let him live with him out of fear of being ostracized but are okay with his son being gay. 

In metro cities, where gays as young as 18 years proudly boast of their sexual conquests, some people in rural areas are still struggling to understand what is going on with them on a physical and mental level. Their problem is not just the emotional turmoil, but the physical suppression for which they cannot find a proper release. In one village, there was a small barbershop & salon that was a notorious centre for gay sex. The sexual activities would start from a champi, or underarms shaving. Though most of the visitors were sex-starved heterosexuals; it was a place for men to go for physical pleasures. 

While we sit in our air-conditioned rooms deciding on the perfect party outfit, there is a gay man being blackmailed for his sexuality and abused in a farm in Punjab. While we get upset when we don't get a reply on Grindr at the 6th minute, there is a homosexual in Nanded who is being pushed in a straight marriage. While we change our Facebook DPs to support USA's gay marriage legalization, there is a gay boy in Osmanabad who is being beaten for being effeminate. 

Our community is much more than parties, pride walks, and dates. Neither is it a 'high society fad' that has the patronage of the upper-class. Whether in the city or village, feelings of love and physical needs are universal, and that will remain the same, forever.  

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