Last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal across the country. It was an important moment, not just for people in the U.S., but for LGBTQ supporters all over the world. People on Facebook expressed their support by changing their profile pictures, and many of us here in India joined in too. Of course, there were those who were cynical and questioned whether a legal change halfway across the planet was of any relevance to us Indians. And then there were others who brought out the usual argument that we were merely ‘aping the West’, and giving undue importance to the United States.
Being queer in a country like India can be a lonely experience. Most of us Indians grew up in ignorance in a very homophobic culture. It’s taboo to even talk about sex and sexuality, and there are many who grew up without any inkling that there are other sexual orientations besides heterosexuality. There is also overwhelming social pressure to conform to traditional norms of morality, and those who reject it are at risk for violent ‘moral policing’. There is no relief from the legal system either: under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code you can be imprisoned for 10 years for having consensual gay sex. Because of all these factors, members of the LGBTQ community in India live under severe repression.
One of the striking parts of a queer Indian’s experience is the fact that homophobia is so pervasive, even among people who claim to be liberal and supportive of LGBTQ rights. Many of my otherwise progressive friends and colleagues continue to crack homophobic jokes without even pausing to ask themselves whether that is acceptable. And while my closest friends have accepted me for who I am, I know that my family is too conservative to accept my sexual orientation. Like most other Indian families, they believe in following the accepted traditions and values, and they want to make sure that their children don’t ‘bring a bad name’ to the family by going against social expectations.
Between the taboos around discussing sexuality and the pervasive homophobia, it is often very difficult to tell whether even the liberal people around you might be willing to accept you for who you are. So you dismiss the idea of coming out to those around you, and give up on the possibility of finding any support through them. It’s a difficult situation: you either come out to others and risk being harassed, shunned or physically assaulted, or you stay in the closet and find a way to deal with the isolation… Most people choose to stay in the closet.
So back to Friday night: I saw a couple of my friends change their profile pictures to celebrate the SCOTUS decision. I debated changing my picture as well, but there were too few rainbow-hued profiles among the people in my friends list. If I changed my profile picture, I would effectively be outing myself, or at the very least, I would’ve had to answer questions that I’m not prepared to answer. Eventually, I decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea to risk it, and went to sleep feeling rather blue over the fact that there was so much homophobia around.
Fast forward to Saturday morning: the number of friends who changed their profile pictures had grown to a steady trickle. I finally felt comfortable enough to change my profile picture, too – being part of a stream of rainbow-hued profiles wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. It was huge relief to be able to express myself publicly through one of the limited avenues available to me.
By the afternoon, the stream had grown into an overwhelming tide of people expressing their solidarity with the LGBTQ community. The solidarity came from unexpected sources – people whom I hadn’t spoken to in years, people who had cracked homophobic jokes in the past. Hell, even among my relatives who I’m so intimidated by, there were two cousins showing their acceptance of queer folk.
I saw my fellow Indians embrace a more tolerant culture, and I saw the first signs of acceptance from mainstream urban India. I didn’t expect to see so many people who cared enough to publicly express their solidarity. It may only be a small number of Indians, but this show of support was unimaginable even a few years ago. This tolerance points to a future where the next generation of queer Indians are no longer forced into heterosexual marriages, or worse. For a group that has been repressed for so long, a group that is starving for acceptance, this is a huge deal.
For the first time in my life, I felt less isolated by my queerness. I knew that there were many people around whom I could be myself, that I didn’t have to hide myself from the entire world. And if the time comes when I’m ready to come out to my family, I know that I can reach out to my cousins for support. But most of all, I felt a huge relief that there would be a future where I wouldn’t have to pretend to be someone else. I was overwhelmed by this simple show of solidarity… And I finally felt optimistic about the future.