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For People Like Us

Sexual Politics
Gay Rights
Human Rights

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Sexual Minorities / VISIBILITY

For people like us
A placard reading 'Indian and lesbian' caught the eye and set tongues wagging
in Delhi. Ashwini Sukthankar chronicles a sexual revolution in the making.

In a coffee shop in Mumbai I waited nervously to meet 'the community'. I had just moved back to the city after years abroad and begun the search for other lesbians. Already I had been warned by Sakshi, who had come to make contact with me and make sure that I was not a reporter, that levels of trust were low. This was not only because of the need for confidentiality but also because women from The Outside, she told me tactfully, tended to take up so much space; tended 'to assume that their priorities are ours'. We were sitting by the cash register. When the phone rang and the server asked for Sakshi, I was close enough to hear the voice on the other end, demanding: 'Well? Shall I come to meet her? Is she Us?'

When I first started working as a reporter at the Times of India, the breaches of trust I engaged in while trying to promote lesbian visibility were multiple and unthinking, unprepared as I was for the difficulties of being both Us and Not-Us. When the group in Mumbai began working towards the first nationwide retreat for 'women who love women' I helped organize it, participated in it and then wrote about it. It was a conflict on many levels: between organizing collectively and yet representing 'Us' as an individual; between what I knew readers needed to hear and what I didn't know that lesbians were unwilling to share.

I started receiving letters from men, offering to write about lesbian fantasies, about threesomes, about wishing to be lesbians for a day, about their lesbian wives

I also had to think about Us and Not-Us on many levels when I began the work of compiling Facing the Mirror, a collection of writings by lesbians in India. As soon as word of the project spread, I started receiving letters from men, offering to write about lesbian fantasies, about threesomes, about wishing to be lesbians for a day, about their lesbian wives. I had never expected this.

Some Indian lesbians themselves objected to the Facing the Mirror project on political grounds. One told me that there was no purpose to putting the existence of Indian lesbians into words, since it would just cement and make public the divisions between lesbians and women at large - divisions which we should be working to erase.

'Militant lesbians aren't aware of the existing spaces,' she said. 'Think about the ladies' compartment of the trains, you see women together there all the time. They hold hands, and from their faces you know that it is bliss.'

I tried to persuade her to change her mind - after all, that very week there had been an article in a women's magazine talking about the scourge of lesbians in train compartments. Such single-sex spaces of safety were increasingly rare, increasingly threatened. But she merely shook her head, told me that both the verbalizing of same-sex desire and the violent reactions against that desire were marginal to the vast reality of an Indian tolerance.

'All this - it has nothing to do with India,' she said.

The fire and the fury
Us and Not-Us. these words took on a new valence for me after Deepa Mehta's film Fire came out in India, at the end of 1998, and was immediately attacked by the Hindu right for its depiction of lesbianism. Fire, a tale of two women married to two brothers, developing a relationship with each other in the congested streets of middle-class New Delhi, was not a film made for Indian audiences. The symbolism was pureed like baby food, the metaphors of fire (Sita's trial by fire from the Ramayana. the evil custom of bride-burning. home-fires and hearth-fires.) so deliberately labelled 'For Export Only'. The film had even less to offer Indian lesbians. In its portrayal of two married women falling painlessly in love, there was, as the lesbian writer VS pointed out, no attempt to take on the 'anarchic and threatening emotions that accompany sexual practices generally considered perverted, criminal and taboo'.

Nevertheless, lesbians watched with alarm as the attacks on the film gathered intensity. Even though the Censor Board had, to everyone's surprise, cleared the film without cuts, right-wing groups like the Shiv Sena and Rashtriya Seva Sangh were in no mood to accept that verdict. On 1 December, Pramod Navalkar, Minister of Culture for the state of Maharashtra and no stranger to controversy - he would often claim that he enjoyed driving around Mumbai wearing a long blonde wig 'just to see what kinds of men will try to chase a white woman' - told newspapers that lesbianism was 'a pseudo-feminist trend from the West and no part of Indian womanhood'. The next day movie theatres in Mumbai that were screening Fire were attacked by mobs of men and women from the Shiv Sena. Ticket windows were smashed, hoardings were torn down, and audiences beaten up. The day after that theatres in Delhi were targeted.

In the ensuing debate in the upper house of Parliament only detractors of the film could actually bring themselves to say the word 'lesbian'. 'Do we have lesbian culture in our families?' one Member of Parliament demanded, defending the attacks. 'The Mahabharat and the Ramayana don't contain any lesbianism,' agreed another. On the other hand, the MPs insisting that Fire should not have been attacked would do so only in the most general terms: it was as though lesbians were purely symbolic, unnamable markers of the director's right to creative freedom, of the audience's democratic rights to watch what it chose, or of the Shiv Sena mob's fascist intolerance.

 `Indian and Lesbian'. Who would have thought that staking that saucy claim to our share of national pride would result in such a furore?

So some lesbians in Delhi gathered on a tidal wave of despair, unable to believe that years of discreet organizing had culminated in such intense and unwelcome visibility. It was almost incredible that we should have come together at all for we were a dispersed, fragmented lot, rent by dissension over who 'we' were - a national lesbian conference had recently disintegrated over the issue of whether white women were welcome in a space designated Indian. Even more disturbingly, over the span of a very few years the community had divided itself neatly into lesbian archives, sexuality help-lines, education and outreach groups. The informal networks we had fostered in our homes splintered gradually by ideology, particularly disagreement over funding.

Some of us believed that funding would only help us, giving us the resources to reach beyond our largely middle-class, English-speaking circles. Others of us were apt to quote the staunch activist who maintained that a foreign donor supporting any radical effort was about as plausible as Oxfam nurturing the Quit India movement 50-odd years ago.

But, in spite of our histories of disagreement, lesbians in Delhi joined forces in the wake of the attacks on Fire. We worked with desperate energy to plan a protest rally, scheduled to take place within 48 hours of the Shiv Sena's violence, and reached out to all our old allies from secular groups and from the women's movement. To our dismay we encountered that same unwillingness to name the issue a lesbian one - again, it seemed, our concerns were to be subsumed in favour of the 'bigger picture'. The word 'lesbian' was not to be used in the press release, one women's group insisted. Instead, we needed to highlight our support for the film's theme of 'the hypocrisy and tyranny of the patriarchal family'. After all, we could not possibly expect groups at large to champion a 'narrow' concern like lesbianism.

We gave in and the protest went ahead. Hundreds of people showed up outside Regal Cinema - the theatre that had been ransacked by the mobs - holding candles, chanting, raising placards. But for the first time ever in India, lesbians were visible among the other groups marking the specific nature of their anger. In the sea of placards about human rights, secularism, women's autonomy, freedom of speech, was a sign painted in the colours of the national flag: 'Indian and Lesbian'. Who would have thought that staking that saucy claim to our share of national pride would result in such a furore? You are not Us, we were reminded at once, by a chorus of voices. The deputy editor of the national weekly magazine India Today expressed particular dismay that 'the militant gay movement, which has hitherto operated as website extensions of a disagreeable trend in the West, could now come out into the open and flaunt banners in Delhi suggesting that "lesbianism is part of our heritage".' He went on to announce: 'Thievery, deceit, murder and other... [criminal] offences have a long history. That doesn't elevate them to the level of heritage.'

But that same searing moment of visibility and defiance threw together a small group of activists - a varied lot, from trade unionists to professional blood donors, men and women, heterosexual, homosexual and other. What we had in common was a sense that we should take the energy of the protest forward in the form of a campaign for lesbian rights. Why the emphasis on lesbian rights? 'To articulate the troubled connections of lesbians in and with the women's movement,' we declared in our mandate. 'To talk about the social suppression of women's sexuality in general, and to address the aspects of lesbians' lives that make this struggle distinct from the gay men's movement.'

The Campaign for Lesbian Rights was a revelation for me. For the first time, lesbian issues were occupying public space - we met in the Indian Coffee House in the centre of Delhi, a hotbed of anti-establishment politics with a permanent Home Ministry spy, and we sipped six-rupee coffee and strategized aloud. We handed out thousands of leaflets on 'Myths and Realities about Lesbianism' in parts of Delhi that were commonly considered hostile to activists - industrial areas housing hundreds of factories, a Muslim university, outside the headquarters of Delhi Police. We attended public meetings organized by women's groups, human-rights groups, student groups. We wrote a street play, the familiar rhythms and gestures of that form inscribing the experiences of grassroots activists among us who had listened to women in villages all over rural North India talking about saheli-rishte - intimate bonds between women.

We fielded questions like `What have lesbians done for society that we should support you?'

I relearned the lesson that a movement is accountable only to the people, and, to that end, that rejection is only the beginning of dialogue rather than the end. We fielded questions like 'What have lesbians done for society that we should support you?' and stood our ground and continued the conversation, our commitment spurred by the knowledge that, as a group opposed to external funding, our work depended on our ability to persuade fellow activists, fellow citizens, that they should contribute a rupee or two to our cause.

Progressive groups, who addressed all kinds of dispossession and oppression through the lens of human rights, would tell us that lesbian rights was no fit realm for them to enter because sexuality was about 'personal choice'. And so we walked a curious double line, saying: 'All choices involving consenting adults deserve respect, and in the face of compulsory heterosexuality, human rights means making that choice real', and 'Lesbianism is not necessarily a choice'. It's hard to describe what it meant to us, then, to receive a letter from the Human Rights Trust acknowledging our work as 'part and parcel of the broader human-rights movement'. It was the recognition that lesbians were part of a larger group of people, attacked and discriminated against in a panoply of ways, but with this in common - that we could give a name to the violations and to the rights we were seeking.

Ashwini Sukthankar Most importantly, though, the Campaign reshaped what I thought of when I said 'we'. I have in front of me a citizens' report on the suicides of a lesbian couple in an Orissa village, brought out by aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, one of the Campaign's constituent groups. Written by two heterosexual men, the report is titled, touchingly, For People Like Us.

Ashwini Sukthankar is a Mumbai-based writer and activist.
Her book Facing the Mirror: Lesbian writing from India was
published in 1999 by Penguin India (ISBN 014 028309 9).

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New Internationalist issue 328 magazine cover This article is from the October 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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