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STRAIGHT NOT NARROW

Ripples of the rainbow

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Slowly but steadily, smaller cities and towns are starting pride marches and LGBT support groups.

In the first year, they were a silent presence. The next year, they turned out in greater numbers , bright masks covering their faces. This year, all masks were off as women marched with pride surrounded by supportive friends and family at the Chennai Rainbow Pride March. Twenty-six-year-old businesswoman Shruthi, who participated in the march on Marina Beach, says, "People are now more accepting without being judgemental and Chennai is a safe place for lesbians."

It is a statement that speaks volumes about the change the city has seen in the last few years. "When we held our first Pride March in 2009, we were worried no one would turn up," says Sunil Menon, LGBT activist and fashion show director. But the response surprised them, with people even coming in from Bangalore.

It’s not just Chennai that is witnessing this kind of change. In a society that still hesitates to speak about sex, attitudes towards homosexuality are slowly but steadily undergoing a shift, with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community making their voices heard. The 2009 Delhi high court ruling decriminalising homosexuality has had a tremendous impact on the movement.

Metros have always been more tolerant of sexual minorities. "There is a sense of anonymity, plus, in cities you are mostly judged because of your skills or core competence," says Ashok Row Kavi, chair, Humsafar Trust, Mumbai. The rainbow has rippled to smaller cities and towns as well - Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu and Thrissur in Kerala hosted their first pride marches last year. "Smaller cities always emulate bigger ones. So the awareness about rights for the LGBT community is bound to have some sort of ricochet effect," says Kavi. "Now if you travel from one Indian city to another, you can immediately find a gay group."

Activists and counsellors say that the high court ruling has also created a great deal of awareness in society. "The ruling enabled discussions in every famitogether for survival and to cope with modern society. And it all exploded with the HIV crisis."

The emergence of AIDS in India enabled public discussion about homosexuality , flushing it out of the closet. "HIV/AIDS was a curse for many but a blessing in disguise for sexual minorities as they got visibility," says Manvendra Singh Gohil, former prince of Rajpipla. Although he created a furore when he publicly declared his sexual identity in 2006 - the royal family threatened to disinherit him - public perception has changed since, he says. "In Baroda, I am in touch with old people who tell me what it was like to be gay 50 years ago," says Gohil, chairman of Lakshya Trust, which works in the HIV/AIDS sector in Gujarat. "Then they lived undercover, ly," says Magdalene Jeyaratnam, director of the Centre for Counselling in Chennai . "So we have more gay men and lesbians coming out and more accepting families." This was not the case even a decade ago. "No one would even say the word, it was like everyone was in denial," says Menon, who came out in 2000. "In the ’80s and early ’90s, growing up dealing with homosexuality was extremely lonely and scary and you were prone to blackmail and harassment."

It was this growing angst among community members and the spread of HIV/AIDS that fuelled the emergence of gay pride in India. "There was a lot of anger in the community," says Kavi. "They were treated badly at home, many were subject to shock therapy and forced to marry. They had to get meeting in parks and by the lakeside. But now attitudes are changing, there are lots of mothers coming forward to support their children." With the HC ruling, he also sees more student groups approaching his organisation.

It’s still not easy for the LGBT community though. In Kerala, where samesex love is still frowned upon, declaring one’s sexual identity to friends and family is a tough call. "It is still difficult for homosexuals, especially women, to express their sexual preferences," says Deepa Vasudevan, managing trustee of Sahayatrika, a group for women and female-born transgender people in Thrissur . "They have to hide their personal lives and many lose the support of their family when they come out." The scenario is changing. Arya Krishnan, one of the organisers of the Pride March in Thrissur, is confident of increased participation . "Last year, when we held it for the first time in Kerala, there were about 500 people. This year, we are expecting 200 more," says Krishnan. Anil, a government employee in Kollam, says he found more acceptance after coming out. "My family is aware about my identity and maintains a dignified silence."

Moral policing, of course, does occur. A "sting operation" conducted by a Telugu channel on gay culture in Hyderabad had the community up in arms in February. Pune-based writer Raja Rao also says gay activism is restricted to people who are part of support groups. "It’s true that in recent years Pune has seen the emergence of various gay support groups," he says. His course on lesbian and gay writing at the University of Pune is oversubscribed. "To an extent, the course changes the mindset of students who opt for it," he says.

It is in this rising awareness that people see hope for the future. "On an individual level, I still think it is difficult for gay, lesbian and transgender people here," says Amy Hirsch, vice-consul of the US Consulate in Chennai, which turned out in full force for the march this year. "It’s always hard for the pioneers , but the people brave enough to come out are making it that much easier for those who come after them."

THIRD SEX AND THE CITY
They have contested elections and held beauty pageants but when it comes to basic issues like housing and employment, the transgender (TG) community is still fighting discrimination. "A TG person - any individual who moves out of his or her born gender - is open about his or her sexuality," says Chennai-based Sunil Menon, founder of Sahodaran, a male sexual health project. "So there are issues when they apply for jobs or look for a place to stay."The link between the homosexual and the TG community is very strong. Many TG people are also forced to drop out of school as they face harassment. "Many of them are abandoned by their families or forced to run away from home when they come out into the open," says TG activist and radio show host Rose Venkatesan. "So many of them turn to begging or sex work." However, perceptions have changed over the years. Tamil Nadu, in particular, has been at the forefront of transgender reform. The first state to grant ‘third gender’ status to transgenders, it constituted a welfare board and announced April 15 as Transgender Day. "TG people are now able to study in schools and colleges without facing discrimination," says Rose.

Additional inputs by Laxmi Birajdar in Pune and Ananthakrishnan G in Thiruvananthapuram.

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