By Krysten Massa
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Bangalore, and in India in general, is increasingly visible, gay and transgender activists say. But they balk at lumping everybody together into one “LGBT” category. While gay and transgender people share some similar struggles, people from both groups say each faces its own particular issues as well.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code makes it illegal to have “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” In 2009, the Delhi High Court ruled this law unconstitutional, but in 2013, the Supreme Court of India overruled that judgment, and the law, first enacted more than a century ago under British rule, came back into effect.
For most of his life, Shilok Gowda, who grew up in a small village, said he did not know what homosexuality was. Gowda, 19, is now a student at Jain University in Bangalore.
When he was a child, he said, other kids teased him, asking whether he was a boy or a girl. At the time, he did not understand what they were talking about.
One day, he went to his high school’s library.
“Somewhere in there, I got to learn the word ‘gay,’” Gowda said in an interview at the Jain University radio station, where he hosts a show that discusses LGBT rights. “I realized, ‘Okay, there are people like me. I am not alone.’”
Growing up as a classical dancer and having a high-pitched voice, Gowda said, he was always a little feminine.
“Of course you are going to get bullied very badly,” Gowda said. “I’m not accepted. I’m ostracized in this world.”
When he came to school in Bangalore, he said, his life changed. He began to really be himself. He was able to talk about sexuality with other people and could confidently say he was attracted to men.
On his radio show, he discusses issues the LGBT community faces. Gowda noted that in India people are very connected to their families and that pressure to marry is a big issue for gay people.
“If suddenly the Supreme Court gave freedom for gay marriage, I think there would be a mess in India,” Gowda said. People think gay marriage is unnatural, he said, and he doubts whether India could handle that kind of change.
Siddharth Swaminathan, a 46-year-old member of Bangalore’s gay community, said that he remembers the outrage and the uproar from the gay community when Section 377 came back into effect.
Swaminathan was born in India, but he moved to Los Angeles for college and lived there for a good part of his life. He recently moved home to Bangalore, where he is a professor of political science at Azim Premji University.
“I felt like I wanted to be part of a movement in India, wanted to be here to fight for certain rights in the community,” he said.
He said he sees a clear difference between the gay communities in Los Angeles and Bangalore. Though Los Angeles has many activists, he likes Bangalore’s small, close-knit gay community.
When he came out to his family, Swaminathan said, they were understanding. His brother and sister-in-law supported him at once. His mother was a little stunned, but she got used to it, he said.
Some gay people marry to please their parents and go along with the status quo. Viney Chandran, a gay activist and counselor, said this happens regularly. But today, he said, gay people have more options.
“People are more comfortable in coming out when they are younger, “ said Chandran, who started a group called Swabhava as a safe place in Bangalore where gays and transgender people can go. “The average age was 40 to 45. Now, it is 25 to 30.”
More people are coming out to their families than there were 15 years ago, he said.
“No matter how gay or how flamboyant you were, you still got married to a woman because that was necessary for the public perception,” he said, adding that such marriages still take place although as a counselor he deals more now with marriages falling apart.
Danish Sheikh and Gowthaman Ranganathan work for the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore and often work with LGBT groups.
Ranganathan said that in Bangalore today, with its many support groups, gay people should not accept being forced into marriage.
But many still do feel that coming out is not an option because of how their families will react.
Sheikh recalled his bad experience when he came out to his family in 2012.
“They wanted me to go to this psychiatrist,” he recalled. “We went, and the guy described shock therapy, and he said that homosexuality could be just a tumor in the hypothalamus so we can just have that removed.”
In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the national government must recognize transgender people as a third gender. Governmental forms and job applications now give the option to choose male, female or “other,” and schools and employers must establish quotas in admissions and hiring.
Legally, transgender people now have equal rights, but socially, they still face discrimination and hostility. Many young transgender, or “hijra,” people are bullied out of school, and that is something the law cannot fix.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment put out a series of reports on “Issues Relating to Transgender Persons” in 2013 and 2014. The topics included stigma, welfare for transgender people and the high rate of school dropouts.
Transgender persons leave schools “not by choice but by force due to acute discrimination and abuse,” the report said.
“We have reservations”—quotas—“at universities at the postgraduate levels, but they are getting kicked out of schools,” Chandran said. “So what’s the point of having reservations?”
Many transgender people who lack education beg on the streets or do sex work. Few mainstream employers want to hire transgender people, activists say. Sex workers often face police brutality, according to newspaper reports.
Chandran explained that although male-to-female transgender people look like women, they were not born with female bodies, and that is what generates “a lot of public disgust,” he said.
“If you look and talk and act like a man and a traditional woman, you can get away with pretty much anything,” Chandran said. ““With the hijra community particularly, there is a more of a cultural burden. … If you are slightly feminine, or a little bit too masculine, then you are in far more trouble.”
Gowda, the university radio host, has faced that kind of trouble. He is a man who looks like, and identifies as, a woman, and he is attracted to men. He takes no hormones and said he would not undergo surgery. He has his moments where he feels bad about himself because people stare at him or treat him with suspicion. Still, he said, he is comfortable being who he is.
This kind of self-acceptance was a long time coming. As a youth, he recalled, he was reading a lesson in front of his class. After he finished, his teacher looked at the class and said, “Don’t you think he talks like a transgender?”
The entire class of 80 students erupted in laughter.
“It was a very bad experience for me,” Gowda said. ‘The whole class is laughing about you, and even your teacher has commented like that.
“At that point in time, you feel like, ‘Why do I have to live this life? I should end this life.”
Though he has grown a lot as a person since then, he said, his life is still complicated.
“I have a love for my country, but all of these things, I need to tell,” Gowda said. “It hurts because you are in the motherland and you don’t have full rights.”