L is for lesbian, G is for gay: Indian parents learn ABC of LGBT

by Roli Srivastava | @Rolionaroll | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 10 June 2019 06:04 GMT

Participants at an LGBT pride parade pose for a picture with their placards in Pune, India, June 2, 2019. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Roli Srivastava

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In a landmark judgment, India's top court struck down colonial-era criminalisation of homosexuality last September, though anti-gay discrimination and LGBT abuse remain widespread

By Roli Srivastava

PUNE, India, June 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After her son came out as gay, Sushma Samudra consulted astrologers, quizzed psychiatrists, performed prayers and implored gods and goddesses to cure his abnormality.

Nothing worked.

Undeterred, she tasked her husband to feed a stray dog each morning with a roti generously coated with ghee, closely following the curative advice of an expert astrologer.

Samudra can laugh now - recalling her naivety and the deranged detours taken en route - as she relaxed into a family interview at her home in Pune, about 90 miles from Mumbai.

Homosexuality has been decriminalised but coming out is still not easy in India, where it is rarely discussed openly for fear of family rejection in a regimented, traditional society.

But some parents are now swimming against the heavy tide of tradition, be it counselling others about how to accept their gay children or even seeking a same-sex partner for their own.

"It took me 10 years to understand. I had never heard the word 'gay' before," 66-year-old Samudra said.

"Now when people ask me, I tell them to accept their child. They need that the most. This is where I made a mistake."

She spoke on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Pune, her husband Dattatreya, their son Sameer and his partner Amit at her side.

"It was difficult for me. I always imagined getting a daughter-in-law who would stay with me. My son gave me books (on understanding LGBT) to read. Now I understand this is natural."

The change in her outlook mirrors reform in Indian law.

In a landmark judgment, India's top court struck down colonial-era criminalisation of homosexuality last September, though anti-gay discrimination and LGBT abuse remain widespread.

Parental acceptance, too, remains a challenge, reflected in the ruptured family ties that were recently revealed by India's first openly gay athlete Dutee Chand.

Seeking to help families avoid similar conflict, support groups are now targetting parents with a message of acceptance.

"When the child comes out, parents go into the closet. We have seen children suffer because their parents don't accept them," said Aruna Desai of a Mumbai-based LGBT support group called 'Sweekar' (Acceptance).

Sweekar holds workshops for parents, helping them navigate unfamiliar territory, and has seen participant numbers surge from a handful to 50+ in the last couple of years.

"We start with the definition of L, G, B and T," said Desai, who was clueless when her son came out more than a decade ago.

Most parents worry how society will react and what they will tell their extended families.

"We talk to them, counsel them. There should be a day when this group is not required," Desai said.

Sushma Samudra and her husband Dattatreya have a conversation with their son Sameer and his same-sex partner Amit Gokhale in their family home in Pune, India, June 2, 2019. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Roli Srivastava


Same-sex marriages are not legal in India but that did not stop Mumbai-based Padma Iyer approaching a clutch of big Indian newspapers in 2015 to place an advertisement seeking a groom for her son as "that was the only way I knew to find him a partner".

Most newspapers refused to carry it.

Last month, The Times of India - India's largest selling newspaper and one that had declined Iyer's ad - launched 'Out and Proud', a weekly classified column for the LGBT community.

A promotional video of 'Out and Proud' shows the LGBT community using the classified to look for a same-sex partner, seeking an apartment or coming out as gay to their parents.

"We are treading on a controversial segment in today's society. Just making it (homosexuality) legal, does not make it acceptable," said Sanjeev Bhargava, director of brands at The Times of India.

"We have to start with explaining what this is about... This campaign will disseminate the powerful message of love and acceptance," Bhargava said.

Classifieds aside, LGBT life is becoming ever more integrated into mainstream society and the media.

Portals for the LGBT community to find partners, same-sex couples throwing 'marriage' parties, LGBT members cast in popular television shows and Bollywood films with an LGBT love story are among a string of firsts in India in recent months.

Iyer said she couldn't have advertised for a live-in partner for her son, so a matrimonial ad was her only option.

"Even though not legal, marriage brings with it the promise of a long-term relationship," said Swapnil Kadam, founder of an LGBT wedding portal called Soul-Mate.

Indu Jasuja is looking for a "suitable partner" for her son Punit, a Delhi-based wedding and interior designer.

"I would like him to find somebody to settle down with," said Jasuja, who has been spreading the word among "nieces, nephews and friends".

Jasuja has come a long way from the time her son came out as gay, when she cautioned him against telling anyone else.

"My son is a bright person, he is healthy. Why wouldn't I accept him," she said in a phone interview.

The changing attitudes are "heartening" for parents like Padma Iyer who said "something good comes out of everything".

Participants at an LGBT pride parade pose for a selfie in Pune, India, June 2, 2019. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Roli Srivastava


Not everyone comes out to accepting parents, or even comes out at all. There is no official data on India's LGBT population, but the government says some 2.5 million gay people have declared their homosexuality to the health ministry.

Punit Jasuja, 44, who is organising a lesbian 'wedding' party in the desert state of Rajasthan, says being gay gives him a special insight into the wedding business in which he works.

"Things are more open now but it is wrong to say they are changing, because they still haven't," he said, adding many lesbians and gays still face pressure from parents to wed.

He said an LGBT professional networking group that he has on Facebook is rife with requests for 'marriages of convenience' - where a gay man marries a lesbian woman - to keep parents happy.

More than 900 miles from Delhi, at an LGBT Pride parade in Pune this month, marchers sang and danced, holding placards declaring 'acceptance is the new sexy' as a man watched on.

He hesitantly walked up to Sameer Samudra, 43, and his partner Amit Gokhale, 41, and shook hands with them both.

"Be brave, don't hesitate," Samudra told him, but later told the Thomson Reuters Foundation how coming out was still hard.

He should know.

Samudra was studying in the United States, where he came out then fell in love, yet still went through the drill of meeting girls handpicked by his family each time he visited India.

"Indian children want to please their parents," said Samudra, who waited for his mother to accept him, even accompanying her to the curative astrologers she had sought out.

He married his partner - also of Indian origin - in 2010 in the United States, and the couple moved to Pune to be closer to their parents two years ago.

It took seven months and double their agreed rental budget to find a home, because they met house owners as a gay couple and not rental "friends" as their agent had advised.

"Changing hearts and minds will take time," said Samudra, sitting in a packed Pune restaurant. "We have one life and we have to make a difference in the society and live by example."

(Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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