August 2010
#Freedom , 442 Views
They Dared Not Speak Its Name in Delhi

Text & Photographs: Sunil Gupta

Sunil Gupta writes about the changing fate of the homosexual community in Delhi.

Twenty years ago, Delhi was a different place if you were a gay man. It was a well-guarded secret that gay men existed. This silence had the backing of the law. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code forbade consensual homosexual sex between adult men, amongst other things. Although this law had no place in Indian culture, being a British import, it lingered on and became enshrined as part of our national culture.

These photographs were made in 1987, the fortieth year of Indian independence, marking the continuing suppression of gay men. Sexual orientation was still not on the development agenda. Nationalists, communists, World Bank technocrats had all joined in the conspiracy of silence surrounding homosexuality within the sub-continent.

A handful of gay men felt unable to return to live in the country. The rest continued to live a marginalized existence, giving in to family and social pressures to maintain a “normal” front. A few at the top and bottom of the social and political ladder were privileged enough to side step these pressures. Very few who identified with the secret “dirty habit”, even those who labeled themselves gay, felt able to come out from this self-imposed internal exile.

News of constitutional gains made by gay activists in the West to foster a positive gay identity and culture filtered in but obviously their tactics could not be exactly duplicated in India. On the other hand, HIV/AIDS arrived to reinforce all the worst stereotypes; the most common of which is that homosexuality is some terrible Western disease. That this was not the case was obvious to anyone even with a rudimentary contact with the gay scene in India.

Homosexual Community
Nehru Park. “Police operated here harassing people and intimidating them with beating and extortion. Sometimes they just wanted a blow-job.”

Now in 2010, Delhi’s gay scene has changed remarkably. Many people are more openly gay. There is constant debate in print and television media. Gay visibility, if one wanted to acknowledge it, is everywhere.

But the most significant event to mark changing sensibilities happened on July 2, 2009. In a momentous victory for gay rights activists, lawyers, gays and their supporters, Delhi high court ruled in favour of homosexuality. On that day, same-sex behavior was decriminalized across India.

While homosexuality may now have the sanction of the law, its stigma in society still lingers. For young people and those on university campuses it’s almost no longer an issue. But we have yet to see an outpouring of gay and lesbian presence in Delhi that is not confined to artistic and cultural circles. Maybe as more people become familiar with these themes in cultural productions, then in social settings, general society will open up and the stigma will cease to exist.

And no longer will one be confined to the proverbial “closet” on a Friday night.