Himadri Roy was in love with his first partner. He sent him a fancy musical birthday card with lots of rose petals inside and “love” written everywhere on the envelope. But Roy wasn’t home that day. Because Roy grew up in a joint family, anyone could open his letters.
“When I came back I saw my letter was open,” said Roy, an English literature and LGBT scholar at the Indira Gandhi National Open University.
Roy did not come out but was ousted by his family.
“I felt like I had been betrayed by the love of my family because everyone trusted everyone not to share their secrets.” Some of Roy’s friends disowned him, but Roy’s immediate family was very supportive.
They supported him emotionally and morally, especially in times when he was not allowed to be part of cultural traditions.
“I was never allowed to participate in the family puja [prayer],” he said. In Diwali, I’m from Bengal, so when we have kali puja, I was never allowed to be part of it. I was never allowed. That’s where discrimination, as a child, you feel it.
“Even in the Holi, no one applied colors to me, except for a few of my classmates. Most of them said, ‘Oh, he is gay. Probably, he will touch me here and there. Probably I will become gay if I am with him,’” he explained.
Roy’s story is among the stories of many LGBT individuals in India who have been harassed, bullied, disowned, mistreated, murdered, and have committed suicide, though conditions have slowly improved. Among those who are also mistreated are transgenders in India, who are now legally recognized as a “third gender” in a landmark judgement in 2014.
“Arey bichare!” (“Pity on them”) A pitiful lens is what we — Indians — have towards transgender communities in India, a conversation with my family revealed. Not because some believe that they are helpless but because of the atrocities these people face, such as hormone treatment and surgeries to feel like they belong — only for our Indian society to reject them.
As a woman growing up in India for the first 19 years of my life, like in many parts oof the world, I thought that the world existed in a binary form. You are either a “he” or a “she.” You wear blue if you are a boy and you wear pink if you are a girl. Our language too is gendered. But I didn’t know that there were other possibilities, the possibility of other genders or sexualities.
I still remember in high school, a bunch of boys from my class approached me and asked, “Tu straight hai?” (“Are you straight?”) A then-simple yes and no question laced with a not-so-cruel laughter. I didn’t know what the word “straight” was. In an effort to not seem stupid, I said, “no.” But I quickly became a symbol of laughter and joke because it meant I liked women. And that wasn’t true. Since then, I began to fear that question.
In 2015, when I went to the U.S. to pursue an undergraduate degree in journalism, I met people from all different backgrounds and walks of life and that is when I met LGBT people for the first time. I saw both men and women attracted to the same sex. I saw them married to each other and happily in love. I saw them dressed in rainbow shirts and makeup. I was deeply curious. I began to make sense of a world that I didn’t know existed — one that is not binary.
Homophobia continues to be an issue for many LGBT individuals across the globe, especially in traditional societies like Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. Let’s take a look at India and Lebanon for example. In India, conversations around LGBT issues are currently underway as many LGBT Indians await the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize same-sex marriage in the upcoming months.
In 2017, Lebanon became the first Arab country to have a Pride parade. But this kind of framing is problematic, according to some experts. Nora Noralla is an Egyptian human rights scholar who examines the intersectionality of sexual and bodily freedoms in the MENA region. She believes that Lebanese activists are complacent in the framing of Lebanon as a “queer paradise,” a beacon of freedom, but to fully be “queer,” it is important that they are educated and economically empowered.
“It’s a queer and something and it’s that something that is going to either protect you or cause you to be persecuted or marginalized,” said Noralla.
But these changes were decades of marches, arrests, resistance movements, campaigns, and petitions in process. Back in 2007, 81% of Indians believed that homosexuality should be rejected. Figures in Lebanon were nearly the same (79%). Today, those numbers look very different with a growing awareness of LGBT rights, issues surrounding gender and sexuality, social movements, and Pride Marches around the world.
A recent Pew Research report found that 37% of Indians were now accepting of homosexuality, an 18-point increase since 2007 in comparison to only 13% of Lebanese, an eight-point decrease during the same time. Noralla explains that visibility is the number one factor for such low percentages. Lebanese society is very tight-knit and conservative and values traditional family ideals of a man, a woman, and a kid, according to her.
From a legal standpoint, both Lebanon and India share some similarities but also differences. Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code and Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code define same-sex intercourse as “unnatural offenses” or “sexual intercourse against the laws of nature.” In India, implications of such relations was a mandated prison time of up to 10 years. In Lebanon, one could be jailed for up to a year.
According to Noralla, the general constitutional protections are missing in cases of social attacks, and the criminal prosecution rate for people who attack someone for being queer are quite low.
“There is no explicit mention of gender identity or sexual identity. Lebanese law does not criminalize the queer identity itself. … It doesn’t criminalize same-sex relations. It’s more of an interpretation. It’s how you see unnatural sexual intercourses,” said Noralla.
In 2018, India decriminalized same-sex relations. That same year, a district court of appeal in Lebanon issued a groundbreaking ruling that same-sex relations is not unlawful, though prejudice towards LGBT individuals persists. Lebanon has lately seen a crackdown of LGBT gatherings. On June 24, 2022, Interior Minister Bassam al-Mawlawi issued an urgent letter to all security officials to ban any events that violate the “customs and traditions” and “principles of religion,” Human Rights Watch reported.
“Lebanon doesn’t have active criminalization. It’s more about the social status. It’s more about how the society perceives the issue,” explained Noralla.
In the same vein, people in India have taken religion as a trope to discriminate against LGBT individuals, according to Roy.
“These religious propagandas of us to be ‘unnatural’ is there because we do not procreate. … And taking the benefit of procreation, they move ahead and discriminate. … I don’t think procreation is the main motive of conjugal relationships,” he added. Roy also admits that nothing has changed in the last 30 years.
Roy explains how LGBT individuals in India continue to face challenges. There are suicides, conversion therapies, and LGBT people are often taken for psychiatric treatments or to sadhu babas [religious ascetic] for exorcisms so that they can procreate and continue the generation.
“If you cannot procreate, then you are not any more serving as a human being. God will punish you,” Roy added.
While Lebanon has seen more setbacks than victories when it comes to LGBT issues, India has seen a surge in queer friendly spaces like the first trans-run cafe, The Trans Café, unisex salons, and open DEI initiatives adopted by several companies, thanks to “pink economy” that led to hiring of LGBT people into the workforce, “pink tourism” that facilitated travel for these communities, and more recently the introduction of drag performances, said Roy.
“I hope we get somewhere. If not marriage equality, at least a civil union, shape, or partnership. That also works. … As community members we can always hope.”