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Same Sex Marriage: India Can Do Better

10/09/2015 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A participant holds an umbrella with rainbow colors as members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community and their supporters from across India participate in a pride walk in Surat in Gujarat state, India, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013. The walk was organized for the first time in the Gujarat state demanding social acceptance and equal rights. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

The recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in the entire United States is undoubtedly a laudable step in the struggle for full equality for its LGBT+ citizens. But how far does this move serve the LGBT+ masses of America? It would be impossible to succinctly expand on the types of marriage that have existed throughout human history, but an integral element (especially for the working classes), has been its role in ensuring economic security. So what about the economic security of the working class LGBT+ in America, who in many states can be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity? The prioritisation of same-sex marriage over livelihood security does not serve the most disadvantaged LGBT+, who cannot afford to migrate to a state where they are protected from workplace discrimination. So, can India's growing LGBT+ movement do better?

It is the bleak reality that the vast majority of gay women and men in the world still marry opposite-sex partners. Legalisation of same-sex marriage is but a distant dream for most LGBT+ people. They desperately require societal change before any change in law - such as not facing the risk of alienation or "shaming the family" for coming out, or to not risk losing their job simply for falling in love with the "wrong" sex. This is the reality of modern India, and many men and women in America today. It is then the failure of same-sex marriage advocates to consider the real life context and diversity of those LGBT+ citizens it purports to serve, that India's LGBT+ movement could learn from. While these societal barriers in the US may be primarily religiously driven, India clearly has much more to contend with.

"There is a necessity to recognise both the narrative of the immorality/culture/sin and shame connected to homosexuality but also the connection with the restrictions placed on how non-LGBT+ people are expected to live."

An example of how not to do it is Celina Jaitley's American-style gay-liberation. As part of the UN's 'Free and Equal' campaign, her video features a male, fair-skinned, seemingly wealthy same-sex Indian couple who are quickly accepted by their family at their wedding - it gets a plus point for using Hindi rather than English, but the portrayal is of the least marginalised of LGBT+ in India. Would a female same-sex couple with a darker complexion, one perhaps from a Scheduled Caste and the other a Muslim, have shaken up India too much? Heterosexual India needs to be enlightened as to the reality of LGBT+ India around them, rather than confining LGBT+ people to a Bollywood prototype. I digress to accept that films like Dostana, with its underlying message of gay acceptance, may provide a starting point for LGBT+ sensitisation, but we must ask the question: in a highly diverse, class and caste-structured society like India, can these efforts translate into meaningful change for all LGBT+ people?

Using cinema to promote LGBT+ acceptance through male, same-sex love marriages among economically advantaged Indians serves to confine issues to the world of cinema alone, especially in a society where heterosexuals are also expected to self-sacrifice in deciding their marriage partner. Self-sacrifice is a wonderful value that many western countries can borrow from India, but without the excesses that produce relationships for the sake of reputation and economics. It is then the duty of the LGBT+ movement to target the real barriers that produce the oppression and stigmatisation of LGBT+ in India; marriage, love and happiness are inadequate solutions for a far more complex context. It is only when the barriers are both identified and targeted that India can really achieve an LGBT+ movement that rivals the USA, rather than imitating it. This will serve to create a strong, effective movement with a lasting change. It is the wider social biases that are carried through into the LGBT+ movement that serve to detriment, fragment and serve a small minority of LGBT+ in India.

The first step is to celebrate the diversity of India's LGBT+, like the auto-wallahs, office professionals, dark and light skinned, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and atheists, Scheduled Castes and Tribes, rich and poor. The second step is to not simplify the cultural barriers as being unique to LGBT+ people - there is a necessity to recognise both the narrative of the immorality/culture/sin and shame connected to homosexuality but also the connection with the restrictions placed on how non-LGBT+ people are expected to live. Repetitive Bollywood-esque platitudes like Celina Jaitley's, no matter how positive the intentions, neglect the diversity and opportunity that India's LGBT+ citizens have to set a precedent for engagement and inclusivity, and to develop a movement that is truly transformative.

As a non-Indian, I am admittedly uncomfortable. I hasten to pontificate and lecture on how liberation should look to those who need it - and beyond the call to recognise diversity (a foundational value of all well-meaning social movements), it is up to every single LGBT+ person in India to decide what needs to take place. To phrase it quite simply: India can do much, much better.

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