An Atlas of Difficult Longing

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They met and got close while in college in Bangalore, a buzzing metropolis in Southern India. There was a period of long-distance courtship too, before a hush-hush commitment ceremony strangely naive, even out of place transpired eight years later. Smruthi Narayan was coming around to say ‘I do’ in the privacy of a farm in the city’s outskirts to Swetha Pai.

Back in early 2013, when I was working on my story on same-sex couples in India, Swetha and Smruthi were among the few lesbian couples taking the tentative steps of ‘coming out’. Of the scores of couples we spoke to across cities, only a handful were willing to talk about their lives. Fewer still were willing to be featured with their real identities, let alone be photographed. I remember Swetha telling me at that time, “If it’s legally allowed, we’ll get married. If not, we’ll have one big splash wedding. Whose life is it anyway?” Jump to 2015. In May this year, Swetha and Smruthi exchanged vows at City Hall in San Francisco, after breaking social taboos back home. “Suddenly it seems that people’s perspective of our relationship has changed, in the sense that now our relationship is not frivolous and has more depth,” the couple was quoted as saying. After months of hiding and dealing with threats from family, the young couple thinks they’ve finally found a safe home in the United States. In 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalised consensual sex between adults in private, raising hopes among gay activists that India was finally outgrowing an archaic law restricting individual freedom. But two years ago, the apex court overturned the decision and tossed the fate of Section 377, the part of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises gay sex, back to Parliament. This effectively makes homosexuality illegal in India, widening the gulf with liberal democracies in Asia and the West. For most lesbian couples, the support structure is more fragile compared to heterosexual couples or gay men. They can’t inherit each other’s property, get life insurance, adopt together or even get visas as married couples. According to the PEW Research Center in Washington DC, about 67% Indians regard homosexuality as morally unacceptable.

 

 

Is America a safe home for homosexual couples?

In June this year, the Supreme Court in the United States ruled that same-sex couples could marry nation-wide, handing gay rights advocates their biggest victory. The US judgments and other such rulings have provided firepower to the LGBT movement across the world. There’s some sort of judicial recognition to the rights of the community and a legal paradigm has been set. It also underlines equality in all spheres, including marriage and the benefits that come with it. A PEW Research polling in early 2015 concluded that 55% Americans support same-sex marriage, compared to 39% who oppose it. Currently, 62% democrats have a favourable view of the court ruling, up from 54% four months ago. The research also points out that nearly 72% of those under 30 favour allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, with 49% strongly favouring both. According to Carroll Doherty, director of political research at PEW Research Center, “More and more people are moving into the millennial cohort and supporting gay marriage. For the younger generation, this is almost a sealed issue.”

 

But is it really that easy to be in a same-sex relationship in the United States?

True that anti-gay violence has tripled in India since the 2013 apex court ruling criminalising homosexuality, thrusting the one-taboo subject into the centre of public and religious discourse, but in the United States too, this is a deeply contested subject. It’s interesting to note how both the societies at different levels are still so wary of same-sex love. The LGBT rights groups in India say that nearly 600 people were arrested between January and October 2014 for violating Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code banning “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, which includes fellatio and gay sex. A prominent gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi, had said, “In the light of globalisation, the Indian Supreme Court judgment is being cited as a totally reactionary judgment. A ruling that goes against the whole concept of human rights had been on a progressive upsurge in India.”  At gay parades in India, the recent US ruling was seen as a major watershed moment. But a closer look at US society reveals that this watershed moment does have shades of grey. According to PEW research, since March this year, only 27% of conservative Republicans have a favourable view of the Supreme Court ruling. This becomes especially significant ahead of the US Presidential elections in 2016. While Democrats think that the court ruling is a marker of equality, many Republican candidates have opposed it more forcefully than others. Now, if these conservative groups marshal their resources in order to criticise those candidates who don’t back a constitutional amendment defining marriage traditionally or are viewed as being compliant of the court’s ruling, it could make gay marriage a prominent campaign issue. Recently, a Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, drew attention when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because she said it violated her religious beliefs.

Some steps backward, some steps forward

Adoption of children by same-sex couples in the United States has been legalised, even if policies may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The court ruling now has a bearing on social security benefits, supplemental security income as well as medicare entitlement, where creases have been levelled out to an extent. In India, despite the intimidation, harassment and blackmails faced by homosexual couples at home and outside, a lot more charities are working for LGBT rights, many couples are emerging from the shadows of LGBT parades, rainbow conventions and clandestine meets. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court in India created the ‘third gender’ status for transgenders to help them get access to equal opportunities in education and employment. There’s also a thrust towards social welfare schemes, special public toilets and public awareness campaigns to help reduce the social stigma.  In June this year, an advertisement showing a lesbian couple preparing to meet the parents made waves on the social media and had two lakh hits in just 10 days.

Check out 'The Visit' ad:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ef27m5ocK6Q

Wherever you are, there’ll be hurdles when you break taboos or do something transformational as Smruthi and Swetha, or the tens of thousands of homosexual couples across the world have done. Who said the politics of same-sex love is easy? But in the end, it’s all about going that extra mile and doing what you truly believe in!

Since 2001, 21 countries have legalised same-sex marriage, affording full recognition and rights to couples entering into them:

The Netherlands (April 1, 2001)

Caribbean Netherlands (Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, Saba)

Belgium (June 1, 2003)

Spain (July 3, 2005)

Canada (July 20, 2005)

South Africa (2006)

Norway (January 1, 2009)

Sweden (May 1, 2009)

Portugal (June 5, 2010)

Iceland (June 27, 2010)

Argentina (July 22, 2010)

Denmark (15 June 2012)

Uruguay (April 2, 2013)

New Zealand (April 17, 2013)

France (April 23, 2013)

Brazil (May 14 2013)

England and Wales (July 17, 2013)

Luxembourg (June 18, 2014)

Scotland (February 4, 2014)

Finland (signed February 20, 2015, effective 2017)

Ireland (May 23 , 2015)

United States (June 26, 2015)