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“We girls can satisfy each other on every level”

Lesbianism In India

Still from 'Girlfriend'Nov:28: “That’s a great haircut,” said Ratna*, smiling as she deftly ran her fingers through my hair on meeting me at a crowded pub on Friday night. Glancing at my date, she leaned closer and casually remarked, “I think you are a really sweet girl. And you have always wound up getting hurt in relationships. Men do not understand our physical needs or emotions. We girls can satisfy each other on every level.” 

This might seem odd in an era where stick-wielding activists smashed windowpanes of a cinema hall showing lesbian-themed film Girlfriend but our attitude towards sex has changed over the years. “Today we are willing to accept sexuality, a broad term that includes homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality, whereas earlier we tried to put a lid on it. It is only conservative political and community groups who react violently to gay visibility. Their claims that lesbian acts are ‘foreign’ to Hindu culture, and therefore regarded as ‘filthy’, are flawed.

Sculptures in Hindu temples such as the one in Khajuraho are erotic and include lesbian depiction. I guess these activists see our drive for gay and lesbian equality as an assault on the country's essence since India has always been entrenched in the traditions of extended families and arranged marriages,” exclaimed an irate choreographer who prefers to remain anonymous.

Gay Bars attract lesbians 



Although not as widespread or ‘open’ as the gay community, a nascent lesbian movement has sprouted in the Indian subcontinent during the last decade. A percentage of lesbians are coming out of their shell and cruising gay bars littered across the country – especially in the Indian Capital. “The healthy turnout of lesbians on our gay nights prompted us to hold a weekly lesbian night but no-one turned up so we have discontinued it; I guess it would have been too in-your-face and Indian girls are not ready for that. However, we continue to get at least 8-10 lesbians in a crowd of over 100 gays on our gay nights,” revealed the manager of a South Delhi pub, which is renowned for its weekly gay nights. 

So, what attracts these lesbians to a gay night? A night of lesbian bonding or covert sexual experiences? “I regularly attend gay nights but do not frequent these bars to ‘pick up’ a sex partner as most people would perceive; in fact, the best sex I have ever had was with a man and nothing I have done with any girl even comes close to it! I was heterosexual until the age of 21 and then I realized I didn’t find it sexually satisfying most of the time or even emotionally fulfilling. Once I realized that I was getting drawn to girls, I thought I was abnormal or weird but when I go to a gay bar, it is therapeutic to meet people like myself. It reassures me that I am not queer. The feeling of understanding myself … of knowing there are other people like me out there … of looking forward to a possible relationship … these are the gifts that ‘coming out’ has given me,” revealed Shradha Kapur. 

Lesbianism is not a big city phenomenon 

Lesbianism is not just a metro phenomenon influenced by the West. Last month in Chhindwada, a conservative town in Madhya Pradesh, two young girls – Jyoti and Savita – asserted their right to live as a lesbian couple after five years into a relationship. A fortnight before leaving home, Jyoti was told by her parents that they had arranged her marriage to a boy from Jhansi. When she protested and told them that she wanted to live with Savita for the rest of her life, she was locked in her room for days.  

On escaping, both girls left their home and took shelter at the Parasia police station. “We are getting the ages of the girls verified. If they are adults, we cannot do anything because they have not committed any crime,” an official of Parasia police station informed the media. “If the girls want, they can live together. But we will see to it that they are not harmed by their family members.”

Still from 'Girlfriend'

Flashback: lesbianism is a recent phenomenon

Although Indian lesbians are gradually accepting their sexuality, lesbianism is a very recent phenomenon in the Indian subcontinent. Kolkata-based ‘Sappho’ was formed in 1990 to develop public recognition of the rights of a lesbian to a life of self-respect and acceptance. “Originally, the group only consisted of my partner Akunksha and myself; we were very eager to share our joy and agony with people who would understand us. With this in mind, we contacted the ‘Kolkata Gay Club’ and ‘Mumbai Street Samiti’ and came in touch with people who were in the same position,” said co-proprietor Malobika. 

In 1998, there was a flare-up against lesbianism in India. ‘An explosion of obscenity, a denigration of womanhood and an attack on Bharatiya Sanskriti … a distorted picture of Indian culture showing two 'sexually frustrated' Hindu women indulging in lesbianism…’ These were the irate voices of the Shiv Sena, BJP and organizations such as Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangharsh Samiti against Deepa Mehta’s lesbian-themed film Fire.  

The Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi barged into Cinemax theatre in Mumbai during the show and smashed glass panes, burnt posters and shouted slogans. Similar attacks took place in other cities. However, these violent demonstrations were instrumental in bringing a number of lesbians out of the proverbial closet. Hundreds of women showed up outside the theatre that had been ransacked by the mobs … holding candles and chanting. For the first time ever in India, lesbians were visible among the other groups marking the precise nature of their annoyance. In the midst of placards about human rights, women’s autonomy, etc was a sign painted in the colors of the national flag: ‘Indian and Lesbian’. 

These demonstrations subsequently gave birth to the Campaign for Lesbian Rights, a group of individuals who strongly believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is a violation of basic human rights. “We spearheaded an awareness campaign by handing out leaflets titled Myths and Realities about Lesbianism, attended public meetings organized by women’s and human-rights groups and directed a street play, Saheli Rishte. Our group is supported by quiet a few organizations including ‘Psychological Foundations of India’, ‘Dastkar’, ‘Stree Sangam’, ‘Sangini’, ‘North East Network’, ‘Aids Virodhi Bhedbhav Andolan,’ ‘Saheli,’ ‘Aarambh’, and ‘Sabrang’,” revealed a member of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights. 



Fast forward: ‘coming out’ is not easy in a conservative society

“We girls paralyze ourselves with fear. We tell ourselves over and over again that we are not normal, that we will not be accepted and play out the worst possible scenario in our heads. For years, I could not look at my reflection in the mirror and feel proud of myself. It is not an easy path to tread, this life of ours. But, bit by bit, I have made it,” said twenty-six-year-old Amita*, who recently confessed to her elder sister that she was a lesbian and feels relieved at having been accepted after the initial shock and confusion.

“I then began confiding in my close friends. The reactions ranged from alarm to tolerance to slow acceptance. Gradually, I came out to more and more people. Today, a year later, I am a lesbian to just about everyone who matters in my life l thought and would never be able to live it down. It would hurt them beyond repair,” she continued wistfully.

Lesbians might try hard to be accepted by society but their efforts get pushed back by years after titillating lesbian-themed films like Girlfriend distort the nucleus of lesbian relationships. In the film, one girl is portrayed as a man-hater due to an incident of childhood sexual abuse while her partner loses her sexual orientation after consuming alcohol. The twist in the tale comes when one of them falls in love with a man, prompting her girlfriend to turn into a jealous psychopath! “All the negative myths about lesbians have been woven into the script of Girlfriend, which has been made with the sole aim of titillating frontbenchers, and has antagonized society against lesbians even further,” rued Ratna*.


In conclusion, crusaders of India's lesbian movement say they are bracing themselves for a long, uphill battle. They take solace in the fact that anti-gay feelings may have toughened for the moment but at least the issue is being addressed. “Indian society today refuses to acknowledge anything other than a heterosexual man-woman relationship. These things will take time,” is their positive outlook.

* Name Changed

(By Jasmeen Dugal)

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