COMMENTARY: An abbreviated version of this essay was published in the Guardian newspaper.
I grew up in Saharanpur, a "small town" of 1 million people in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. In the early '90s, I was finishing 12th grade at a Catholic-run school called St. Mary's Academy in this town -- not notable for much except its mangoes and woodcarving industry -- and like the hundreds of other small towns littering the vast plains of the region. My first sexual experiences with another boy happened near the railway tracks not far from my school.
My brother, who I am out to, like the rest of my family now, called me last week with what he called "breaking news from our childhood." A "gay party" had been raided on the weekend in Saharanpur. It had made it to the increasingly tabloid-like pages of one of India's main English-language newspapers, The Times of India.
A Google search revealed that the Hindi-language newspaper in Saharanpur, called Amar Ujala, reported the story with a banner headline screaming, "Gay Party Has Been Exposed!" It seems that "gay" has entered the Hindi language comfortably enough to be comprehensible to the readers of Amar Ujala. In true tabloid fashion, the newspaper has (thoughtfully) published a large photograph of a group of some 20 frightened-looking men sitting on the floor, many trying to conceal their faces with shawls and scarves. The editors have highlighted what they think are the primary bullet points of the story in bold letters below the photograph: 13 men arrested, more than 60 flee; a medical doctor, MBA students, and teachers were present; this "indecent" party was organized in the name of a birthday at a dharamsala (spiritual dwelling or sanctuary); and alcohol was served.
The seemingly hurriedly written article goes on to say that more than 75 men from four states were in attendance. The dharamsala's name, Guru Teg Bahadur, signifies that it is Sikh-owned. The news item goes on to name some of the men who were arrested; thankfully, all have fairly common first names, and their last names are not provided. The organizer of the party is identified as Bunty, and unfortunately (the piece informs us) for him, he runs a "beauty parlour" named after him. Therefore, for anyone interested in a follow-up gay bashing, the aforementioned Bunty should be easy enough to find.
The English-language Times of India goes further with its irresponsible reporting of the same story, where it mentions the neighborhoods the men live in and says one of the men was an HIV counselor at the Sri Baksh Hospital in Delhi's Moti Nagar neighborhood, another a school teacher from Rishikesh. This even more irresponsible and badly written piece, which chooses to identify the host, Bunty, with his last name, Vinod, and the exact location of his beauty parlour (Jafar Nawaz), has been shared 338 times on Facebook, a link under it on the website informs me.
I read the rest of the piece in horror. The names of the arrested include both Hindus and Muslims -- both religions have sizable numbers in Saharanpur. The location is just two miles from my old school, where I was mercilessly bullied for being too effeminate when I was a boy.
There are quotes from the police officer who organized the raid, in which he talks about finding "used condoms" and guests in "compromising positions." Saharanpur is identified as "ultraconservative," and a Muslim local college teacher called Ayub Qureshi is quoted expressing his indignation: "This is certainly unheard of in Saharanpur. I don't know where are we heading to."
The arrests are indefensible. These "gay" men probably have nowhere else to meet, and many perhaps still live with their families where discussing their sexuality would not be an option. As I look at the English-language news item, I notice that the first, badly written comment comes from the state of Haryana: "dear sir, all these westurn gay thing is now allowed in our culture. v must stop these gay people from having sex because then they increase in population and soon our bautiful culture country will be full of them. police have done good job. kudos to them" [sic].
The notion of homosexual activity being considered foreign -- and often specifically a Western perversion -- is not new to me. As an out and proud gay man, I have documented the policing of morality and sexuality in repressive Arab regimes, the most notable being the Hosni Mubarak government's pogrom against gay men in 2001, an incident whose victims came to be known as the Cairo 52. Knowing the indignities the 52 men arrested then, on a floating nightclub on the Nile called the Queen Boat, had to face in prison, I shudder to think of the fate of the 13 now in the custody of the notoriously brutal Uttar Pradesh police force.
On November 28 of last year, out and proud gay men and women marched in Delhi's annual gay pride march. Many posed happily for the phalanx of television news cameras. Rainbow flags were to be seen in abundance, as was language like "queer," even scrawled in Hindi on some signs. I was told about soaring speeches and the easy use of terminology that I have always thought as uniquely Western, like "LGBTQ," an easy and ever-expanding (and problematic for me) shorthand for the labels that seem to be necessary in the West.
As I looked at images taken by my many eager gay Facebook friends, I realized that most came from at least middle-class families and would have a degree of ease with the English language. I have often wondered about the need to use Western models of emancipation like gay pride marches and rainbow banners in cultural contexts that are vastly different. While filming "gay" Muslims around the world, I realized that very often an absence of affirmative language for their sexual selves in their native tongues was what united them. I have always found the word "queer" problematic and find its use on signs in Hindi to be surprising, at the very least.
I have realized repeatedly and profoundly that for many having same-sex desire in so many countries, invisibility is the norm and the preferred option. I have no doubt that most of the men and women who were busy marching in Delhi waving their banners would not like to be seen at a down-market venue like the dharamsala in Saharanpur where, among other things, the vernacular and the class differences would be insurmountable. I am not even sure if many of these newly minted "queer" activists from India's big cities would find common cause with the small-town types arrested at this "gay party." Perhaps, I cynically hope, there might be protests, and the pride flags could be brought out to air again.
India remains a land of some of the greatest dissonance in the world. Despite a booming economy and the world's largest and probably most aspirational middle class, it still seems to not be completely at ease with the sexual freedoms that are usually touted as Western. Just last year, the archaically worded antisodomy Section 377 of the British-written penal code was successfully challenged in the Delhi High Court. The vociferous activists in Delhi and Bombay hope that the law will be repealed nationally, thus making homosexuality "legal" in the world's largest democracy, which continues to implement outdated laws written by colonizers with Victorian ideas of morality.
There are some Facebook posts by "gay activists" in other small towns. One of them uses a screen grab of the Hindi news item, and in the comments section an activist claims, "Police booked them under sec 292 -- obscenity laws ... displaying obscenity and playing of obscene music. They are false charges ... " I scan through profiles of many other Facebook friends who had proudly posted pictorial evidence of their presence at the pride marches in Delhi -- not even one of them has mentioned these arrests in their usually effusive status updates.
Urban gays don't easily realize the profound differences they have with men and women who have same-sex desire in small towns across the world. I grew up in a small town and did not have the language to describe my "shame" till much later in life. The ever-expanding LGBT categorizations of the West and the "prides" that go with it have very little if any resonance for those who cannot even comprehend the content of this article (in the English language). The need activists have in the West to fit into neat little boxes and the unfortunate ghettoization of gay culture we have created ourselves (where you are either a "twink" or a "bear" or a "chaser" or "queer" or "intersex" or "two-spirit" or a "butch" or a "femme," and it goes on and on) has no easy context in the many Saharanpurs of India or even in Iran or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Nicaragua or Mexico.
Urban gays around the world have forgotten that "don't ask, don't tell" has defined millions of lives around the world in many different ways than that for which the Clinton administration invented it. And the new class of mostly English-speaking gay activists in India does not realize that this easy labeling comes from a colonized mind-set where, even decades after the colonizers left, using their labels of freedom seems necessary for them to feel better about themselves.
Many of us in the East have forgotten our own histories of invisibility and the acceptance that sometimes comes with it in our own cultures, which are older (and often wiser).
As I look at the picture of the frightened men in Saharanpur again, I wonder if I recognize anyone from my school days. I wonder if Bunty or any of the other men would have wanted to attend the Delhi pride march. Would they understand what "queer" meant at all?