I’m not going to argue that the reading down of IPC Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is not an important milestone for LGBTQIA+ people in India. Of course it is. It is a very small thing we asked for — the right to consensual physical love between adults, even if that love does not produce babies.
How hard we had to fight for this very small thing. To say, we are not perverted, we should not be held criminal, for having consensual sex. We are not heterosexual, we are not cis gender, and that is okay. We are okay, and you should let us be. It is ludicrous it took so long for a bench of judges to hand down their mercy.
But it’s done. Depending on where you pay attention, the celebration was extensive, explosive. The queer community was overwhelmed, beyond joy, beyond celebration. The struggle was over. The struggle had been for something.
I shall use the term ‘queer’ as an umbrella term for people of alternative sexualities and genders, but you should know that this is not a monolithic term. It means different things to different people. In some ways ours is a community forged out of inflicted oppression, our commonality simply that heterosexual, heteronormative society is not happy with our existence. In other ways our community is forged out of an acknowledgement of love and joy, and our right to have that love and joy in spite of our differences, our paths outside the norm.
In an urban city like Bangalore, a lot of people are aware of the queer community. I still get questions from new friends from work, though, asking me, what is 377? I see you post about it a lot.
This is not a bad thing! I am happy to talk about 377, about queer people, and our right to have sex. And I am fortunately surrounded by people who listen, and think, and care.
When Provoke Lifestyle asked me to write about the rest of Karnataka, I thought, well why bother? It’s going to be much the same, right? I was not thinking about it as clearly as I should have. As I set out to talk to queer people from Karnataka I realised that I had taken my urban privilege for granted. Bangalore might be an overpopulated unplanned mess of a city, but it is also a melting pot of new people, new ideas, new money and new access
Further out from this metropolitan centre, things look a little different. I spoke to people from Hubli-Dharwad, from Mysuru, from Thirtahalli. (I am sorry to say I had to Google Thirtahalli to figure out exactly where it was.) Vignesh Bhat (who identifies as gay) told me that in Thirtahalli, never mind about 377, there was little to no understanding of any sort of alternative identity. Gay, lesbian, transgender — everything gets lumped in the collective imagination into the same ‘deviant’ box. The situation seems similar in Shimoga, where Akash (cis, male, gay) tells me, “there is nothing (of a queer community) as such, people are often ignorant about the community, members of the community will often stay in the closet…”
I had one participant from Mysuru, a grand number that repeats for almost every city but Bangalore. Spring (cis, female, lesbian) tells me, “There is no community where we gather. I know three other queer women, but they are not ready to meet/do things
as a group.”
Rohan Susha Mathews, a Christian queer activist, whose gender identity is non-binary, reminded me that often the queer community was reduced to men who love men, ignoring other identities and loves. They pointed out that North Karnataka in particular really only accepts transgender people in religious, transitional spaces. So Manjamma Jogthi, an activist in Hospet, is respected not on the basis of her gender identity but on the basis of her relationship with the goddess Yellamma. In comparison with the way hijra women are treated in Bangalore I think this is still a blessing, albeit a mixed one.
Rohan speaks of North Karnataka still but I think this applies across the board — queer communities can re-perform heterosexuality in queer spaces. Penetration can be prioritised and lorded. Men who love men are prioritised in the news and the media. Transmen are completely invisible. Lesbian women have a great deal of difficulty in coming out. Privilege is the surest answer — to take your privilege into a space and break it open to provide agency to other people.
This is easier said than done.
Across the State, people are lonely. In Manipal, which has a thriving student population, someone tells me that there are queer student groups — but they don’t know where they are, and haven’t been able to find an introduction.
As a Bangalorean I look at the queer scene here with a jaundiced eye, seeing every gap and chasm, but for people who’ve been across the State, there is a very different feeling. “Bangalore is paradise,” Vidya Pai tells me. She is also a Bangalorean. Through her eyes I see my city afresh. Oh, we have problems, and I have so much to say about our queer communities here. But Bangalore is where I grew into my queerness, where I learned my activism. I would rather be queer here than anywhere else in the world.
Bangalore has a schismed, schizophrenic community, and speaking from experience it’s possible to find something here, even if it’s not exactly what you’re looking for. Older groups like Good As You (GAY) have been running for over twenty years. All Sorts of Queer (ASQ) is much younger, a space for anyone who is queer and not cis-male. Groups like Sangama, Raahi, Payana, Samara work on the field with working class queer people; intervening against police brutality/abuse and providing crisis support.
Even in Bangalore, 377’s removal is not a panacea for all ills. The right to love is not the same as social acceptance, and it is nowhere near a legal right against other forms
And we are all hopeful, and losing hope. Dear gods, how we grapple with hope. Us fortunate few made friends and connections through groups, hanging out, doggedly going to every event, every support meet. But across Bangalore, Mysuru, Shimoga, et al, we search for love. Blackmail and violence are being reported in increasing numbers (at least they are being reported and not hidden away). People hunt through Tinder, through Grindr, searching for dates, for sex, for love. All we have, it feels, is each other, and our greatest work shall be making sure, over the years and decades to come, that we can find and have
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