It’s a balmy night on the outskirts of Kolkata, and Sudipta Das is standing in a crowded plaza wearing a black sweater and a rakish scarf. Earlier this evening, Das, 20, told his mother that he’s studying at his aunt’s house. But instead, he has snuck out to meet up with friends.
Like most young Indians, Das loves Lady Gaga and Harry Potter, dreams of attending college abroad and can name-drop Manhattan landmarks, which he knows from watching Sex and the City. Yet Das—a tall stylish man with soft features—is living a secret life that most Indians wouldn’t consider “normal.”
Wanting to get away from the crowds, he leads me down a dim alleyway until we arrive at a deserted train yard. A group of men in their 20s stroll by and Das eyes them, then quickly looks away. Even here he doesn’t feel safe. A train whistles in the distance, and soon it’s rumbling down the tracks. “It’s OK,” Das says as the men pass. “They won’t know what we’re talking about.”
Most of his family doesn’t know what we’re talking about either. Like many men and women in India, Das is gay and hiding it, fearing rejection, discrimination and violence. Once, several years ago, Das tried to come out. But his parents wouldn’t hear it. Like many Indians, they thought he had a mental disorder. Several doctors told them otherwise, but they didn’t buy it. Eventually, Das told his mother and father had been cured. “I know there are so many like me, who just want acceptance from their family, but don’t get it,” Das says. “They live a life hiding from a faceless entity, we call society.”
Years ago, it seemed like Indian society was becoming more tolerant. After decades of discrimination, an Indian high court decriminalized homosexuality in 2009. Whereas gays once lived in fear of discrimination or arrest, now they could move freely, report hate crimes and date whomever—with no public displays of affection of course. (This was still India after all, a place where kissing on screen remains taboo in Bollywood.) Progress came in waves and fear began to subside. Many gays in India decided to come out without fear of repercussions.
Today, however, gays and lesbians in India have once again been forced into the shadows. Roughly a year ago, the Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decision. Now, many gays and lesbians in India live in fear of prosecution. In October, police arrested a 32-year-old engineer in Bangalore after his wife used a hidden camera to catch him having sex with a man. If convicted, he could wind up spending the rest of his life in prison and his parents, who arranged his marriage, could also face criminal charges. Elsewhere in India, a number of cases against gay men are moving through the courts as a police office had set up a string by luring them for dates using an online dating site.
Over the past year, gay activists have fought back against the court’s ruling, challenging the verdict, holding rallies and using social media to try and sway public opinion. But India’s legal system is notoriously slow, and the appeals process could take years. Thus far, their early efforts haven’t been successful, and despite polls showing greater tolerance among young Indians, gay activists have few allies outside of their own community. As Das puts it: “[We] have a long way to go.”
COMING OUT IN KOLKATA
Outrage comes quickly in this nation of more than a billion. Over the past year, massive protests have erupted after the U.S. arrested an Indian official for allegedly employing slave labor, after an Uber driver was accused of raping a woman in New Delhi and after the government confiscated farmland to build factories in eastern India, among other places.
And yet there has been little uproar over the court’s ruling on homosexuality. One reason, gay activists say, is that Indians are only beginning to meet and understand gays. Unlike in the West, there is no openly gay culture here, no Ellen DeGeneres show on television, no Harvey Milk in politics, no Jason Collins in sports. Even during the four years during which homosexuality wasn’t a crime, gays and lesbians still failed to break into popular culture. “To Indians, we don’t exist,” says Anis Ray Chaudhuri.
He’s a 43-year-old gay activist I tracked down during my time in Kolkata. We meet at my hotel room in the center of the city not long after 11 p.m. It’s a risky move. One call from the front desk and the police could have us both arrested. On his way up, the clerk grills Chaudhuri, wondering why he has arrived so late. Roughly 10 minutes later, he calls up to remind us that overnight guests aren’t permitted.
Chaudhuri is openly gay, which is rare for someone his age. When he was growing up, he often wondered if something was wrong with him. He had so many questions about sex, but no one ever talked about it, let alone about homosexuality. Looking for answers, he turned to books. It was only later, after he became a teacher and met other gays, that he realized he wasn’t alone.
Back then, India—driven by national pride—was drifting away from British rule. The government renamed Bombay, Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata and Indian courts challenged the old colonial laws. But not all remnants of the British Empire disappeared. Indeed, part of the problem facing LGBT people in India is that the country’s colonial legacy continues to loom large. In overturning the 2009 law, India’s Supreme Court cited a section of the Indian Penal Code, which is an obscure holdover from British rule that criminalizes “unnatural” sexual offenses. “Before December I was free, now…I am a criminal,” says Chaudhuri. “The Supreme Court whipped it all away.”
India’s colonial legacy plays out other ways, too. The country’s hatred of foreign influence is a big part of what drives anti-gay sentiment. India is constantly bemoaning its Western influences—from the recent backlash over Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra shaking her hips with Pitbull to the frequent outrage over teenagers wearing shoulder-revealing tank tops. To be gay, many in India believe, involves adopting a supposedly hedonistic, foreign lifestyle. “Society says this is a Western import,” Chaudhuri says. “It’s [supposedly] the fashion, which is found in the upper-class, English-speaking, net-savvy people.”
Like Das, many young Indians come out to their peers, but hide it from their parents for fear of being sent into psychiatric care. Chaudhuri sees this scenario play out with his students. Coming out was easier for him. He was much older and already successful and self-sufficient. People criticized him, but many looked past it. Nevertheless, he has to be careful.
It’s well past 1 a.m. when Chaudhuri leaves my room. The next morning I can feel the clerks glaring at me. A few ask me why a man visited me the night before. The next day, I mention this to Chaudhuri. Just be thankful you’re American, he says.
A THIRD GENDER
In many ways, however, Chaudhuri is one of the lucky ones. Just ask Aparna Banerjee. A 20-something living in Kolkata, Banerjee was walking home one night through a park when a group of men raped him and left him lying on the ground. Bleeding and badly hurt, he went to the police station. He wanted the cops to file a report but they refused. Eventually, he went to the hospital, but the staff mocked him. “The nurse was laughing,” Banerjee recalls. “They said, ‘You are a boy, how can you be raped?” They only tended to his wounds after his father came to the hospital and complained.
Banerjee’s home life wasn’t much better. After photos of him marching in a pride parade appeared in a newspaper, some of his relatives disowned him. Years later, when his father died, Banerjee’s brother told him not to show his face at the ceremony. “That,” he says, “was the worst day of my life.”
When I met Banerjee in a remote village about two hours outside of Kolkata, he wasn’t the same man anymore. He wasn’t a man at all. Several years ago, he changed his named to Aparna and underwent surgery to remove his penis.
Today, Aparna, now a woman, shares a small house with several transgender friends. She favors bright red saris and paints her face with makeup. We take a seat on the concrete floor in her kitchen and flip through a dozen old family photographs. Tears well up in her eyes.
It feels like a former life, Banerjee says. She hasn’t spoken to her family in years, but at least she no longer lives in fear of violence. She’s always been transgender, but the reason she’s now accepted is rooted in longstanding cultural beliefs that some transgender people have spiritual powers and bring good fortune. They’re called the hijra, and they often appear in popular culture wearing ornate outfits and saris, shiny jewelry and elaborate makeup. People tend to hire them to sing and dance when a child is born or a marriage is performed. “It’s [seen as] a blessing,” says Aparna, now 33.
Becoming hijra is more about lifestyle than it is about surgery, though some hijra do undergo gender reassignment. But not all transgender people in India choose to become hijra, in part because the country does give them some rights. In April, India recognized trans people as part of a third gender. Since 2009, transgender Indians have been allowed to mark “other” on election forms. And some business owners in major cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi have long provided a third bathroom option for transmen and women.
Nevertheless, discrimination and violence persist, which is why Aparna decided to join the hijra. The choice wasn’t easy. After the surgery, she was able to walk freely in the street without fear or discrimination. What she lost, however, was the ability to choose her profession. Indian society doesn’t allow the hijra to do anything besides singing and dancing at formal events. Cast aside, they form their own community and become a minority within a silent minority. But for Aparna, that’s the lesser of two evils.
As we sit on the floor in her kitchen, Aparna dries her eyes and starts to sing. She shows me a photo of her mother and smiles. She asks me if she looks like her and I nod. Today, for the first time in years, she says, she feels at peace.
HOPE AND CHANGE
Yet not all gays and lesbians are resigned to a life of secrecy. Sukanta Banerjee, a 29-year-old activist, has been out for years and won’t go back in the closet. A tall, rail thin man with slumped shoulders, he seems meek at first glance. But get him talking about gay rights and he’s anything but.
Banerjee meets me at my hotel on a sunny afternoon and comes along for a two-hour trek to chat with some activist friends in a nearby village. As we cruise through Kolkata, weaving around cows along the congested streets, he starts pointing out some of the city’s gay pickup spots. Suddenly, the cab driver turns up the volume of the music he’s playing; he doesn’t want to hear our conversation. But Banerjee doesn’t care; he just starts talking louder. He’s used to how people react to him.
At first, his parents reacted similarly to Das’, but Banerjee wore them down. That emboldened him. He’s still afraid of being thrown in jail, so he doesn’t mention his homosexuality to just anyone. But he’s no longer afraid to have his picture taken at gay rallies and he’s even encouraging his boyfriend to tell his parents about their relationship.
The two are part of a small group of activists who are pushing back against public opinion. In recent months, hundreds of young activists have showed up at rallies to demonstrate against the Supreme Court. Lower courts have rejected legal petitions by LGBT advocates to review last year’s decision, so activists have begun petitioning lawmakers to write new legislation, legalizing homosexuality. They’re also been using the power of social media to try and sway public opinion.
Despite the Supreme Court’s verdict, LGBT politics have come a long way in India. In 1999, Kolkata held South Asia’s first pride parade, an affair that brought on more gawking bystanders than participants, but a statement had been made. These gay Indians would no longer hide. Since then numbers have grown. Organizers estimate that more than a thousand people walked in 2014 pride in Kolkata, where political placards were far more common than flamboyant outfits. The turnout was a far cry from similar parades in the U.S. or Europe, but by Indian stands, it was major progress.
India’s LGBT movement is still in its infancy, but there are reasons for hope. Younger Indians tend to be more tolerant towards gays and more open about sex. These 20-somethings are part of an emerging urban middle class that’s connected to the rest of the world. Their numbers aren’t large enough to make a difference now, but half of the country’s population is under 30, so in the long run, the demographics are favorable for the LGBT movement.
Banerjee has seen this shift first hand with his 23-year-old brother. As the cab driver careens down an expressway, Banerjee remembers the day he came out. His brother was supportive of him, but not of gays in general. The stigma made him uncomfortable. But after the Supreme Court overturned the 2009 decision, something changed. His brother stopped speaking out against gays and encouraged him to get more politically involved. “He said you must fight,” Banerjee recalls. “You aren’t just fighting for yourself, you’re fighting for everyone.”
When we arrive at the train station, the cab driver slams on the breaks. Banerjee stops mid sentence and hurries me along. There’s much work to be done, he says.
WHEN LOVE IS A CRIME
Back in the train yard on that balmy Saturday night, Das and I are sitting on a concrete ledge, waiting for another train to pass. We’re not going anywhere, but Das seems impatient. Progress, he says, can’t come quickly enough. He supports activists such as Banerjee, but all the meetings and rallies don’t seem to do anything, he says.
He’s tired of waiting, but he knows that his country isn’t likely to accept him any time soon. Over the last year, he’s thought about coming out to his parents again, hoping that this time will be different. He doesn’t want to lie anymore, but he also knows he doesn’t have a choice.
Despite the hard work of gay rights activists, people like Das are still fighting a losing battle. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode a wave of nationalism into office. Gay rights was never on his agenda, despite some internal pressure from members of his party. That’s unlikely to change for the popular prime minister, most analysts say; his conservative base cares much more about free markets and Hindu pride than LGBT rights, and wading into the debate offers few political benefits.
“The whole fight is about being counted as dignified citizens without any discrimination or stigma,” Das says. “[But] in a country where we still have to think about women’s safety, hunger, jobs…nobody…cares about minorities.”
Before long, another train rumbles over the tracks. It passes by us then disappears into the night.
“I feel very sad,” Das says. “India is saying love is a crime.”