Last week, Durban-based sales advisor Joe Singh and his partner Wesley Nolan solemnised their relationship at a ceremony where a Hindu priest officiated. In the Singh living room, Wesley tied a necklace with a Ganesha pendant around Joe’s neck. The couple, now honeymooning in Mauritius, chose the Ganesha instead of garlands because both of them are “staunch Hindus’’ and wanted the Elephant God to “ward off evil and remove obstacles from their path’’.
The grooms had sent out shimmering wedding invitations weeks in advance, had handembroidered shervanis shipped all the way from India, and took their vows before a hawan or ceremonial fire. They spent around 18 months preparing for the day and Joe’s mother Rita Govender said the larger family had been extraordinarily supportive of the plan.
A year ago, a Mumbai-based IT professional married his white boyfriend of five years in a boisterous ceremony in Seattle. They too had the shervanis and hawan. Around 450 people attended, many of them uncles and aunts from Mumbai. The boy’s parents initially had serious reservations about making their son’s sexuality public. “But by the end of it, his mother was in mother-in-law mode,’’ laughs one of the guests.
These warm, happy stories may sound unbelievable given the stream of stories of social hostility against gay people, but the fact is that same-sex marriage ceremonies have been performed in Indian households, rich and poor, and in cities and small towns alike. While the hawan nuptials may not have legal standing, the ritual is remarkable in a country where homosexuality is still considered a criminal act punishable by up to ten years in the clink. Ironically, the police cannot bust a same-sex marriage because a ceremony cannot prove homosexuality as defined by Section 377.
A Mumbai activist from Gay Bombay confirms that there are reports of marriages every week, whether it is a lesbian couple in Punjab or Kerala or gay men in Gujarat or Delhi. Ashok Row Kavi, who pioneered the opening of the closet in India, says he knows several couples who have tied the knot. “There’s one big plus-point about Hindu priests,’’ says Kavi with a straight face. “They’ll forget about everything if you show them a few bucks.’’
Same-sex marriage ceremonies are not an entirely new phenomenon, although they’ve largely stayed under the radar. Sixteen years ago, when Aditya Advani told his parents he was gay, his mum first hugged him and then suggested that he put in a matrimonial ad in a leading Indian newspaper for a suitable boy. Two years later, in 1993, he brought Michael Tarr home to meet the family. It was on this visit that Aditya complained about having to attend yet another family wedding. “I don’t know these people, why do I have to go to the wedding? They would never come for mine,’’ he griped. To which, his mother, a lawyer who, in Aditya’s words, “tends to shake the premise of things’’, said half-jokingly, “Why not? Let’s have a ceremony for Michael and you.’’ ‘Whose house will the baraat leave from?’
In the drawing room of the Advanis’ Sundernagar home in Delhi, Aditya Advani and Michael Torr exchanged garlands and took the pheras around a cluster of lamps in the presence of two bronze idols of Lord Hari Hara, a deity that represents the union of Shiva and Vishnu. The family’s spiritual mentor, Swami Bodhananda, presided over the simple but radical ceremony. The hall was strung with marigolds, coconuts were cracked open and like good Hindu grooms, Aditya and Michael showed up in sparkling white kurtas. “I don’t think there were pagdis, we just forgot about it. The ceremony was so spontaneous that there wasn’t any time to plan,’’ says Aditya’s mum Kanta, who raised a toast and recited her favourite couplet in the presence of 40 family members and friends. The couple, says Kanta, was ecstatic. “We were all so happy in their happiness, but in all fairness, I left out friends and relatives who I thought would harbour negative feelings about it.’’
Michael now introduces himself as ‘Aditya’s half’, calls Aditya’s parents ‘mamma’ and ‘pappa’, their parents visit each other and when the couple comes home for an annual visit, Aditya’s parents make sure they have a gift for Michael. They’ve been together for 16 years, and both readily admit that parental approval has helped hugely in nurturing the bond. “It added an extra meaning and we felt solidified,’’ says Aditya, a landscape architect who lives in San Jose.
Indeed, for most young gay people, nothing is more important than to have their parents present on this most important day of their lives. While very few parents are as liberal as Aditya’s, there are cases when even conservative mothers have come around. As happened in the case of an Indian lesbian living in the US, who came out to her traditional Gujarati family. After the tears and tantrums came a grudging acceptance. “Finally, her mother told her that if she had to marry a woman, she should at least make sure she was a Gujarati girl. ‘And make sure you send her to me so I can teach her to cook the way our family does’, her mother said. She was also worried by one more question: whose house will the baraat leave from?’’ laughs an activist who knows the girl.
For San Jose residents Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani too, exchanging vows in Arvind’s brother house in Toronto was the most memorable day of their lives. Arvind, a board member of the California Native Plant Society and Ashok, editor of India Currents magazine, met when they were in their early 30s. “We became roommates and then lovers,’’ says Arvind.
Arvind and Ashok were married in a traditional Indian ceremony complete with dhotis and agni. “Ashok and I are very sentimental people, we thought it was a great idea,’’ he says. It was Arvind’s mother, who had once adamantly rejected his sexuality, who came up with the idea. “When my family realised that what I had with Ashok was not ‘timepass’, they accepted us in their own way. He is very special to my family.’’
Activists say that the same-sex marriage movement has emerged independent of the other issues in the gay rights movement. Most gay activists in India weren’t really pushing for marriage because they believed that homophobia and HIV were more pressing battles. Ashok Row Kavi is one of the more vociferous opponents of marriage, which he calls an “oppressive heterosexual institution’’. Yet, say activists, it’s a need that can’t be wished away. “It’s the number one question we get now from guys coming into the gay community: how can I find a man to marry?’’ says a Gay Bombay activist.
Most of the same-sex couples who have had big ceremonies live outside India in more openminded climes like California. One of the few exceptions is the Goa-based celebrity couple of designer Wendell Rodricks and his French partner Jerome Marrel. Last year they completed 25 years together. In 2003, Wendell and Jerome signed the PACS, a French civil ceremony which though not technically a wedding gives same-sex couples rights like any other couple. “It gave our relationship dignity in the eyes of the French law,’’ says Rodricks. Now, they stand in immigration lines together and name each other as partner on visa forms. “My mother, cousins and close friends were all there to join in the celebration,’’ says Rodricks. “There were no vows or rings or anything. After the document was signed we had a party like any family party.’’
Aditya and Michael were extremely lucky that their family priest, Swami Bodhananda, agreed to preside. “He thought about it for a few days, and then said he understood me and that we could have a ceremony in the presence of Lord Hari Hara,’’ says Aditya. Other gay couples have been less fortunate. “One couple had to eventually be married by a recorded tape which chanted the mantras,’’ says a Mumbai-based software engineer. The Mumbai IT professional in Seattle had to get a white Isckon priest because no other priest was ready to officiate. In Joe Singh’s case too, the Durban priest who presided over the ceremony invited anger from many Hindus in South Africa. Arvind hopes the new generation of gays will get its blessings more easily.
(No names have been changed)
An Interview with Ashok Row Kavi-Coming Out in India
March 2008 -Ashok Row Kavi is the founder of the Humsafar Trust. Based in Mumbai, India, Humsafar is one of the first organizations in India to advocate for the rights of men who have sex with men (MSM) and one of the first and most successful gay and transgender sexual health outreach programs in the country.
Under Kavi's direction, Humsafar has taken the lead in developing community-based programs to reduce the vulnerability of MSM to HIV infection and to support its members already living with the virus. Kavi now works as a consultant for UNAIDS MSM/TG in New Delhi
TREAT Asia Report: What is the attitude in India towards homosexuality?
Ashok Row Kavi: In ancient India, transgendered people were recognized by nuns and Buddhists in the monastery as a sacred sexual minority. Throughout the Vedas and in Middle Eastern literature, many texts talk about feminine males. India drifted from its acceptance of homosexuality because of the influence of colonial British education. Accepting homosexuality isn't something new for India—but we have to recover that tradition.
Homosexuality is being normalized in Western societies but not without a bitter fight. It's going to be a bitter fight here, too, because modern India is a product of many other cultures.
Today, the attitude in India toward MSM is conflicted. On the whole, nobody cares about your sexual identity, but they certainly care about your gender identity! Having a feminine gender identity drops a man down the power scale, but this is mostly mitigated if a man adheres to traditional social obligations like getting married and looking after his parents. However, transgendered males can be in serious trouble if they cross dress. Then, one is usually asked to leave his parents' home and join outside cults such as the hijras, which is the traditional group of transgendered people in India.
At least 80 percent of gay men in India are married. If you look at Humsafar, you'll find more than 40 percent of men who are having sex with other men do not identify as gay. And they're not always just sleeping with men—those who do not strictly identify as gay have an average of two female partners a month.
TA Report: You are often described as one of the first gay men to come out of the closet in India. What was that experience like?
Kavi: I may be homosexual in a Western sense, but I don't come from that tradition. I'm trained as a Hindu monk in the Rama Krishna order, and I was in this training when I first came out as a gay man. My counselor in the monastery, who was an older monk himself, said it was my mission to go out into the secular world and organize and work with my people. The monastery and the ashram are not places for you to hide—you need to go and sort it out. So that's what I'm doing.
When you come out in India, gay identity becomes your primary identity. If you come out as an openly homosexual man and refuse to get married to a woman, then your homosexual identity becomes a form of rebellion and attracts a great deal of attention. All the other identities—being a good journalist, for instance—become back-ups. When I came out in 1984, I didn't realize it would create such a ruckus, but I nearly lost my job. My boss stood by me, though. Fortunately, I had come out to him before I had accepted the job.
There were problems among my brothers and their wives, but not my mother—she's incredible. When I was being attacked by a politician, for instance, she told him to lay off. I've had a lot of support as a gay man in India, but going public did affect my job and career prospects.
TA Report: How did you start Humsafar?
Kavi: When I returned to India from Montreal in the late 1980s, I was very worried because gay men were fighting for their very lives in ACT UP. Eighty percent of HIV infections were among gay men at that time—but hardly eight percent of government funding was going to gay organizations! I thought, what would happen in Asia where there were no gay communities, only large networks of men having sex with men?
So some of us got together for informal workshops and meetings. We finally decided to form a support system for gay men—that is, gay in the Western sense meaning men who identify themselves primarily as homosexual. (Humsafar has a policy that it will not accept board members who are married because that could divide us politically. So the board consists of unmarried gay men.) Humsafar eventually became the only gay organization in Bombay to be given space by the city government. When we first got started, poorer men from Bombay started coming. Sometimes they had alternative gender or behavioral identities but many were just men having sex with other men. And it grew from there. Last year we provided health services to over 60,000 men.
Humsafar has approximately 185 full-time staff, and we reach way across the spectrum of men who have sex with men: gay-identified men, MSM, hijras [transgendered men known as "the third sex"], male prostitutes, and transgendered sex workers.
Services start with a drop-in center and offices. We offer counseling over the phone or by appointment. We have a clinic with regular doctors checking for sexually transmitted infections or other illnesses. We have referral services to the public hospitals, Friday meetings, a small library, and a confidential HIV testing and counseling center with same-day results. We also have a massive outreach program that covers more than 150 sites in Bombay, its outskirts, and neighboring towns.
TA Report: What sort of HIV/AIDS treatment services are available to MSM in India?
Kavi: Some doctors will test for sexually transmitted infections, but they are very inquisitive about sexual behavior and suspicious of MSM. The women and children get the HIV drugs first; gay men and hijras don't get treatment. India is the only country where transgendered men can get a passport under a third sex and yet they can't even get past the gate of the hospitals.
It's taken nearly five years fighting with the HIV/AIDS centers to get treatment for MSM. Humsafar's services are a drop in the ocean for men who need access to treatment.
TA Report: Are government programs for MSM successful?
Kavi: HIV among MSM is out of control, and only now does the government realize it needs to turn its attention to working with gay men, MSM, and transgendered people. They are scaling up national programs and want to conduct 200 targeted interventions, each of which reaches 1,000 men. That figure is very low, but it's better than nothing.
It's good news that the government wants to establish programs for MSM. The bad news is that the NGOs they entrust don't all know how to go about it. They have to be run by gay men and they have to be community-based. That is the plan I have suggested to the government of India. Where there are transgendered people, you send in transgendered workers. When you need to reach kothis—queens, in the West—you don't send a macho man because he'll intimidate them; you send one of their own!
TA Report: Are you optimistic that progress is being made?
Kavi: There is no other option but to make progress. Otherwise, we will see large numbers of my community die. If HIV prevalence is at 10 or 25 percent, can you imagine the time it takes to get treatment to everyone? Many of these men are very poor! Forget about knowing about their sexuality—they are going to die unknown and unsung deaths.