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A Mother’s ‘Different’ Journey

In the recent years, the ever controversial topic about the lives and rights of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community is ‘out’ in the media as well as in the society. Legally there have been ups and downs and the social prejudice is far from over. However, it is now possible to access a large amount of information, including recent scientific findings from various sources. Now support is available not only to the LGBT people, but also to their families. The silence surrounding this community is fast diminishing.

The times were quite different in the early 90’s when my only child Shalmalee came to me just after her graduation, and said, “ Amma, I am a lesbian.” At the time, to me, homosexuality was something one fleetingly came across in the World Cinema section at film festivals or in literature. It was distant, always about others, never about anyone in my life, let alone in the life of my own child! I was taken aback by Shalmalee’s revelation but it did not shock or upset me. As she talked, I could see that she was absolutely the same child I had unconditionally loved since her birth… the same honest, loving, talented daughter who had made me happy and proud all these years. Had any of these changed by she being a lesbian? The answer was NO. Besides, as a mother, hadn’t I always wanted my child to fulfill all her dreams and ambitions in every way?? How was that possible unless she was allowed to be her own self and be truly happy? I simply accepted her immediately and fully.

Shalmalee then told me, that around the age of 15 she had become aware of being different from her friends. For nearly 5 years, despite going through great emotional turmoil, she had notconfided in us, her parents, since she did not know how we might react. Afraid of being rejected, she had preferred to suffer in isolation. As I listened to her, I realized how, despite considering myself a ‘liberal, progressive’ mother, I had failed my daughter in her most vulnerable years by taking her heterosexuality for granted! Now that I was aware of her orientation I felt the necessity to become more informed about homosexuality, so that I would never again be alienated from her.

My journey began by having conversations with my daughter and by reading articles and books provided by her. It enabled me to see how the numerous misconceptions and myths regarding homosexuality had arisen out of ignorance and prejudice — products of religious orthodoxy, patriarchy and ‘Macho culture in our society. Through Shalmalee I also met and interacted with many LGBT people who shared their stories. My daughter as well as her partner had been accepted by the entire family as well as by friends. But everyone was not so fortunate.Many parents, afraid of being ostracized by their families and communities, did not accept their LGBT children and often threw them out of homes. Many children were subjected to abuse like shock treatments or were forced to marry. Such marriages inevitably ended in suffering of all concerned, even suicides.

Equally shocking was the existence of IPC Section 377, a law created by the British in 1860, based on the Victorian morality of the time. This law deemed homosexuality criminal and so had become the easiest weapon for homophobes to target the LGBT community. The police used this law to arrest gay men, transgender persons and hijras at will, without any provocation, and subjected them to verbal or physical abuse, including gang rape. The LGBT people were often victims of blackmail and extortion. At workplaces, if a ‘different’ sexual orientation of a person was suspected, the person was harassed by homophobic colleagues and invariably lost the job. Yet due to Section 377, such victims had no legal recourse. In fact Section 377 was the main reason for driving the LGBT community underground.

In July 2009 the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 saying, “consensual sex between same-sex adults in private is not criminal.” This landmark verdict at long last decriminalized homosexuality, thereby bringing a ray of hope to the LGBT people. For the first time these people could be themselves… live life openly, honestly, without fear. For the first time they had the freedom to love the person of one’s own choice. There were joyous celebrations all over the country. People made plans to reduce social prejudice and create a better future. Works were held to sensitize police and teacher Correct and factual information was spread through interactions with the general public. Groups were formed to counsel and support the LGBT people in the interiors. A first of its kind survey was conducted about the work concerns of the LGBT employees in multi-national corporations, and many businesses realized that LGBT friendly policies would retain talent and increase productivity.

Acceptance by parents had always been one of the most important issues in the lives of the LGBT people. The decriminalization as well as the positive coverage in the media created a favorable climate for ‘coming out of closets’. There were many examples, including my daughter’s, to prove that when parents accepted their children after coming out, the children were happy, confident and did well in their chosen professions. I myself had been a part of the warm and loving family life that Shalmalee had created with her partner of more than 14 years. I began to share my personal experience with other parents and support them in accepting their children. I also started talking to various groups of people with an intention to dispel various misconceptions. In the meanwhile, some religious groups and others opposed to homosexuality went to the Supreme Court against the Delhi High Court Verdict. However, this time there was a huge support for the LGBT community. Nineteen parents, including me, signed a Parents’ Petition for upholding the 2009 verdict. We told how Section 377 by declaring our children criminal denied them the right to live with dignity and made them vulnerable to harassment. We described how Section 377 inflicted injustice on our children and made them suffer for merely being what they were. There were also affidavits by medical health professionals, psychiatrists, academics and prominent citizens in favor of the Delhi High Court Verdict. We all believed that we would win. Especially since the LGBT people were citizens of this country and one trusted the highest court in our land to protect them from an outdated, unjust colonial law.

It was therefore a huge shock when on 11th December 2013 the Supreme Court reversed the Delhi High Court ruling and decriminalizing the LGBT community by validating Section 377. It meant that my child was once again an “un-apprehended criminal” I was angry and upset. So were all the LGBT people, their families and supporters. There are many concerns. A large number of young people have come out since 2009 believing the law would henceforth protect them. What will happen to these youngsters now? Within days of the Supreme Court verdict, cases of police harassment of gays and transgender people have been reported. Corporations are citing the law to go back on LGBT friendly policies. Family businesses are giving the excuse of ‘criminality’ to dis-inherit and throw out LGBT partners. The regressive, homophobic elements in the society are having a field day!

However, there is also a positive fall out of the supreme Court judgment. By denying the fundamental rights and the human rights to the LGBT community, and by dismissing it as a ‘minuscule minority’, the judgment has ensured a huge support from media, various activist groups fighting for similar rights, as well as other sections of the mainstream society. The LGBT community is no longer isolated. There are now open debates in the media and other forums on Section 377 and ironically, the very people who favor the law, expose its outdated and irrelevant nature in today’s times, through their irrational, unscientific arguments. Section 377 says that sex is criminal when it is ‘against the order of nature’, which is interpreted as when it ‘does not procreate’. Does this not make even the heterosexual couples using birth control methods criminal?? Can a law dictate how two consenting adults should express their intimacy in the privacy of their bedroom?

However the issue is not only about sexual acts. People are LGBT not out of choice but because they are born that way. They may be ‘different’ from the majority but they too have a right to live and love with dignity. Like other citizens of our secular, democratic country, these people too have a right to equality, non-discrimination, liberty and privacy. The LGBT people are determined to fight for their rights on every front. They hope that the society. by being compassionate and tolerant will move ahead of the law. They have come out of darkness. Now there is no going back.

Chitra Palekar (Miloon Saryajani, March 2014)