By Donisha S Basaiawmoit & Nabamita Mitra
Sigmund Freud, in a letter to the mother of a homosexual man in 1935, wrote: “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness…Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc) It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime — and a cruelty, too.”
More than eight decades after, homosexuality still remains a crime fit for persecution. In Meghalaya, a Christian-dominated state, homosexuality is a word that is better not uttered. However, that does not make the state devoid of homosexuals, a general term used for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT. The prevailing homophobia, or fear of homosexuals, and castigation by religious bodies compel many to remain closeted and follow the diktats of society, the “natural” way of life.
The society in Shillong as compared to other metro cities is still too close-knitted to have a broader perspective on same sex relationships.
Raymond (name changed), who has spent a few years outside the city with his partner, says people in big cities do not care about one’s personal life.
“They do not mix personal life with professional whereas in Shillong, people tend to mix both. Since it’s a small town people talk, but even though people in the mainland know each other they don’t bother. I have stayed in flats, people don’t bother what I am doing in my home. Whereas here, even if you just sit outside, your neighbour starts poking,” says Raymond, who faces problems at home where he is unable to open up about his sexuality fearing that his parents, as religious members of the Christian church, might be “traumatised at first”.
Raymond is a member of Shamakami, an NGO that works for the rights of LGBT and promotes safe sex. He plans to move in with his partner but definitely out of Shillong.
Raymond is not the only person who sees escapism the best way to deal with the situation. Rachel (name changed) is in a relationship with a girl for over five years but she finds it difficult to open up to her family and friends. She too wants to move out as, she says, “I am serious about the relation and we are looking forward to a life together”.
For many, it is silent suffering both at home and outside. James, who studies in Kolkata, says his mother knows about his sexual orientation but chooses not to discuss it. “In college here, people would tease me initially and bullying boys would ask me to come in skirts,” he says on phone from Kolkata.
Jasmine Lyngdoh, clinical psychologist, points out that constant bullying in schools and colleges often hampers education and an otherwise intelligent student deteriorates academically.
What is LGBT?
People often tend to confuse gender and sexuality leading to the expectation of conformity to the convention. However, the two are different. While gender, male or female, is the social classification based on the external organs for reproduction, sexuality is a person’s orientation or preference. It is not necessary that the two conform to each other.
Biologically speaking, sexual orientation depends on the level of hormones, both oestrogen and progesterone, produced. Sexuality can also be influenced by external factors like trauma. But whatever be the reason, it remains a personal choice and not something to be dictated by society.
There are different forms of sexual orientations, heterosexuality being the commonest. Other categories are homosexual, bisexual and asexual. “As claimed by many, none of the sexual orientations is unnatural and had existed from time immemorial,” says Lyngdoh.
There is also transgender, or third gender. Transgender too is a common form and even finds mention in the Mahabharata. Transexual, on the other hand, is a term used for those who have undergone sex change medically.
However, awareness on the different orientations and gender equality is less or nil among people in the state as well as other parts of the country. This and parents’ reluctance to discuss the subject with wards are reasons why many teenagers remain confused about their sexuality leading to severe identity crisis.
Jack, a student of Synod College, says initially he would think there was something wrong with him because he could not feel the same way as other boys of his age would do. “I came to know about homosexuality from social media and gradually understood that I too am normal,” says the Geography (Hons) student with an emphasis on the word “normal”.
The third gender
Transgenders commonly go by the name hijra or eunuch in the mainland. But in the North East, including Meghalaya, the concept of hijra community is absent. “Transgenders here do not like them to be referred to as hijra. This is a common mistake that people, including those in the media, make,” says Rebina Subba, founder chairperson of Shamakami.
No matter what moniker is used for the third gender, the plight of the ‘Hic Mulier’ (This manlike woman) is not lessened. Many of them are rejected by parents and ostracised by society.
Sonu, a member of Shamakami, says when his father came to know about his sex at the age of six, he threw her out of the house. “I had to fend for myself. I worked in houses to fund my education. My freedom of expression was stifled,” says Sonu, who is now economically independent and takes care of his parents and siblings.
Twenty-seven-year-old Dona says though her family has been supportive, society hasn’t been. Talking about acceptance in Shillong, Dona says, “As long as one follows the conventional ways of dressing and living, there is no problem. Once you rebel and try to come out of the shell, then all hell breaks down.”
The story is similar for other members of the community. Nelly Ryntathiang, who was born Lumlang, says the church refused to accept her way of dressing like a woman when she was a child. “I was called a sinner and a shame to the society. I was asked to leave the church when I was 13. The reaction was same in school,” she recollects.
Nelly was kidnapped when she was 14 and forced into flesh trade in a north Indian city. She came back to her home in Shillong when she was 16. Unlike Sonu, Nelly’s family — her mother and siblings — has always been supportive giving her the strength to stand up for herself and fight for the rights. Now, she has a partner and an adopted son.
Subba, who is also a lawyer, says the resistance from church is so strong that when she started Shamakami, she was threatened to shut down the NGO. For religious groups, anything other than heterosexuality is “abnormal” and a “disease”.
“It was always there — transgender, homosexuality — since time immemorial. Then why there is a hue and cry about it now? Maybe because of excessive religiosity or maybe that people from the community are marginalised so much that it has compelled them to rebel and come out on the street to fight for their rights,” says Lyngdoh.
Shillong, an otherwise progressive city in the North East, has failed to live up to the expectations of the LGBT community. People prefer to skirt questions on the topic. The western liberalism has failed to percolate through the society.
“There is still a phobia, especially among the elders, towards the LGBT community and religion plays an important role when it comes to non-acceptance of homosexualiy. People here still cling to their roots and this makes it harder for society to accept this concept,” explains Raymond.
Mike (name has been changed to maintain anonymity), who belongs to a Christian family, feels that being gay is a burden that some Khasi families would not accept. “Homosexuality is considered a sin even though it is quite rampant. There are many others who come out as gay even after a heterosexual marriage,” he says.
In fact, religious leaders here deny the fact that there are people of other sexual orientations and show a wanton disregard for the community.
“People here would go with the West when it comes to things like education, attire and music but when it comes to the subject of LGBT they go blind or deaf. Some are so averse to the subject that they do not even want to know the differences,” says Lucky Neog, an LGBT activist from Assam.
Surprisingly, the media, which have played a crucial role in spreading awareness on the issue and taking the voices of the aggrieved and the marginalised to the people and the lawmakers, have remained inert when it came to fighting for the rights of the community here.
“The media should come forward in support of the issue and spread awareness,” believes Jack.
Neog, who identifies himself as a transman and had to face resistance at home for the way he dresses up, shows some hope. He feels things in the North East are changing, albeit slowly, and people are coming out in support of the community. “Also, consultation programmes on gender and sexuality are being organised regularly.”
In Assam, there were Pride rallies for the rights of the LGBT community. But the silence is deafening in Shillong that has a long way to go when it comes to acceptance of the LGBT community.
While many believe bisexuality is nothing but hypocrisy, activists in the state say it is also a kind of orientation where a person is physically attracted to both the sexes.
It is also convenient in a rigid society such as ours because while socially one can be heterosexual, he or she can practise homosexuality inside the closet. The number of bisexuals, say activists, is more than gays or lesbians.
Dona, however, feels that in today’s world physical relationship has taken the centre stage and “people are hungry for sex and their attitude is saab kuchh chalta hai”, she quips.
Also, some heterosexuals who Sunday Shillong spoke to said homosexuality is in vogue and many tend to pretend to be gay or lesbian to go with the flow.
Mike and a few others reject the theory. “It is unlikely that a person would become homosexual by influence or because it is a trend. In my opinion, a homosexual will be one since childhood. In my case, I knew it since I was a child when I had crushes on my classmates,” he says.
Why so rigid
The rigidity about accepting the community seems unfounded, especially when instances of homosexuality had always been there. Unlike what a few politicians, religious groups and fanatics think, LGBT is a natural phenomenon and cannot be changed.
“If a woman behaves like a man and vice versa and sexually attracted to the same sex, then one should understand that it is in the person’s DNA coding. There is nothing one can do about it,” says Lyngdoh.
“Boys don’t cry. Girls don’t laugh loudly. Who says so? The society. It is the society that has created these gender boxes and labelled them with some characteristics which are being followed even today. You break the norm and you become a threat to the society,” said Subba during a seminar on gender equality in the city recently.
Subba runs the NGO from the basement of a building in Nongshilliang. But for a first-time visitor it is difficult to find the place as there is no signboard outside to avoid intrusion.
The outright rejection of the people from the LGBT community continues as the country still has Section 377 that criminalises sexual act against the order of nature. In 2009, the Supreme Court decriminalised the section of the Indian Penal Code. But an appeal was filed in the court to read down the verdict in view of the several cases of child abuse in the country.
“In 2012, the country got the comprehensive Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. When there is already an Act to take care of child abuse cases, then why hold on to Section 377? It becomes meaningless,” says Rafiul Alom Rahman, a Delhi-based civil rights activist.
“But the recent SC verdict on right to privacy has a welcoming aspect. The judgment makes it clear that sexual orientation is part of privacy and constitutionally protected, and that the 2013 verdict upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is flawed. Now our fight for LGBT rights will be based on this,” adds Rahman, who is originally from Garo Hills.
Raymond says being gay or lesbian or transgender is not only about sexual relationships.
“It is just like any other relationship where there is love and emotion.” He feels that for society to get a clear picture, one has to be what he or she is, to make people understand that being gay is not being girly or being lesbian is not just about tomboys.
“If you notice there are many creative artists and leaders who are gay but they do not shout out loud. It is their work that speaks for them and it is what makes society appreciate them,” he adds.
Religion, a barrier
All religions denounce homosexuality terming it as sin and unnatural. In Meghalaya too, religion acts as the biggest barrier in social acceptance. Rev NS Phawa of Khasi-Jaintia Presbyterian says homosexuality is a strange concept in Khasi community.
“So far, we do not accept people from LGBT community,” is what he has to say.
The Catholic Church too is staunch about discussing the subject. When contacted, Archbishop Dominic Jala said he was busy and could not comment.
Father Albert Tyrniang, when asked about acceptance, said he could not speak for the church but did not give any personal view either.
The restrictions are despite the fact that Pope Francis had spoken for acceptance of the community and admitted the church’s mistake in rejecting LGBT members.
Besides religious groups, the government too is lackadaisical in considering the rights of LGBT, especially the transgender. Subba says the state does not have any data on the number of transgender people and “it is difficult for the handful of people who have come out of the closet to avail themselves of the job reservation and schemes”.
Rainbow colours & awareness
Psychologist Lyngdoh says there is a need for awareness and the process should start from school.
Clinically, the issue is seen from two perspectives, identity and orientation, explains Lyngdoh. Those who refuse to accept the way they are made are egodystonic.
“Teachers should sensitise students about the different sexual orientations and prevent different children from being bullied,” she says and adds that often she has to counsel parents who undergo a lot of pressure because their children are different.
Shamakami is also working towards spreading awareness on gender and sexuality and frequently holds programmes involving youngsters and educators. The NGO members also spread the message of safe sex among transgenders as they are vulnerable to HIV infection.
The Pride parades, which are common in other parts of the country, are hardly seen in Shillong. This is also a way of mass awareness. But many among the LGBT community in the city feel loud Pride parades are not necessary for awareness.
“We are normal. Loud make-up and garish attires do not create awareness. In fact, they only create havoc in the minds of the people who are orthodox,” Raymond says and adds that there are many gay people who stand up for gay rights without having to dress up in such loud attires to grab attention.
“It is a showbiz kind of a thing where you want to be seen, you crave for attention. Hence, I would only create stereotypes. People would perceive gay people as those who want to dress up as women and they would not understand what being gay is all about.”
But Samanda Phanwar of Shamakami has a different take on this. She says it is the way of expression and seeking attention of people who would otherwise ignore them or look down upon them.
No matter how much is the razzamatazz of the rainbow rallies, the issue remains as tabooed as it was earlier and the major reason for this is non-supportive families. There is a need for every parent to talk about sex and sexuality with children, especially adolescents. This not only helps them overcome sexual identity crisis during puberty but also makes them better citizens with wider acceptance level.
Since religion plays a huge role in our lives, it is high time that leaders from all religions come together and spread the message of love for all, including homosexuals and transgenders. After all, this is what they claim to do, spread God’s message of love. “There actions should show their sagacity and benevolence and should not be restricted to only words spoken within the confines of a church or temple or mosque,” says Razia (name changed), a closeted lesbian.
Talking about how she has to endure the blunt stares of people when she walks on the road, Neog says people should try to accept the community without hesitation and that will give LGBT members confidence and dignity.
“At the end what matters is human kindness and love,” says the activist.
(With inputs from Willie Gordon Suting)