Much has been said about marriage in India – its inherent sexisms, its possible feminism, and its various excesses. But not enough has been said about how this social-institution-unto-itself affects queer people.
This less talked about, yet complex terrain is navigated rather deftly by “Gaycation”, Viceland’s documentary series hosted by Hollywood actor Ellen Page and her best friend and art curator Ian Daniel. Proclaiming themselves as “a couple of gays“, they cover queer culture from different countries around the world.
In September last year, the “Gaycation” team paid a visit to India. Here, they saw how the duality of eastern spirituality and colonial history impacts queer lives. And throughout the episode the issue of marriage came up in interesting ways. On four separate occasions, Page and Daniel met with queer Indians in (or seeking) relationships, and from each of these took away four key observations:
An afternoon spent with queer rights activist Harish Iyer gave Page and Daniel a glimpse into the complicated relationship between marriage and queerness in India. In 2015, Iyer’s mom Padma, raised a lot of eyebrows with a same-sex matrimonial ad: “Seeking 25-40, Well Placed, Animal-Loving Vegetarian GROOM for my SON (36 5’11”) who works with an NGO. Caste No Bar (Though IYER preferred).”
She was turned down by all major papers, but in the end Hindustan Times agreed to carry the ad. An important gesture, yes, though that’s all it could hope to be in a country where same-sex intercourse is illegal, and same-sex marriage is inconceivable for many.
But there was something else entirely that Page and Daniel reflected on as they left Iyer’s home – the fact that in India getting married was something you were expected to do, gay or not.
Regardless of his orientation, Iyer’s parents still wanted him to perform a duty cast on any Indian son – to settle down and start a family. And yes, while everyone should have the right to choose their partners, is marriage really the great leveller?
While Iyer’s is a story of acceptance, many queer Indians aren’t as fortunate. And, as the show reveals, when you’re queer and a woman in India, things get a little more difficult. More than once during the series, Page asks “where are the women?” And it’s no coincidence that the first lesbian couple she and Daniel meet happen to be in hiding.
They came on camera with their faces covered, holding hands, in a nondescript room. Having fled from abusive and manipulative families, they’d been moved to a safehouse run by Umang, a Mumbai-based support group for lesbian, bisexual and trans women. The couple had their identification documents taken away, phones confiscated, being tailed by the police, just because their families don’t think their relationship is valid or appropriate.
To you and me, these two young women have done nothing wrong. But to Indian society at large, their love alone is a massive affront to the carefully constructed system of marriage. A lesbian union destroys the tradition of dowry, of sexual division of labour, of the control of female sexual pleasure, and of reproduction. And when same-sex love threatens the most basic of social institutions, it is punished.
An equally upsetting story comes from another young woman that Page and Daniel meet. She too appears on screen with her face covered, and never gives her name. When asked why, she explains it’s because of her partner’s family. Like the vast majority of Indian parents, they would never understand the relationship, and would lash out.
Even here, the spectre of marriage looms tall and oppressive. Not only has this young woman been forced to keep her relationship a secret, she is constantly aware of the fact that with each passing day, it is moving towards an unnatural end.
Talking to Page and Daniel, she says, “I’m going to have to be there and organise her wedding [and] pretty much give her away to someone else.”
And for no reason other than society’s stubborn insistence on heterosexual and often unjust patterns of living.
The last couple we saw on this episode of “Gaycation” is a young trans man named Rajjat, and his wife Lakshmi.
Rajjat and Lakshmi have faced the worst that their families could dish out. He recounts how he was drugged, chained and forced to undergo shock therapy, and Lakshmi speaks about being forbidden from seeing him, and how, after they ran away together, her family sent them out and out death threats.
Yet, the couple have stuck it out, and found a place far away from their home town, where they are making a life for themselves.
The country’s laws are marginally better when it comes to trans people. Rajjat being able to legally change his name and gender identity, and then getting to spend his life with woman he loves – this is perhaps one of a handful of instances where marriage and queerness have intersected in a positive way.
Even in the “Gaycation” episode, theirs is clearly the minority among all the stories. It’s worrying to think of this queer couple’s ‘happy ending’ as an anomaly, rather than the norm.
Queer people in relationships are deliberately denied the legal benefits that come with marriage, which is why the passing of marriage equality in the U.S. was such a huge deal, even here, halfway across the world.
Having said that, we do need to take a moment to think about whether marriage really is the penultimate goal for LGBTQ Indians. Will queerness only be legitimised by what has long been the reserve of heterosexuality?
Featured Image Source: Elias Pew/YouTube.