“Live and let live.”

Gay members of the Indian community in Australia talk to HARSHAD PANDHARIPANDE about the same-sex marriage vote

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marriage equality.indianlink

First came relief, then jubilation and finally hope.

Gay members of the Indian community in Australia was over the moon after the resounding ‘Yes’ vote on the same-sex marriage survey was announced on 15 November.

With homosexual sex still illegal in India, GLBTIQ Indians in Australia got a sense of validation and acceptance. They said they were pinning their hopes on the Turnbull government to make good on its words and make same-sex marriage legal before Christmas.

Community reactions

However, the celebratory mood was tempered – on social media, at least – by some negative reactions. As with earlier debates, there were some voices that claimed that the decision would have several ill-effects. Some said it would spoil the sanctity of marriage, while others feared that the topic would be taught in schools and ‘make children try these different things.’ Some claimed it will flood Australia with illegal immigrants, while others foresaw a rise in paedophilia.

On the Indians In Sydney group on Facebook, one post on the subject drew close to 200 comments in a matter of hours. But for every negative comment that claimed homosexuality was against God and culture, there was a refreshingly positive one, such as this, that read, “Firstly ‘our culture’ is super diverse. So let’s not begin to treat everyone the same way. Because we are in a ‘multicultural’ setting now, ‘our culture’ has again shifted and changed. Homosexuality is not a choice, it’s just how people are and there is nothing wrong with it!” Another said, “Just imagine for one second, as a straight person a few of you live in the world full of GLBT and you are denied to have marriage with the opposite sex. How would you feel? The same goes to them. They are suppressed for years. Let them live their life the way they want.”

Western Sydney ‘No’ vote

But this view certainly wasn’t shared by everyone. A sobering fact that came up again and again in discussion on 15 November was that Sydney’s Western suburbs, which are said to be the most multicultural, almost unanimously voted No in the survey.

Parramatta, which has a large Indian population, was one of the only 17 Federal Electoral Divisions out of 150 in the country to have recorded a majority No vote.

While the most natural reaction is to blame migrants for this, it is simplistic. There are, of course, many conservative Christians who also voted No. So, it is pertinent to note that the No vote is a function of a conservative mindset – which many migrants from strong religious and cultural backgrounds may have, although not exclusively.

Many people also expressed surprise that there were many voices among the Indian community that condemned the Yes vote. Back in India, at least in major cities, gay pride marches have been taking place with increasing openness for some time now. While still not commonplace, it is not unheard of either. And while mindsets are changing, for a perceivable change to happen, we might have to wait.

An example of that changing mindset and rising awareness came recently from spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the Art of Living founder who said reportedly that homosexuality ‘is a temporary phase’. The remark came in for a torrent of criticism on Twitter and social media.

But while such debates and doubts would continue, 15 November would be historic and for many, reserved for celebrations.

Sam.Indian Link
Melbourne-based Indian academic and Odissi exponent Dr Sam Goraya with his partner, creative artist Zlatko Varenina

Watch Sam and Zlatko’s wedding video here.

The gay reaction

Indian Link asked a few members of the gay community what the vote means now and what the way forward is. Those we spoke to are academic and Odissi dancer Dr Sam Goraya and his partner, creative artist Zlatko Varenina; Alan Maurice from Trikone Australasia, a community organisation for GLBTIQ South Asians living in Australia; and Govind Pillai, Director at Ernst & Young who also runs Karma Dance Inc. a Bharatanatyam teaching and performing company in Melbourne.

Excerpts from their interviews:

What was your first reaction to the Yes vote?

SAM: I was on a flight to Auckland when the result was announced. As soon the plane touched down and I turned the phone on, I was flooded with messages from friends and well-wishers. They said things like “Yes vote wins,” “Proud to be an Australian,” “Congrats on the Yes vote,” “Finally we are going to be part of this world,” “Australia has woken up from sleep,” “God bless you both and have a blessed life,” etc etc. I was so excited and overwhelmed to find so many people supporting marriage equality, whether they are heterosexual or gay. I was not surprised as all the people we know are very supportive of this. I am so happy that Australia is moving forward in a positive manner to embrace diversity as we are all different. This basically supports the slogan “Live and let live.”

ALAN: I got quite emotional when I heard about it. When you are so invested in an issue, it’s natural to be emotional. It is an important day for the GLBTIQ community but it is more important that this message goes out to young children that being gay is normal. Kids are surrounded by jokes about homosexuality, which is not healthy. I hope this situation changes. The Prime Minister has promised to give this a push and I hope it happens.

ZLATKO: There is always some degree of trepidation when a country wants to introduce a new concept or law into a society bound by tradition. In today’s climate, I felt that gay marriage would happen, but I also expected that it would come with its challenges.

GOVIND: As the polls leading up to the survey announcement were showing clear predictions of a ‘Yes’ outcome, I was expecting it. However, I was surprised at how emotional and touching it was to finally see and hear the outcome when it was indeed announced.

Alan.Indian Link
Alan Maurice

How are same-sex couples viewing this vote? What’s the way forward?

GOVIND: I think it is a wonderful (and important) endorsement of nature. Meaning, same-sex attraction is scientifically proven to occur in many species (not just humans) and we have denied this for centuries due to social norms but we are finally now acknowledging nature. It is not just about same-sex couples, it is about the world view and acceptance that this will teach our children and their future generations. It moved me to tears watching the ABC yesterday and seeing an interview with a 70-something-year-old same-sex couple who had been together for 45 years. They said their joy was inexplicable, but not for themselves. They were overjoyed for all the young people who may soon get married and enjoy greater equality than they ever could in their lifetimes. They would have suffered a lot. Their sentiment said so much about the sufferance and service of the generations before us, the sadness I feel for all those lives and life stories that can no longer be changed, and the excitement and joy I have right now for the beautiful experiences and improved ‘world view’ this will bring to my generation and to all our children.

ALAN: It depends on the age of people. Some will definitely rush to get married, in some cases, to make a statement or may be because marriage is a fundamental right and defines two people. Organised religions will have the option to say no (to solemnising such marriages), so many same-sex marriages may be civil unions.

SAM: I feel now same-sex couples will find more stability and grounding in their relationships. In saying that, it doesn’t mean that all same-sex couples will get married. (The Yes vote) basically bring confidence in their relationship and they will not feel uncomfortable in public places. And now it will be easier on their families as well to accept them.

ZLATKO: It now means that same-sex couples can have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. It’s important and a logical progression.

Govind Pillai.Indian Link
Govind Pillai and his partner Adrian van Raay, an independent IT consultant, at their wedding, which created quite an impact in India and abroad among Indian same-sex couples

Watch Govind and Adrian’s wedding video here.

How do you see the situation in the Indian context?

ZLATKO: There are many transgender symbols in the Hindu-Indian culture which for me, indicates that the culture has always been very modern. Like any culture, there are those who support the change and others who disapprove – both for religious, personal and political reasons. India is no different. But the Yes vote will take away the taboo associated with the subject.

GOVIND: As Indians, what I think we need to really remember and contemplate is that the illegal nature of same-sex relationships in India is a British invention. The illegality was put in place in our country during colonial times under their determination. There was, until then, a deeply historic understanding of the natural nature of same-sex attraction in ancient India which we have lost. The ancient Greeks also had this in their historic times. Today in India, we are taking a colonial perspective and holding onto it as though it is our own culture. I feel our culture is mature, wise and capable of once again seeing and acknowledging how natural same-sex attraction is to a portion of the population. We just need to undo the discrimination that the colonists installed in our country.

ALAN: The Yes vote gives us hope, and to all Indians fighting to overturn Section 377. The political leaders there will hopefully see this change going on across the world. Australia was being viewed up as conservative on this subject so the Yes vote will send a good message. I hope it will turn hearts and minds and this will reflect in greater acceptance of gays by uncles, aunties, neighbours and the larger society.

SAM: I know many people in India, who are not heterosexual but still get married due to societal and family pressure and then lead a miserable life. I feel it is about time that India woke up as well and brought marriage equality. Living a fake life changes one’s personality and it is hard to be open and free in one’s views. Eventually, it (marriage equality) will happen in India but it might take another 10-15 years.

marriage equality.indianlink

What do you want to say to people who are opposed to it?

SAM: I still respect their opinion but I feel it will take some time for them to come to terms with it. Zlatko and I got married in Denmark where same-sex marriage is a part of daily lifestyle. Same-sex marriage was legalised in Denmark in 1989; that shows how forward thinking that country is. We are still debating about it in 2017. We got married at Georg Jensen’s flagship store right in the middle of the main square. Every single person walking past wished us a happy life. Ironically there was an Indian family who videoed us in shock, as that was something unheard of in our Indian culture.

GOVIND: I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion and I respect the beliefs of the opponents. And, therefore, I say to the opponents you are most welcome not to get same-sex married. I ask for the same respect in reciprocity, that I may have my beliefs and natural instincts and that I may marry according to those. What I think many opponents don’t realise is how natural same-sex attraction is. I believe it is part of God’s design of the universe. Some people are naturally attracted to people of the same sex. This is something they realise even at a very young age. I have noticed that when SSM opponents can understand that it is part of the design of this world and that a small percentage of people are made this way, and then when they also meet and make friends with others who are attracted to the same sex, they begin to see this is not just a theoretical debate. This is about allowing people to live peacefully and happily in alignment with how they were born.

ALAN: I have faced opposition within my family. The Yes vote will prompt people to revaluate their values and belief systems.

ZLATKO: There is nothing wrong with those who don’t support gay marriage. We live in a democracy and this is how a democracy works. It is a change and there are always people who dislike change. That’s life! We are lucky we live in a democratic country. Just think about all the FABULOUS weddings to come!