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The gay identity remains rare in South Asia, writes TANVEER AHMED
In an unusual but highly contested current case in Australia, two Bangladeshi men are involved in a dispute about being accepted as refugees because of their sexuality. According to the tribunal’s finding, the men claimed that if their homosexuality was discovered in Bangladesh they “might be verbally or physically abused, arrested or even killed by religious people and the police”. For this reason, they also avoided contact with the Australian-South Asian community, as they believed others “would not accept” the relationship.
In what became a slightly ridiculous and lurid twist, the couple was forced to prove the authenticity of their relationship through explicit videos and photos of them attending homosexual events and festivals together.
The nature of the case indicates the fear of the Australian government. If this became a precedent, it would not be long before a legion of pink boats carrying a new set of refugees, now homosexuals, took over the headlines surrounding asylum seekers. A similar case arose in 2003, leading to an array of appeals and counter-appeals.
The case raises the question whether it really is so difficult to be gay in South Asia.
The public expression of homosexuality in India and the region became openly debated during the first gay parade held in Delhi in 2008. A large portion of the several thousand who marched wore masks to hide their identity. They were both celebrating their sexuality and protesting against an 1861 penal code enacted by the British that “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is punishable by life imprisonment. While it is rarely used, there are incidents of corrupt police using it to blackmail suspected homosexuals.
As a psychiatrist I regularly see patients of Indian, Asian or Arab background who have great difficulty in negotiating their sexualities. I have even had patients ask me to cure them of their affliction, in the hope that it will spare any stigma or distress for their families. I remember a heartbreaking scene in my consulting room where a young Lebanese man returned after a decade overseas to tell his mother that he was gay. They embraced, the mother cried and said she loved him no matter what, but within days she was hospitalised with psychological complications.
Gay patients often need to be treated for other diagnoses such as eating disorders, self harm or depression, usually because they are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. This is difficult enough in Western cultures, let alone South Asian environments of social conservatism and conformity. Ultimately, mental health presentations are always about unusual, unhealthy ways of communicating distress.
Their growing voice and assertiveness is apparent however, highlighted recently by the much lauded theatre production, The Last Chai which takes a comic look at the life of a homosexual Indian in Australia.
Back in India, a recent report from a leading Indian academic institution suggested gays felt a greater acceptance since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2009. The report from Delhi’s Jindal Global Law School was compiled from face-to-face interviews with thirty-two homosexuals in Delhi from February to October 2011. ‘It is evident from the study that decriminalization of section 377 has led to increased self-confidence and self-acceptance amongst the respondents,’ the report said. ‘Some respondents also reported that they could now argue with the police’.
The report also moderates this finding with the warning that more liberal attitudes towards gays is almost certainly a limited trend in the big cities. Regional or rural areas would not be so accommodating.
This is certainly backed up by Australian author Benjamin Law who conducted a unique tour of gay life in Asia in his book Gaysia. Several chapters illustrate authority figures that view homosexuality as a ‘bad mental habit’, such as Baba Ramdev, a yoga instructor whose Indian followers number more than 80 million.
The key conflict when comparing it to the West is that most men having sex with other men do not consider themselves gay. For many, the fact that a man has sex with another man has little to do with ‘gayness’. The act may fulfil a desire or a need, but it doesn’t constitute an identity. This type of identity remains rare in South Asia and is usually limited to an educated elite who might have studied overseas and live in cities like Mumbai, Lahore or Dhaka.
Their isolation is much reduced through the internet, and many are able to connect both emotionally and physically through sites such as ‘Boys in Bangladesh’.
It is common throughout South Asia to see men holding hands and living together well into adulthood. No suspicions would be raised.
What the Bangladeshi couple seeking refugee status are really protesting is an inability to proclaim their identity in public, rather than quietly practising an aberrant behaviour but maintaining their broader social obligations. The outcome will have many implications for the politics of intimacy. The yearning for human self-expression is at least as great in the bedroom as it is in the ballot box.