For Gays in India, Fear Rules

Ponni Arasu, left, Arvind Narrain, center, and Siddharth Narrain are activists with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, which is working to repeal the 1860 law.
Ponni Arasu, left, Arvind Narrain, center, and Siddharth Narrain are activists with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, which is working to repeal the 1860 law. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 15, 2008

BANGALORE, India -- Even with the white horse rented, his gold-speckled turban fitted and the wedding hall lined up, Mahesh did not feel ready to get married, at least not to a woman.

The shy computer engineer is gay.

But Mahesh went ahead with the elaborate ceremony in May because someone he had befriended online blackmailed him -- threatening to tell his parents unless he paid $5,500.

Severely depressed and suffering from insomnia, Mahesh recently swallowed a dozen painkillers. He survived. But his blackmailer heard he was in the hospital and demanded more cash to keep his secret.

Three months later, Mahesh says he is broke and taking several antidepressants. He is still married.

"I really don't want to die. But I also don't want to keep lying," said the 24-year-old, who spoke from a counseling center and asked to be called by his first name. "I feel so trapped. According to the law, my blackmailer can report me and have me arrested."

That's because homosexuality is illegal in the world's biggest democracy. The Indian penal code describes the act as "against the order of nature" and declares it punishable by 10 years to life in prison, longer than most rape or murder sentences.

But several human rights groups are now mounting a historic challenge to the law, imposed by the British in 1860, in the New Delhi High Court. The effort to repeal the law is seen as a test case of India's commitment to secular democracy, with some legal experts saying that moral or religious arguments cannot trump constitutional rights in a democratic society. A verdict is expected before the end of the year.

The challenge comes during a time of sweeping social changes for India's younger generation. Three-quarters of the country's 1.1 billion people are younger than 35, and more and more of them are living away from home and working for multinational companies, which often have policies that protect employees from discrimination based on their sexual preferences. Many young gay men and lesbians say they find slightly more acceptance working in the international call-center and information technology industries. They also take heart from the broader trend among young Indians of favoring so-called love marriages over arranged partnerships.

"There's real hope that the growing freedom in love and in career mobility for new India's young generation can start to dissolve boundaries for gay and lesbian Indians, too," said Arvind Narrain, 33, an attorney with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, which is pressing for the repeal of the law. "But there are still a lot of problems, especially with blackmail and harassment, which is made possible by the law. We have a long fight ahead."

Being gay is increasingly accepted in India's artistic and literary communities. Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen and writer Vikram Seth have backed the push to decriminalize homosexual acts, launching an effort among filmmakers and fashion designers to speak out in behalf of gay rights.

A new Bollywood movie called "Dostana," or "Friendship," has its worldwide release this weekend and breaks new ground with two gay characters. Still, the Hindi heroes pretend to be gay to save money on rent and seduce their alluring roommate -- more "Three's Company" than "Brokeback Mountain."

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