Gay Activist in India Works to Build Political Party Focused on the Marginalized

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 6, 2009

BANGALORE, India -- Popping out of an auto rickshaw, Manohar Elavarthi unloaded a backpack stuffed with protest posters. Soon he would be rushing to a street demonstration, one that would bring together low-caste Dalit activists, Gandhians, cross-dressers and members of domestic workers unions.

Elavarthi aspires to be the first openly gay man elected to a major political office in India, like Harvey Milk in the United States. Elavarthi is credited with being the first gay figure in India to build a mainstream political coalition across a wide spectrum of historically marginalized groups.

"Our dream for Indian politics is to build a common front of lesbians, untouchables, eunuchs and low-paid workers -- people who really need a voice in this country," said Elavarthi, who has received death threats for his views, largely from right-wing religious groups and police. "India -- the new India -- is really changing. We need to build a party around social justice for minorities. It would be a sign that India is a true secular democracy."

India, a nation of 1.1 billion people, is in the midst of an unprecedented debate over homosexuality, part of a wave of social change led by the younger generation in this traditional society. Modern India's youths are more economically mobile and independent than any generation before. Across the country, there is growing political pressure from a diverse coalition of college and law students, activists, artists and even mainstream politicians to overturn laws banning homosexuality.

In a groundbreaking ruling issued Thursday, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality. The court decision overturning an 1860 British-era statute applies only to New Delhi, the capital. But activists expect it to influence courts across the country. On Thursday, celebrations were held in the streets of major cities.

"From last night I haven't been able to sleep. While I sat in court, there were butterflies in my stomach. I just prayed to God," said Pamela Mitra, 28, a transvestite who wore a green-and-white salwar-kameez, the traditional tunic-and-pants ensemble, in New Delhi. "Over the years, my community has faced sexual harassment and blackmail from police. These atrocities are everyday affairs for us. We are humans. Today has affirmed this notion. I feel like crying, dancing, screaming and smiling all at once."

In a major shift, the government recently called a meeting of top officials to talk about the 150-year-old statute, known as Section 377. New Cabinet ministers appointed after the recent elections could bring "new thinking" on the law, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said last week, the Indian Express newspaper reported.

Although some ruling party politicians are inclined to overturn the ban, opposition parties argue that decriminalizing gay sex will lead to aberrant behavior.

Those in favor of amending the law argue that it violates human rights enshrined in the constitution. They also say that keeping gays closeted limits awareness about safe sex. HIV/AIDS affects an estimated 2.5 million people in India.

In the last weekend of June, hundreds of gay rights supporters danced and marched in the sweaty summer heat of New Delhi and in the southern cities of Chennai and Bangalore. One parent held up a sign that read "Proud Mother." Some young Indians chanted "Long Live Queeristan." Others sang "Gay Ho" to the tune of "Jai Ho," the megahit from the Oscar-winning movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

Cross-dressing men were decked out in sparkling saris and nose rings. It was the second year for the pride parades, and more people attended this time around. A fresh crowd of younger gay activists and heterosexual supporters of the cause reportedly organized the event.

In Bangalore and outlying rural areas, Elavarthi organized a week-long slate of events in the run-up to the marches, including the country's first gay cricket match, a dialogue with Dalit leaders, a seminar on religion and sexual minorities, and several film screenings and mixers in villages.

The gay rights movement in India was once dominated by artists and members of the upper castes. But the movement now seems to be breaking down class divisions and uniting youth culture around human rights concerns.

The marches were held just before the Delhi High Court issued its decision. The effort to repeal Section 377 was seen as a test of India's commitment to secular democracy, with some legal experts saying that religious arguments should not trump constitutional rights in a democratic society.

For centuries, the transgender community in India enjoyed some social acceptance under the cultural traditions of Hinduism and Islam. Some tribal groups see lesbians as having mystical powers. But European missionaries and British colonial rulers demonized homosexuality. The country's pulpits are still bastions of anti-gay rhetoric. In recent years, right-wing Hindu groups have also come out against homosexuality, saying that traditional Indian home life is under threat.

"We don't need to mess with Section 377," said Vasanth Kumar Bhavani, 32, president of Bangalore's branch of Sri Ram Sene, a right-wing Hindu group. "All of these things are against Indian traditions."

In daily life, gay Indians suffer forced marriages, high depression rates, physical assault and blackmail -- often by police and underground rings on the Internet. In this nation where most families with the means hire domestic help, middle- and upper-class gay Indians wake up early to move separately into different rooms before household staff arrive.

In much of India, parents still choose their children's future spouses, taking into account factors such as caste, skin tone, class and religion. But in some pockets, young Indians -- especially professionals living away from their parents -- have the freedom to decide for themselves.

Elavarthi was born to a farming family in a village in southern India. By the time he finished high school, he said, he knew he was attracted to men. He later realized he was bisexual. "But I dared not tell anyone," he said.

After moving to the sprawling city of Mumbai, Elavarthi found a male lover and started living with him.

Elavarthi quickly became an activist and started a counseling center. He also founded a group called Sabrang, which means "all colors" in Hindi. The group reaches out to people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and from lower castes. Elavarthi said he hopes to run for office in next year's local elections and encourage other young gays and lesbians to do the same.

Sometimes though, he worries for his life.

"I take such joy that things are changing in India," Elavarthi said. "But I also keep in mind my favorite quotation, 'A victim who can articulate his victimization ceases to be a victim; he becomes a threat.' " With that, he hailed a rickshaw and was off to his next protest.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company