The morning after my first night spent with a guy, I walked across a chilly Morningside Park to a rehearsal for a satirical Christmas show called XMas. In said show, I had been cast in the – again, satirical, and in no way mean-spirited – part of Gay Santa (keep in mind, I was still closeted). At that rehearsal, the music director and lyricist of the show, my very dear friend Charlotte, had decided I would learn and rehearse my big number, titled, I shit you not, “Santa’s Coming Out the Clause-et”. At the end of the rehearsal, Charlotte was so pleased with my progress that she asked me to perform the song for the rest of the cast. It was, I need hardly say, a mortifying experience.
This was November of 2008, fall semester of my Junior year of college, which, in a family like mine (aggressively open-minded, with another gay son, four years older, who had come out at sixteen), made it sort of the eleventh hour as far as reckoning with my sexuality was concerned. Between that point and the day of the performance about a month later, things got gradually better. After getting black-out drunk at a party in Harlem on the night of President Obama’s election and spewing my guts, first figuratively to one of my closer friends, then literally back home, I started telling some people about what was going on, received an unsurprising outpouring of support from said people, and continued testing the waters, which was, I supposed, what one ought to do in such a situation. I was a more cautious person then than I am now.
The morning of the show arrived, my fifteen-year-old golden retriever died, and, in the evening, I had probably the closest thing to a real romantic-type fight I’ve ever had with the guy whom, by then, I was more or less secretly dating (we broke up about a week later). It was not a pleasant day. In January – after a somewhat less than pleasant Christmas, and an intermittently wonderful/harrowing trip to France and Belgium with the secret ex whom I had totally and completely wronged and the close mutual friend who knew everything (poor her) – I left for India for the first time, where I was to spend a semester studying in Delhi.
At the time, I knew nothing of India’s arcane laws regarding homosexuality, and anyway didn’t much care. Delhi was to be a kind of detox. This is not to say that I came to India for the sake of soul-searching – I had no intention of being one of those two-weeks-to-enlightenment tourists – rather, that I figured a change of scenery and people would give me a chance to feel out the contours of my emerging sexual identity, or at least offer a mental break from the wracking sense of guilt and isolation (not to mention feeling silly about feeling isolated when I knew I didn’t have to and all those other dangerously involuted feelings you get when you allow yourself to become so afraid of feelings in the first place that feelings themselves become a source of shame and self-ridicule and so on and so forth) that had been plaguing me for months. I reflected a little (not too much, I swear) and came back that summer prepared to figure stuff out at whatever pace suited me, an incredible luxury that, in my East Coast American Bubble, I barely recognized having.
July came. I was living and working back home in New York. I failed to notice the Delhi High Court’s landmark decision to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the now-famous colonial-era injunction against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” (widely understood to mean anal sex between men, or to use the more colorful Victorian terminology, “buggery”) because, well, I guess it didn’t seem terribly relevant to me. I didn’t know at the time that I would return to India in January 2012, nor that I would be an openly gay man when I did so.
* * *
Five years later, my Christmas present from the government of India was to see people like me wiped off the political slate entirely. This time I noticed. Over the last two years, I’ve spent most of my time living and working out of Bandra, the so-called ‘Queen (ha) of the Suburbs’, in Bombay, a city of superlatives so well known I need hardly repeat them here. Bandra is, historically, a Catholic neighborhood, still full of people with last names like Fernandes and Rodrigues and D’Souza, remnants of Portugal’s one-time dominance along this part of the Arabian Sea coast. Bandra Catholics, in my admittedly limited experience, tend to be a bit more willing to live and let live than other religious communities in Bombay, even if their church’s official stance on issues like homosexuality is somewhat less than flexible (or was until the emergence of Pope Francis). These days, Bandra is the hub for a stunningly intimate community of expatriates and young Indians from across the country working in fields like media, film, fashion, art and so on. You know the sort of place.
Of course, Bandra, and other similarly well-educated and affluent parts of Bombay, are full of queer people and the straight ones who just couldn’t possibly care less about something as trivial as sexuality. This being India though, the taboo surrounding homosexuality – surrounding sexuality period – remains palpable; it’s not uncommon to know men who are both married and, within certain circles, practically open in their homosexuality, or even young men who, though openly gay now among friends, still fully intend to marry according to their families’ wishes. And yet despite that, things have been looking hopeful here since 2009. Online social networks for queer people, though used largely for sex, have nevertheless given young people (particularly men) a forum for speaking frankly about their desires, and the rhetorical import of acknowledging the sovereign right to privacy for all people, no matter their sexual proclivities, opened doors previously sealed by fear and conservatism and familial finger wagging. Even I have opened up since moving here, perhaps surprisingly. Two years ago, I would never have written what you read above in a public forum, would never have shown so much proverbial leg. I only started wearing above-the-knee shorts after a year living in India. This is both figuratively and literally true.
But I guess, fool that I am, I didn’t realize from the comfort of my new Bombay Bubble, just how powerful those wagging fingers still were. It came as a shock, then, when the Supreme Court passed down a ruling to re-criminalize homosexuality under Section 377, claiming that the court had no jurisdiction to decide on legislative matters. I don’t want to dwell here on why that ruling was so patently wrong (if you’re curious, the Attorney General of India did fairly good job of that in this editorial for the Times of India). I want to talk about the fact that, as so very many people have (encouragingly) pointed out, this is an issue that goes well beyond the question of penetrative gay sex and whether or not I, and others, can, you know, have it. It comes to very basic questions of citizenship and how we – Americans or Indians or whomever, really – live as people: male, female, gay, straight; thinking, breathing, ethical beings.
It struck me immediately, for instance, that the Supreme Court handed down its judgment just days before the one-year anniversary of the horrific Delhi gang rape that put India’s scandalous record for sex crimes and women’s rights in the crosshairs of the global media. The outrage – just and necessary, of course – evoked by that brutal event resulted in new laws and a hell of a lot of hand wringing. There was a lot of paternalism in the response, too, much discussion of the role women played in eliciting such strong, uncontrollable sexual urges from men (this piece from the New York Times’s India blog goes into it nicely). Lots of comments about makeup and short skirts and going out late, all the commonplaces of life in my tiny corner of the subcontinent. Lots of discussion of how to protect India’s women, but precious little (except from the expected spheres) on how to empower them.
It’s the same principal that informs much of the policy surrounding free speech in India; and freedoms like fucking who you like and wearing what you like fall, at least to my mind, very clearly under that rubric. Even in theatres, films are censored – never for violence, only for sex and nudity – even though they are also given ratings that, in theory, should indicate what a responsible viewer can expect to see on screen. On TV, things get more absurd, with words as innocuous as breast, beef and, naturally, gay bleeped out and/or changed in the subtitles. This stuff is frequently the subject of lighthearted mockery here, but the message sent – whether through censorship, the suggestion that short skirts provoke men to unthinkable acts of sexual violence, or the legal decision that consenting adults have no constitutional right to do what they like with their bodies – is that citizens (the term, I’m well aware, does not really include me here) need to be treated as children incapable of making their own decisions or controlling their own impulses.
* * *
I went to an event not too long ago during which an Indian constitutional attorney argued that the Indian constitution’s positive treatment of free speech was a better model than the US Bill of Rights’ negative approach (I’ll explain this better in a moment). Recent events have started me thinking more critically about this assertion. Now I am the last person in the world to claim that the American system of government functions perfectly. We need only look at the last year of congressional politics to see how truly laughable our system can, at its worst, become. But on reflection I have come to take a different view from that attorney of the fundamental rhetorical difference between the status of an American citizen and an Indian citizen vis-à-vis our respective constitutional rights.
The opening of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution reads as follows:
(1) All citizens shall have the right– (a) to freedom of speech and expression; (b) to assemble peaceably and without arms; etc.
The First Amendment to the American Constitution, which is the foundational statement of American democracy and the (presumably at least partial) inspiration for the article quoted above, reads thus:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Not to get technical here (or, God forbid, rabidly jingoistic), but there’s an enormously important syntactical difference between these two statements – and it goes beyond the frankly superior elegance and clarity of the Indian version. In the American iteration of the idea, the government is the passive party. The First Amendment enumerates stuff the government can’t do and rights it can’t abridge, the implication being, I think, that those rights are inherent not just in the experience of citizenship, but in the very experience of humanness. The possibility of the Amendment’s obverse – that Congress shall make laws respecting, etc. – is precluded by the language of the original.
The Indian constitution takes a different tack. The government actively grants the right to speech, grants the right to assembly, implying that those rights issue from the government itself and, implicitly, that government can restrict/remove them at will (check out 19.2: “Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause…”– see what I mean?). The opening statement here can, evidently, be reversed at will; citizens shall have or shall not have, either way the government itself decides. Job says something to this effect in the Old Testament: The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.
The most common issue arising from this comes in the form of ‘protecting religious sensibilities’, whereby people have been arrested and imprisoned for trifles like posts on Facebook. There’s plenty of reason for this: despite the whole melting pot thing, the US is, compared to India, a fairly homogenous nation in terms of religion and language and education and wealth. India’s eruptions into communal violence over the years have proved this great, young nation to be a powder keg. But, as ACLU-affiliated Americans love to say, the restriction of basic civil liberties is a very slippery slope.
Another instance: The Bombay rally against the Supreme Court’s decision re: Section 377 changed locations twice because the authorities had denied the permits necessary to launch a protest in the first two chosen locations (both, of course, were more visible and historically apt than the final site of the protest in a traffic circle under an overpass). Again: permits for a protest. The right to assemble peaceably – but only when the government hath given it.
And this is the essential issue: Like a doting parent, the Indian government curtails risk – which is to say, curtails freedom – in order to avoid offense, thereby sending the message that the populous is not expected to contain itself, not expected to exercise restraint in the face of provocation. The woman in the short skirt as much as the gay man exercising his sexuality – these ‘modern’ provocations could incite all kinds of reactions from India’s conservative majority. Boys, so to speak, will be boys.
But laws – and maybe I’m speaking from within my transportable bubble again – have a higher task than to protect the mores of the majority. We have laws to show a young woman that her body is hers and hers alone, no matter what she chooses to wear; we have laws to show a young man coming to terms with his identity that, at the most basic level, he exists. It’s hard to understand just what that means until you’ve experienced, as so many generations of queer people have, what it’s like not to.
The danger now is not so much for the people I know and the circles I move in, though I understand that we have all, in an instant, become more vulnerable. No, the danger is for young people across this country, confronting, as I did five Christmases ago, their own questions and feelings and questions about those feelings and all the concomitant confusion that goes along with that. Because if not even the State, the apparatus that (especially in India) grants you your very ontological status, can validate you, how can you ever expect your family or friends to do so? How can you ask for love and compassion and, yes, protection from a system that does not even acknowledge your right to be?
It is indeed, then, a question of speech, whether it is the speech we produce through words or through our bodies. Sex can be an eloquent act. It speaks of love and trust and communion and, the thing that seems most terrifying to conservatives in America and India alike, pleasure. And it will speak, regardless. Because here’s the thing: The gag has already been removed, the words acquired. And language learned, even – perhaps especially – in the first blush of freedom cannot be unlearned. No child forgets the word Yes or No or Why – and least of all, the word I.
And that, I hope, will be my community’s Christmas gift back to India – and by my community I mean the many, many like-minded people who live throughout the Subcontinent and the world: We will prove, I hope, that in a democracy, freedom to speak, to exist, is not a gift to bestow and withdraw at will. It must be a reality – for everyone.
Put another way: We’ve already donned our gay apparel. You can’t ask us to take it off now.