Bisexuality, Section 377, and India’s LGBT Movement
Written by Anil Vora This article is part of Bi Magazine’s ongoing coverage of LGBT issues in India with a particular focus on bisexuality. Bi Magazine launched this series with the article “India’s Stonewall”.
In the aftermath of Indian Supreme Court’s decision on Section 377, activists have implemented two major game plans: aggressive legal challenges and campaigns to change public perception and attitudes toward different forms of gender and sexual expression.
On the legal front, the Lawyers Collective a group of progressive lawyers, is continuing to represent The Naz Foundation (India) Trust, the petitioner in the case against Section 377. They filed a review petition that was summarily rejected by the Supreme Court on January 28. Similar review petitions filed by Voices Against 377, mental health professionals, a group of parents of LGBT persons, and renowned filmmaker Shyam Benegal have also been rejected.
The Lawyers Collective and Naz Foundation are collaborating on a curative petition and, if that fails, will be forced to take the case to the Indian Parliament or file an entirely new case challenging the constitutionality of Section 377.
Section 377 is also one of the components of the Indian Penal Code that is on the concurrent list meaning that it can be modified federally or by states. Led by LGBT communities and activist lawyers, efforts are underway in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and other states to remove consensual sex from the purview of Section 377.
Across India a devastating sense of disappointment in the Supreme Court verdict is being channeled into social change efforts with renewed vigor. Sensitization events are being organized to dispel stereotypes and demystify LGBT identities and sexualities. Section 377 pinpoints anal and oral sex as “unnatural” acts. Few people acknowledge that heterosexually identified couples would also be impacted by this narrow categorization. And even fewer know the distinction between “unnatural” acts and lesbian, gay, or bisexual orientation. Bisexuals have a tough road ahead of them as they continue to fight misconceptions within the lesbian and gay communities and in the larger mainstream.
The argument that sexual orientation may be innate has led many gays and lesbians to affirm that they are born that way and cannot change. L. Ramki Ramakrishnan, a prominent bisexual activist and longtime advocate of LGBT equality, believes this argument continues to have a lot of currency because it arises from early childhood experiences of same-sex attraction that many people have had and then being constantly told by society to change. “Maybe it is tactically or strategically useful in some cases,” he says.
“But the argument of “I was born this way, my orientation is exclusively to the same sex, and is innate and inflexible, and hence deserving of acceptance” denies the reality of people who experience their sexuality as broader or more fluid. That is part of the reason why there’s this discomfort with bisexual voices within the LGBT rights movement. These voices are perceived as weakening the “I can’t help myself” argument by presenting the possibility that people may still opt for same-sex relationships even if they have the option to do otherwise.”
One might as well be talking about bisexuals in the West or anywhere in the world for that matter – the similarities are striking. But for bisexuals in India there are two interconnected challenges: To raise awareness about bisexuality as a valid orientation and to disentangle bisexual identity from issues of behavior, non-consensual sex, and the institution of marriage.
“Bisexual behavior is so prevalent and so widespread in India that a lot of people think of it as something any person will engage in given an opportunity,” says Ramakrishnan. “We live in a gender segregated society so there are a lot of opportunities for same-sex encounters.”
Equally widespread is a misunderstanding that these encounters are non-consensual or coercive, an impression the general public has gathered from reports or personal experiences of non-consensual sexual advances from men in seminaries, hostels, the army or even while traveling in public transport. The huge pressure to marry and perpetuate the family line affects everyone regardless of sexual orientation. Gay men forced to marry often call themselves bi while seeking extra-marital same-sex encounters, further fuelling the stigma against those claiming the bi label for themselves.
Ramakrishnan has also noticed another trend that he finds troublesome. “There is this notion that biphobia is really homophobia, and that the discrimination and prejudice faced by people who are bisexual is solely because of their “gay” side. These are people who partition bisexual orientation into a gay orientation and a straight orientation. They imply that if there were no homophobia then there would be no biphobia. This is simply not true because the prejudice encountered by bisexuality is not just from the straight communities but within the queer ones.”
It hasn’t helped that media coverage of people like the internationally acclaimed author Vikram Seth (‘A Suitable Boy’) has further muddled the issue. Seth has written and spoken publicly about his attraction for men and women. Many bisexual Indians have drawn inspiration from the first Indian representation of bisexuality that Seth’s poetry depicted in the early 1980s. However, in media coverage of Seth’s scathing critiques of the Supreme Court ruling on Section 377 he is often referred to as gay. The opportunity of a teachable moment to render bisexuality visible has, unfortunately, been lost.
“When celebrities are questioned about their attraction for men and women, it is not important that they use the B word,” says Ramakrishnan. “What’s critical is that they not be silent and let people use the G word to describe their orientation. It is important to talk about dual attraction so as to not further the stereotype that it doesn’t exist or is too rare to be worthy of mention. Given that, in many cases, sexual orientation is inferred by the relationships people have, when someone who has been in a same-sex relationship gets into an opposite-sex relationship they are seen as being really gay and having given up the fight to hold on to a same-sex relationship in the face of pervasive homophobia. On the flip side, someone who has been in an opposite-sex relationship gets into a same-sex relationship is seen as finally having come to terms with their gay identity.” In both cases, bisexuality is invisibilized.
Ramakrishnan remains optimistic. “The fight is about promoting the visibility and understanding that there is such a thing as attraction to more than one gender,” he says. “LGBT equality should not be predicated on one’s inability to change oneself to fit the socially accepted norm but on the right to love and be true to oneself, regardless of the causes or malleability of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
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