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Gay Hindus Celebrate Valentine’s Day in India

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Feb 13, 2009
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In a country where extreme right groups still target heterosexual love outside of rigidly defined constraints as being "immoral," gay Indians are slowly moving toward greater acceptance and a more comfort with visibility.

A Feb. 13 article in the Hindustan Times detailed how gay couples are preparing to celebrate a Western import--Valentine’s Day--even as the violent extremist group Ram Sene has issued warnings against the observance and of the holiday, which Ram Sene describes as a "Christian conspiracy" to contaminate and dilute traditional Hindu values.

Ram Sene recently carried out an attack against a Mangalore pub, and about 140 of its members, including founding member Pramod Muthalik, have been rounded up and placed under "preventive arrest" following threats by the group to attack celebrants and force girls into arranged marriages against their will if they appear to be enjoying the attentions of their "Valentines," according to a Feb. 13 article at Outlook India.com.

Gay Hindus are somewhat concerned that the violent extremist group will target them next, but in the meantime, the holiday celebrating romance beckons, and same-sex lovers, like lovers of all persuasions everywhere, are answering its call.

The risks of being gay in India are high: gay men are blackmailed and sometimes driven to ruin, despair, and even suicide, the result of trying to claim some personal space in a still deeply traditional culture where parents make agreements about their childrens’ marriages, sometimes years in advance, and where, population pressure notwithstanding, a premium is still placed upon procreation.

But as the country, emerging as a new economic superpower, continues to modernize, Western ideas are gradually (and sometimes not so gradually) taking hold. Arranged marriages are not as common as they once were; younger Indians are starting to marry for love... and same-sex couples are beginning to wonder when they might assert the same privilege.

The Hindustan Times article related how Hemant Shah stepped out to go to a gay event in late 2007, a decision made despite his fears of being found out and subjected to the horrors that gays still face in India.

But now, Shah wouldn’t change anything about his choices: "If courage hadn’t prevailed over my apprehensions, I would have never met Rohan," Shah said about his partner, Rohan Hindujah.

"The first thing I noticed was his fluffy curly hair," recollected Shah in the article.

For the couple, civil rights may still lay outside their grasp--just last year, the Indian high court declined to decriminalize consensual same-sex intimacy--but Valentine’s Day is their holiday, too.

Said Hinduja of the couple’s first Feb. 14, "Last Valentine’s, he made me a book in which he expressed his want to spend his life with me."

And while the popular image of Indian families is one of rigid gender roles and patriarchal authority, Hindujah’s own family, especially his m other, have accepted their son’s true sexuality with grace.

Indeed, said Shah of Hindujah’s mother, "it was she who suggested we switch to a more affordable phone deal because of the huge bills we were running up."

Added Hindujah,"I was aware of my sexuality very early but she has been incredible.

"Not only has she accepted me but has also sparked off a wonderful relationship with Hemant."

Shah has not been so lucky with his own family--at least, not as yet.

In a country where change is coming slowly, the ten years that Vishal Damani and Ajay Kher have spent together makes them trailblazers of a sort.

Kher, 28, was quoted in the Hindustan Times article as saying, "I was insecure in the relationship when we started off, but no longer.

"We have plenty of disagreements but just as many common interests."

That’s been true from the start: said Damani, "He was too young" when the pair first met.

"I had deep reservations about that so I kept withdrawing from the relationship.

"Ajay was the one who kept pursuing me over coffee and dinner and now we’re at 10 [years]."

One commonality that binds the men: they are still working to see their relationship and those of other gays in India decriminalized. Consensual adult sex between members of the same gender can carry steep penalties, including years of jail time, in India even today.

Said Damani, "We’re still fighting the basic laws.

"Only married couples in the city can avail of joint housing loans.

"Lots of same sex couples want to live together. But our concern is that if one partner passes away then there’s no guarantee the other partner can claim the home."

The men have fearlessly taken their message, and their example, to the masses, the article said.

"Vishal and I visited colleges outside Mumbai and spoke to the youth about our sexuality" one Valentine’s Day years ago, said Kher.

"We talked to them about a different kind of love."

Added Kher, "In a country where they object to inter-caste, inter-religious and same sex relationships, it is important to have a day that recognizes love."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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