Ever wondered why you find more homosexual men than women in India? Is it a result of the skewed male-female ratio? Or is it because there are fewer homosexual women? The closeted nature of the community makes it difficult to gather concrete information. However, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) rights activists tell us that the factors preventing women from coming out, range from women feeling more answerable to their families than men and having fewer opportunites to interact with interested same-sex persons to restrictions on mobility and double discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality. Harish Iyer, ranked 71 on the World Pride Power List of 2013, puts it frankly, "Women are not considered sexual beings. They're expected to satisfy men and not have a desire to be satisfied themselves. Even within the community, they are discriminated against in the run up to positions of power".
Gay men have several spaces for interaction: dating websites, party groups, cruising locations and now even Grindr, an app that notifies them when other gay men are nearby. Not much exists for lesbian women. Sonal Giani of Humsafar Trust points out, "There are less than 10 support groups for women, but over 200 for men. They also receive funding for HIV. Finding it difficult to talk about sex and sexuality, women often go into depression and take to substance abuse such as drinking, smoking and sometimes drugs".
The good news is, technology—including mobile apps and social networking sites like Facebook—has made it easier for women to connect; more women seem to have come out in the past two years. "Most women who call our helpline think they're alone; they just want to connect and know that they're normal. Others face marriage pressure and parental objections to their relationships. Many callers are from tier two cities like Nagpur, Igatpuri, Punjab and Patna," shares Shruta Neytra of Umang.
A few first-person perspectives follow:
Gaysi Family, MJ (33)B
I knew I was different by age 12, but didn't know what to make of it. I would pretend to have crushes on men to feel like a part of my peer group, but I couldn't relate to them emotionally and physically. Even though my first lesbian relationship was in high school, I came out only five years ago, thanks to marriage pressure. For some people, their sexual orientation becomes a focal point; but for me, my sexuality is just one part of life, so I don't tell everyone about it. How do you identify partners? Sometimes a relationship just grows out of friendship. You meet people and it clicks. Women are generally not aggressive in their sexuality. Even straight women don't freak out. They'll probably say, "Thanks for the attention, but I'm not interested." Men get offended even if gay men are around.
Unique Challenge: Women outside India are very comfortable being lesbian, but when I was considering coming out, I needed to know whether Indian women are okay too. I started Gaysifamily.com as a blog in 2008 to get Indian women to share their stories; the internet was the easiest medium, as it allows anonymity. Reading their blogs and understanding how other Indians deal with their experiences, made me feel grounded. Gradually, more people, who also have day jobs, started contributing. Now, we focus on helping LGBT youth come to terms with everyday issues, be it political, professional or personal.
Umang, Shruta Neytra (27)
Till I was 21, I wasn't aware of my bisexual leanings. I was in a relationship with a man, but found myself attracted to women. I thought it was a phase, but it wasn't. Finally, while talking to gay men at a kite-flying festival, I figured it out.
Unique Challenge: If you're bisexual no one looks at you seriously, even people from the LGBT community, because you have the option of being with anyone. And no one tells you it is normal. Initially, I felt pressurised to be with women, but later I found that straight men are accepting of it too. I am very monogamous.
But some men ask, 'What if you leave me for a girl?' I ask them the same thing.
Whether the cause is porn or something else, many straight men fantasise about lesbians, which is very scary. We get a lot of prank calls on the helpline. One can handle it once or twice, but sometimes it goes on for 30-35 days and reaches a different level of harassment altogether.
Sonal More, now Siddhant More (36)
Throughout college, I thought I was lesbian, but still sensed a difference. Unlike them, I wasn't comfortable with my body, I felt it wasn't mine. Having a girl's body and getting intimate with other girls also didn't feel right. In 2008, when I met some transgender individuals, I recognised my orientation. But I didn't come out with it till 2011, after my mother passed away, as she was very ill towards the end. I started by telling my father and maternal aunts, then my immediate boss and CEO and then gradually others. My brother has severed all ties with me. Until a year ago, I had never considered transitioning, but now I am in the process of becoming a transman. The hormonal medication (to be taken for life) has given me facial hair, stopped my periods, made my voice deep and my body structure broad. I am finally comfortable and happy with my body.
Unique Challenge: For the physical transition, the next step is expensive surgeries. My top surgery is done and after a few years I will go for the bottom one as well. During this period, you need a lot of support as you go through mood swings as well as other health problems. Explaining your identity to people and convincing them about the operation is very stressful. Additionally, most people associate transgender individuals with hijras, but there are so many sub-divisions. Therefore, I go to seminars and events to educate people, even though my father has reservations about it. Families often prevent transgender people from being open about it; as a a result, those seeking guidance have no one to talk to. I also do it because I believe that if people understand, they will accept me.