Gay Sex is Legal in New Delhi, But What About Gay Love?

Gay Sex is Legal in New Delhi, But What About Gay Love?

Gay Sex is Legal in New Delhi, But What About Gay Love?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
July 8 2009 4:09 PM

Gay Sex is Legal in New Delhi, But What About Gay Love?

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The Delhi High Court’s decision last week to legalize gay sex is indeed a big moment for Indian democracy, Nina , and one brought about, like many others in India, by an admirably independent judiciary. It’s also interesting in light of the recent growing support, legislatively and from some courts, for gay rights in the U.S. Here, the battle has centered increasingly on the issue of marriage and the legal and cultural benefits it bestows. Winning that fight, as well as getting rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, seems to depend, at least in part, on making people forget that civil rights for gay people have anything to do with the sexual behaviors that distinguish them from heterosexuals (as opponents of a gay-marriage ban in Arizona did in 2006 by focusing on the measure’s disadvantages to all kinds of domestic partners, including straight, unmarried snowbirds). In the U.S., what gay people do in the privacy of their bedrooms has successfully been de-linked from what kinds of rights they deserve. In India, the situation is different, as indicated by the High Court’s ruling, which, after all, legalized a particular sexual behavior between consenting adults, but did nothing to change a social structure that profoundly favors heterosexuals.

One of the fascinating things I learned while living in India in the early part of this decade and reporting on gay rights there at a time when a decision like the High Court’s seemed an extremely distant possibility, was that while same sex intercourse as a behavior was tacitly accepted-and, indeed, engaged in and enjoyed by many who publicly identified as straight-the idea of a civic endorsement of gay personhood in the form of, say, legalizing gay marriage was well nigh unthinkable. In other words, Indians are far less puritanical about sexual behavior than Americans. But their culture so mythologizes the institution of hetero marriage that the U.S. is far closer to civic and legal protections for gay couples than India is. One Indian activist I met compared being gay to smoking. As long as he smoked in secret, he said, it would never bring disapproval from his parents, even if they caught on. But if he ever had the audacity to light up in front of his father, all hell would break loose.

One need only look at Bollywood-or indeed, its recent international offshoots like Slumdog Millionaire -to see how heterosexual romance and marriage are idealized in India. Slumdog is also a good example of how, in popular Indian depictions, straight romance is often deprived of sexual heat. The film’s hero and heroine are more like brother and sister than lovers drawn together by the humbler and holier magnetism of the flesh. Not so in portrayals of gay characters-check out Deepa Mehta’s classic lesbian film, Fire , for some really good chemistry on screen. In the land that gave birth to the Kama Sutra, sexual pleasure is still appreciated for its own sake. Unconventional lives, not so much.

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Photograph of Indians celebrating the legalization of gay sex by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images.