It’s been a year since India decriminalised homosexuality. Well, at least for now. Because pending in the supreme court is a petition, challenging last year’s decriminalisation, that was lodged and supported by various religious groups across the country – for some reason, homosexuality has the power to unite Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and even yoga teachers.
The BBC seems to believe that things are changing already, as a few clubs in the capital, once reluctant to open their doors to gay men and women, are now hosting gay nights twice a week in order to attract the “pink rupee”. Curiously, apart from the event organiser, no one offered themselves to be filmed by the BBC. Equally, the BBC failed to mention that while police interference has, in terms of anecdotal evidence, come down, reports of hate crimes have increased. A few months ago, a respected professor at an Islamic university was secretly filmed having gay sex; within a week he was first suspended, and then found dead at his apartment. His partner, reportedly hounded by the police, attempted self-immolation.
So, how far have things changed and how promising are the signs? I suggest we look at the media, which provides a rough indicator of what it perceives as the sociopolitical climate of the times. In the UK, for example, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, and in the early 1980s elsewhere. The film industry had been bold in exploring homosexuality well before the decriminalisation happened, in films such as The Leather Boys, but, after 1967, several films that explicitly dealt with homosexuality, such as Staircase and The Naked Civil Servant, made it through to the public cinemas.
Television was less keen to follow. In fact, a gay kiss in EastEnders, as late as 1987, prompted real outrage from the tabloids and viewers alike. And only a few days ago, Stonewall criticised television’s coverage of gay people, calling for more positive gay characters on primetime television.
In India, where censorship is very active, particularly on religious grounds (it was the first country in the world to ban Satanic Verses) things look divided. On the one hand, India’s answer to Brokeback Mountain is surrounded by much hype – and even a supposedly conservative Tamil film industry, after historically portraying of gay men as psychopaths and murderers, had one positive depiction of a gay couple in a recent film called Goa. On the other, in a country composed of dozens of states divided by language and individual cultures, most local media have sealed their lips when it comes to sexual plurality. Decriminalisation? What decriminalisation? Homosexuality? What is homosexuality?
The growing middle class in major cities across India has brought with it several imports, such as HBO and Murdoch-owned Star, straight to the average television set. You would think that such western imports would champion any depiction of homosexuality on television, right? Or at least have fewer qualms about doing so? Not exactly.
So what if they censor a gay kiss, on the grounds that a nebulous rule forbids any obscenity on television? Nothing, except that HBO has gone one step further. The word “gay” is censored every time it is uttered in a film, even a film with an overtly gay theme such as Angels in America. Even more, it transcribes the dialogue in the film into accessible subtitles, and guess what, “I am gay” becomes a more profound, more philosophical, “I am …”. René Descartes would be proud. With the exception of a few news organisations, most other television channels follow suit. Which is to say, for hundreds of television channels across the country, homosexuality still doesn’t exist. What VS Naipaul rightly described as a political, moral, quagmire, and the denial that it entails, still reigns supreme.
Those of us who live in the UK know that the political landscape when it comes to homosexuality changed significantly only with the arrival of New Labour in 1997. For all their faults, Labour demonstrated political will when it comes to equality for sexual minorities. The media (the conservative press notwithstanding), bold but hesitant until then, operated more freely under the new political climate. That’s what is sorely lacking in India.
Since decriminalisation, the political parties have been abnormally quiet about the issue. The religiously inclined politicians obviously think it the end of humanity. But, the rest, even when pressed, don’t want to get involved. It is, truly, political suicide. And it would be in a country where 98% of the country considers itself religious, and where religion dominates almost every facet of social and political life. But, until the political establishment is prepared to talk openly about sexual plurality, any hope harboured for a significant change within a short space of time is surely misplaced. Is it any wonder then, even for channels like HBO, “gay” is a swear word, akin to “fuck”, or “slut” that still deserves to be censored?
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