Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday April 10, 2011
Last Sunday I read a newspaper report describing the plight of two lesbian women in Delhi. Outside their home were the police and family members of one of the girls trying to barge in. Inside were activists standing by the couple. The girls from Mumbai had eloped so that they could live as a couple. This upset the parents of at least one of the girls who have tried their best to dissuade the girl and get her back home, one way or another, even by force if necessary.
One can understand the plight of the parents. We live in a country where homosexuality is still a crime, and homosexual civil partnerships not even a consideration, a court verdict 60 years after independence and clarifications from psychiatric associations notwithstanding. How else will the parents react? Unless, of course, they have the maturity and empathy and the strength and the resources to rise above unfair cultural assumptions.
One can understand the plight of the girls. They are girls – and our society is not used to girls exerting their own right to self-determination. Often, even the feminist movement excludes lesbian rights.
The word lesbian comes from the island of Lesbos where there lived a lady called Sappho whose poetry describes most elegantly her passionate love for women. She lived at the time of Socrates and Plato. Was she a lesbian? Historians are not absolutely sure – some describe her love for women as platonic (non-sexual) and there is even a story of her killing herself by jumping off a cliff after a ferryman did not reciprocate her love.
This is the classical heterosexual gaze, that doubts every homosexual assumption, yet does not permit the reverse. If two men or two women are seen together, few assume homosexuality before concluding they are ‘just friends’. But if a man and woman are together, they must be a couple!
Across India there are several images of goddesses who appear in pairs. They are enshrined in temples and worshipped in households. Are these representations of lesbian women? Could they be? No, say most scholars and academicians. There is no explicit reference, they assert. They are ‘just friends’ or ‘mistress and servant’ or ‘sisters’ or ‘shadow images’ or ‘co-wives of the same god’, they argue. Thus is lesbianism made invisible. We don’t see them because we don’t want to see them. And because we don’t want to see them, there are no references to them in history or religion, they become aberrations to be removed, truant women who have to be domesticated, forced into marriage and maternity. We want the girls to fit into a cultural template, blessed by the law of the land.
What we forget is that the law of the land is itself an artificial contruct, not a natural phenomenon, based on the principle of fairness, but created by excluding incovenient sexual minorities. The parents want their daughter back, but her lesbianism will be kept out. There it will stay, not just until the law changes, but until their hearts expand.