A Love in search of its purple rainbow

In the 100% literate state of Kerala, where women don’t feel comfortable enough to even talk about sexuality, same-sex love fights a lonely, hard and bitter battle, sometimes to death.

In the 100% literate state of Kerala, where women don’t feel comfortable enough to even talk about sexuality, same-sex love fights a lonely, hard and bitter battle, sometimes to death.

An unusually bright parade marched down the streets of Thrissur in Kerala July this year. I wish I had been there to experience it, but I couldn’t make it. I asked a friend of mine what it felt like to be a part of Kerala’s second queer pride parade. She said, “I believe there were larger numbers this year, maybe 350 to 400 people. The exciting thing for me was the experience of marching in it, in having so many of our friends take to the streets together, declaring our presence and the right to exist. Also the queer pride parade, unlike other political marches in Kerala, is quite flamboyant.”

Evidently, the mood was festive. There were men dressed in women’s clothing, women dressed in ethnic Indian male clothing, people wearing vibrant costumes, and even a giant figure that was half-Shiva, half-Shakti. She adds, “When we met in the Sahitya Akademi grounds after the march, a number of people broke out spontaneously into dance. The chendas (drums) also helped.” Queer parades in India are organized to increase visibility of sexual minority groups, in the hope of gaining more public acceptance.

Public acceptance, such a tricky term. In Kerala, where it is difficult for a woman to even talk about something as basic as sexuality without a few others squirming, one wonders if sexual minorities are likely to gain public acceptance.

The high rate of lesbian suicide in Kerala

Most people are aware of Kerala’s alarmingly high suicide rates. But not as many people are aware of the number of lesbian suicides that occur in Kerala, which is also very high. Interestingly, ‘Desatanakikili Karayarilla’ (‘The Migratory Bird Never Cries’) – a Malayalam film made in the 80s by P Padmarajan – explored same-sex love between women, although in a subtle manner. Back then though, you’d rarely hear anyone discuss the film’s lesbian undertones. Did people miss the point altogether or did they choose not to see the love between the two high school girls in the film?

A more recent film is ‘Sancharram’ (‘The Journey’), a story of two young women in Kerala who fall in love, and the difficulties they face in order to be together. Released in 2004, the film – which won several awards – was Chicago-based lawyer Ligy Pullappally’s attempt at creating a positive representation of lesbian love in India after hearing about the tragic cases of lesbian suicides in Kerala. In an interview on a pop culture website (AfterEllen), Pullapally says that the reactions in Kerala were not particularly heartening. “I had one public screening in Kerala and there was a lot of very vocal opposition to the subject matter of the film. Not necessarily whether it was a good film or not but just heckling along the lines of ‘You’re trying to turn our kids gay’.”

Despite Kerala’s high literacy rate, people’s ideas about ‘accepted’ social behaviour and morality – especially when it comes to women – can often be regressive. Having grown up in Kerala, I’ve always wondered about the lives of queer people here, especially women. A bit of curiosity is always healthy and so I set out to poke my nose into the private lives of women-loving-women.

‘Safety comes in private spaces’

My first discovery – which didn’t come as much of a surprise – was that lesbians in Kerala survived mostly by keeping their sexual identity private. Deepa Vasudevan, co-founder of Sahayatrika, an organization that works for the rights of women-loving-women in Kerala explains this preferred state of invisibility, “Those who have come out for the sake of visibility and activism have often faced a lot of harassment and experienced difficulty in finding work and housing afterwards. There is a huge amount of moral policing of women in our sexually hypocritical society. Public spaces are still unsafe for women-loving-women in Kerala. Safety comes in private spaces.”

For a lot of queer women, it is difficult to even come to terms with their own sexuality. Often, they feel like they are the only ones who experience such feelings and this tosses them into a space of loneliness and confusion. In such situations, access to information on sexuality can make a world of a difference. A lot of young girls from middle-class backgrounds are usually exposed to ideas of alternate sexuality at some point in their lives from either friends or some form of media. But it may not be the same for women who come from villages or lower income families where there is limited mobility and very little access to the media.

When Sahayatrika started a helpline in 2005 to address concerns of women-loving-women in Kerala, letters and phone calls poured in from confused married women and students who were relieved to have someone to talk to. More recently though, the calls turn out to be mostly lesbian women who are being forced to marry against their wishes and those who want to run way from their homes. And, predictably, curious men.

Seeking the ordinary life

23-year-old Achu is biologically a woman. But he identifies himself as a man. “It’s only when I talk to people like you that I use terms like transgender and F2M (Female to Male). In my head, I’m just a man,” says Achu wistfully. As a child, Achu used to wear his father’s clothes and tried to convince god to change him into a boy. But his prayers didn’t help sprout facial hair. And, his breasts continued to grow.

Although his family had vague ideas about Achu’s sexual inclination, their suspicions were confirmed only when he broke down at the age of 17 after his girlfriend killed herself. A few months later, he fled Kerala to Bangalore which has a wider queer network and much more anonymity. Transgender communities usually face a lot of discrimination and hostility because of their physical appearance, especially in smaller towns and villages. Back in Kerala now, Achu lives in Thrissur with friends.

His appearance – short boyish hair, buttoned-up men’s shirts, trousers, no earrings – evokes curiosity and he is often at the receiving end of snide remarks from strangers. Auto drivers adjust their mirrors to take a closer look at him and remark on his hairless face that lacks masculinity. “It is generally hard in Kerala for single women to get accommodation. So you can imagine how difficult it is for me. It is also hard for me to find a job, especially in the private sector, since my identity proof doesn’t match my current profile.”

I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t even aware that people like Achu were referred to as transgender people. When Achu asked me if I’ve watched ‘Boys don’t cry’ – which is essentially about people like him – I triumphantly said that I have, as if that makes up for my ignorance.

Unlike Achu who eventually returned to Kerala, Sonu – an F2M transgender – is reluctant to return. In 2004, at the age of 22, Sonu decided to discontinue his studies and run away to Bangalore. In Kerala, he had studied in a women’s college where he was constantly harassed by the college principal for wearing men’s clothing and keeping his hair short. “The principal would ask me to wear a sari or churidar. But I’d protest. Since I played cricket, I used it as an excuse for dressing like a man and keeping my hair short, stating comfort,” he says, laughing. “I don’t have a father. So after my mother’s death, when my extended family kept pushing me to get married, I decided to run away under the pretext of a cricket match.” Rigid notions of gender certainly don’t make it any easier for queer people who are slowly, quietly, trying to break away from deeply rooted patterns.

No longer in touch with his family, Sonu now works in Bangalore with Sangama, an organization that works with sexual minorities. Both Achu and Sonu are hoping to go through a sex-change operation and have already initiated the process which is a long-drawn, expensive one. Between 2004 and 2011, there have been atleast 15 women who’ve moved to Bangalore from Kerala and gotten in touch with Sangama which offers support through capacity building exercises, legal advice, counselling and helps them find accommodation.

Dr Jayasree has been a part of the movement for rights of sexual minorities since its inception. Remembering the period during which she was actively involved in the movement, she says ruefully, “People would hesitate to rent their houses to me because of the kind of people who visited me. My neighbours wouldn’t like it.” She traces this to conservative notions of sexuality which are associated more with reproduction than with pleasure or love. She also feels that people in Kerala have no empathy or tolerance for queer people and treat them like criminals. For instance, in 1992, seven girls were thrown out of a government secondary school in Trivandrum for forming a lesbian group called the Martina Navratilova Fan Club.

Change trickling in?

There are reasons to be optimistic, I’m assured. In 2002, in Thrissur, the court gave permission to two lesbian women to cohabit. Also, Idam – a convention for sexual minority rights – was organized in Thrissur during the years 2008 and 2010 to create positive discussions in the media and civil society about issues of sexual minorities. As a part of Idam, several cultural performances and a queer film festival were organized.

For Sahayatrika, a past organizer of Idam, these have been memorable times. Says Deepa, about the first time Idam was held, “I thought no one was going to support it and was very surprised to see the Sahitya Akademi Hall almost full. At the end of the Convention, we actually held a protest march spontaneously; carrying candles in remembrance of those who’d committed suicide. It was a very intense experience.”

Ever since I’ve been working on this article, I’ve been trying to break the silence in smaller ways too, within my circles. The article itself becomes a point of conversation through which I recount various stories and wait to see if anybody else has similar stories to tell, of same-sex love. Some people get fidgety and nod politely, some others are curious for more details, some turn away disapprovingly while a few others make sympathetic noises and talk about “how some people can be so conservative and closed-minded.”

I was surprised by how most people had a same-sex love story to share, of someone they knew at school or college, a distant relative, something they had seen on television, or some such story. After a bit of reluctance, even my grandmother had a story to tell, about a distant relative who was known to have a “special” male friend who he preferred over his “extremely good looking wife.”

I now realise that something as simple as breaking the silence around an issue can bring about changes in perspective – a step closer to embracing diversity and queerness, a step closer to inclusion and acceptance. In fact, until Deepa mentioned the fact that Kerala was the only South Indian state where you never come across hijra communities, I had never thought about it. Did we always suffer from a lack of openness to differences, one wonders.

It was only a few days ago that I became aware of a Malayalam novel called ‘Randu Penkuttikal’ (‘Two Girls’) written by V T Nandakumar. Published in 1974, the novel – about two schoolgirls who are intensely attracted to each other – is known to be very popular among young girls and women in Kerala. Stating that lesbianism is now ubiquitous, Nandakumar writes in the foreword to the second edition of this story that “this passion is likely to be widespread among the young women of Kerala who, by nature, are extremely sensitive. Such relationships have some healthy and positive potential and are hence important.” Although the novel was adapted for the screen in 1978, the author felt that lesbianism – which was at the heart of his piece of work – was missing from it. An excerpt from this novel can be found in ‘Same sex love in India: Readings from Literature and History’ by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai. Nandakumar ends his foreword by praying for the growth and prosperity of lesbianism.

(Some names have been changed to protect identities. Achu and Sonu are both biologically women who identify themselves as men because of which I’ve referred to them as ‘he’)

All pics courtesy author.

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