(Featured Image: Image taken by Dan Soucy at the Pride March in Delhi)
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct research on the pervasiveness of heteronormative expectations toward gender in Pune, India. I sought to understand how these expectations influence the Queer community’s daily lives and experiences. As a second-tier city near Mumbai with a remarkably young population, I expected Pune to be far more inclusive than some more traditional locations. It has a vibrant night-life scene, many exceptional universities and generally a feeling of youth and progression.
Despite these expectations, conducting my research was jarring. I confronted deeply held beliefs about the importance of heteronormative family structures. While I tried to maintain a neutral approach to my research, merely discussing LGBTQ identity rarely came with ease due to the discomfort and taboos surrounding sex and in particular homosexuality.
Of course, it is also important to note that I am white and in conducting this research, I was also a foreigner. These identities certainly shaped both my own expectations for the importance of LGBTQ rights and inclusivity as well as my respondents’ sense of trust and confidence in my work. Elderly individuals, in particular, challenged my research, saying that it was not right to indoctrinate youth with such “abnormal and dangerous” ideas. In many ways, I was viewed as the epitome of a negative, Western and foreign influence on the city’s sense of tradition, spirituality and stability.
Furthermore, I conducted this research before the Indian supreme court made the decision to decriminalize homosexuality by deeming section 377 of the Indian penal code unconstitutional, thus further exasperating the social stigma surrounding queer identity. With that said, I tried to approach this research in recognition of my privilege as a foreigner and the familial and social implications that LGBTQ rights have on both queer and heterosexual, cisgender individuals in Indian society.
In spite of the discomfort that came with my research, I was still able to engage in what I saw as valuable conversations regarding sexual taboos in Indian society. I was particularly surprised to learn that such a large number of young people in Pune viewed gay relationships as immoral.
More specifically, 62 percent of the people I interviewed agreed that marriage should only be between one man and one woman while 19 percent were unsure or remained apathetic. Similarly, 45 percent of respondents believed that homosexuality was actually a mental illness that required medical treatment to resolve. These numbers increased to 70 percent and 47 percent respectively when I only considered the respondents 31 years of age or older.
I was encouraged by the fact that young people seemed to have slightly more progressive views regarding the queer community, I was still disappointed to learn just how stigmatized LGBTQ identity remained.
Equally as important to me was learning where these social attitudes and lack of acceptance came from. As I asked respondents about their opinions regarding the “cause” of LGBTQ relationships, many individuals pointed to the idea that queer identity results from a subpar or confused upbringing as a child. More specifically, of the respondents who conformed to the notion that a man’s responsibility is to be the ‘bread winner’ of the family while the woman should care for the children, 75 percent also viewed homosexuality as a mental illness while 44 percent believed it reflected the fact that the queer individual’s parents did not raise them “correctly.”
Based on this information, the stigmatization of India’s queer population seems to result from a place of concern. Concern over traditional family values. Concern over what should be ‘normal’ in Indian society. In other words, the LGBTQ community symbolizes a disruption to the norms and expectations inherent in a heteronormative family, neighborhood, city, and society. Broadly speaking, these respondents experienced a sense of discomfort when it comes to talking about sexuality and in a particular a sense of moral discomfort when ideas about LGBTQ identity were raised.
The pervasiveness of this discomfort became even more clear as I interviewed members of Pune’s queer community. In fact, all of the individuals I interviewed expressed fear about coming out not because they were concerned about their own safety but because they were afraid of the way their families would be perceived and stigmatized as a result of their identities.
In this light, homosexuality was viewed not just as a burden and a point of contention between the queer individual and their community but as stigmatizing to the queer individual’s entire family. Aside from demonstrating just how isolating it is to be queer in Indian society, this also elucidates the deeper reasons for queer exclusion. Namely, people fear and become upset by the broader destruction of heteronormative familial and community values.
Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Rather, the LGBTQ community has made strides toward acceptance and inclusion. I had the privilege of attending Delhi’s pride parade and conference in 2018 and was overjoyed by the enthusiasm and excitement that came with Delhi’s first pride parade in the wake of the end of Section 377. People were overjoyed by their ability to be out and proud, surrounded by love and marching for freedom from oppression. It was a stunning and remarkable scene to be a part of. One of the main rallying cries of this event was a call for continued conversation. Although there was a recognition that advocacy should not be the exclusive responsibility of queer individuals, ultimately, only through exposure, honesty, and open conversation, is change possible. People will continue to cling to their deeply held beliefs in the sanctity of the heteronormative family and society unless queer individuals step forward to express their dissatisfaction with this norm. This research and the Pride celebration taught me that a better, brighter society is only possible through continued discussion that exposes society to the beauty and normalcy of an openly queer India and its diasporas that exist outside of India.
Dan Soucy currently supports refugee resettlement and advocacy efforts throughout New England as a case manager and employment specialist with the International Institute of New England. He graduated from Saint Joseph’s University where he conducted oral history interviews with South Asian migrants to the United States. Dan has also studied, lived, and worked in various parts of India for 2 years.