Gay Gandhi? Hardly

Last year I attended a short orientation to prepare me for work in rural India. Facing a year in the closet, I asked what I could expect from men in my community in rural Rajasthan:

"You might see some men holding hands like homosexuals in the west."

As a westerner I may have jumped to conclusions about two men holding hands. Certainly in London, you can guarantee that two men holding hands are probably gay or bisexual.

Here in India, I’ve spooned in a single bed with men, I’ve shared my dinner with men, and I’ve had men lie on my lap while we watch the TV. I’ve even been told by men that they love me, and that I am their heart. My phone is full of text messages from men confessing their love and that they miss me.

But do not mistake me as a celebrated as a gay icon. None of these interactions have any sexual context. My relationships with men in my community are entirely platonic. Simply, these men are not gay (I don’t doubt, however, that some in my community live in the closet).

So what happens when a westerner with a western lens on social interaction has the opportunity to interpret male social behavior in India? Well, Gandhi gets called bisexual and the Gujarat State Assembly convenes an emergency session that unanimously bans a comprehensive biography on India’s founding father, a biography they haven’t even read.

Joseph Lelyveld’s book, ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India’ is not itself alarming, nor does it reveal anything that was not already known. Let’s be clear, Lelyveld is not Salman Rushdie and ‘Great Soul’ is not the Satanic Verses (although I, like the Gujarat Assembly, have not read the book). Safe to say, for now, Lelyveld will not be the target of an Indian fatwa.

Reviews of the book have put Lelyveld on the defensive though. In a WSJ review Andrew Roberts suggests that the book labels Gandhi bisexual. Roberts says that Gandhi’s true love is Hermann Kallenbach, a German bodybuilder, because it is written that Gandhi “has a portrait of Kallenbach in his bedroom”, because Gandhi said that Kallenbach had “taken possession of Gandhi’s body”, and because Gandhi had asked Kallenbach “not to look lustfully upon any woman” (never mind that this was in strict adherence to his vow of celibacy).

The review was widely quoted. In the British Daily Mail, an article ran under the headline: "Gandhi 'left his wife to live with a male lover' new book claims". The Mumbai Mirror, carried the story on a front page headline, “Book claims German man was Gandhi’s secret love” (ironically the article remarks how gleeful western reviews have pounced on the few lines relating to sexuality, failing to note that their story was itself smeared gleefully across their front page).

Lelyveld, judging by various reviews, has included a marginal section on Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach in his book, but stops short of judgment on the nature of the relationship.

But ‘Great Soul’ has nonetheless caused uproar in India, where the WSJ review – shot-gunned to the public by a lazy Indian media - has been read ahead of the book, meaning the book and content have been framed in the eyes of Roberts and other discerning (I kid) westerners. Gujarat is only the first of a pack of baying state assemblies in line to ban the book.

I have two problems with this; firstly, that the entire assembly of a state representing sixty million people could be so disgusted by the suggestion that Gandhi is gay, and secondly; that the entire assembly of a state representing sixty million people would base legislation on an erroneous review without even considering to pause and assess the evidence.

So that’s a lazy media, homophobia, and gross misjudgment. If I could convey a sigh of disapproval (should that be – quelle surprise?) at India, this is it (in the wake of their Cricket World Cup victory, nonetheless).

Homophobia in India is still rampant, but it’s manifested in ignorance rather than hatred. At any rate, there’s a long way to go before the question of Gandhi’s sexuality fades into irrelevance, and there are plenty more battles to be fought before it becomes acceptable to call Gandhi’s founding father bisexual (a term that many ‘phobes’ might perceive as more threatening than being called gay).

The race to ban ‘Great Soul’ on a whim of hysteria would be more believable had it happened under the Taliban. But in a country known for its morbidly slow legislative process, the decision to pass a hurried vote during an emergency session is a betrayal of democracy.

The gross misjudgment and unquestioning disgust caused by the suggestion that a book might have supposed Gandhi bisexual says more about the need for action to challenge homophobia – even in an ‘enlightened’ state assembly – than it does the content of Gandhi’s character.

Gujarat (soon to be joined by the state of Maharashtra, home to Bombay) has bought a great deal of shame not just to itself, but to millions of gay Indians who have begun to come out of the closet since homosexuality was decriminalized in 2009. The whole milieu - from an ignorant review seeking sensationalism, to a sloppy media doing the same, to lazy and captivated state assemblies – is a train-wreck of impotence.

Was Gandhi bisexual? I don’t know. But on the basis of this irrelevant evidence I wouldn’t count on it.

Then again, like the Gujarat State Assembly, I haven’t read the book.

By Simon McNorton. You can read more of Simon's thoughts at simonmcnorton.com.


Fitting In Without Letting Go

Simon McNorton is an Indicorps Fellow 2010 working on inclusive education programs in Rajasthan. His time in India is allowing him to discover his family's roots in India. Prior to India, Simon worked for gay equality organizations in the US and UK on issues including equality in employment, homophobia in education and hate crime and civil partnership legislation. You can read more of his thoughts at simonmcnorton.com

Push your limits. Make a difference. Be the change.

As Indicorps Fellows, we hear this a lot. And it's true, we have the potential to achieve so much this year. Placed at rural sites across the width and depth of India – from the Thar Desert to the banks of the Ganges, the Himalayas to beaches on the Indian Ocean – and armed with a license to practice change, we're exploring our identity and learning what we can become when we embrace opportunity. It's a once in a lifetime experience, right?

When you're groped by a stranger you really hope it's a once in a lifetime experience. When the perpetrator is a middle-aged labourer in a rural, empty school building 4,000 miles from home, out of sight from his wife and children, doubly so. Life-changing? Yes. What I signed up for? No.

The spiraling crash from the dizzy heights of pre-arrival to the reality of rural India comes without a parachute. But sometimes you land feet first. There's no point dwelling on negative experiences, and it's important to move on, but what lessons can be learned? Why did this happen to me? How can I turn this experience around?

In India I often find myself trying to turn experiences and situations around. In Chachiyawas, a small village in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan where my project is based, I meet someone new. “Your wife name?”. I try to explain that I don't have a wife. “But you are old”. Flattered, I try to change the subject, perhaps I can talk about how nice this chai is. “But really, why don't you have a wife”. In the face of persistence I explain that I travel too often. Whatever the excuse, this conversation will happen again, so I try to keep my stories straight. The web begins.

I'm not alone, the majority of Fellows have to adjust to their new environment. Women especially have to conceal large parts of their character, and bodies, to work effectively at the grassroots level. As fellows we censor our behaviour in India. The problem is easy to spot, how do we embrace our communities while concealing facets of our identity?

As an openly gay man coming from a career in gay equality, it's an oft-asked question. Before arriving in India, colleagues would frequently remind me, “You can't kiss boys there you know, how will you survive?”. Again flattered – my survival does not depend on kisses – the question would come up time and time again. It became a mission to me. It won't be so hard, I told myself. After all, being gay does not define me. I'm here to push my limits, to make a difference, and to be the change. I'm not here to be gay.

Perhaps I was naïve to think homosexuality would not be an issue. But the sordid reality of being gay in India was nothing to embrace. The middle-aged labourer I encountered was living a double life that manifested itself in an abusive manner. As an equality campaigner, I struggled to place blame on someone who had been repressed by society. To me, this was an opportunity to learn. To learn that despite being ignored, repressed and deemed the worst of immorality, there are gay people in India.

But I'm not here to kiss boys and I'm not here to be gay. I'm here to be the change in Chachiyawas. How do you move forward? Equality is my strongest passion, but gay liberation in the remote reaches of conservative Rajasthan cannot be my agenda this year. I turned it around.

The adults and children I work with in Chachiyawas suffer from severe learning disabilities which make them vulnerable to abuse. Working as a labourer on our remote campus is a sexual predator who is not able to demarcate the line between acceptable behaviour and repressed sexuality. Like the loudest penny dropping, I realised that it is vital to raise awareness of sexual abuse on campus. I engaged the issue with teachers and staff.

Is this a step towards changing mindsets and being the change? I hope so, although probably not in a direction that would liberate gay men and women. It's a challenging contradiction of priorities. I want to protect the adults and children I live with, but I don't want to demonise homosexuality. The latter is not my raison d'etre, and to yield my responsibility to the community serves a selfish agenda.

So how do we embrace our communities while hiding facets of our identity? Am I denouncing my sexuality for all time? Should my female co-fellows shun their body in shame? No, of course not. But my co-fellows and I are not here to be who we were, we're here to find out who we can become. This is our time to experiment with what is possible, to learn how we can do better and to be the change in our communities. I'm not here to serve an agenda, I'm here to discover my agenda.


Nepal Knows Where the $$$ is at

One of our first posts at queeristan was about the nascent LGBT movement in Nepal (please ignore the unfortunate wording choice...we were young and facetious then): Nipple Nepal, Land of High Peaks, Opens Bosom for LGBTs. The recent political upheaval in Nepal, which replaced the aboslute monarchy with a secular republic, provided an opportunity for the Nepali LGBT movement to take root. In a newly-minted democracy, the spirit of change pervades the political atmosphere.

Nepal is back in the Western media's radar, this time for their, may I say so myself, pragmatic approach to tourism. They want to become the go-to tourist destination for gay couples, keenly aware of limited rights for LGBTs in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Looking to diversify their tourism portfolio, Nepal is targeting gay couples, hoping that wealthier tourists will add more cash to the economy by participating in higher-cost activites such as staying in five-star hotels. Currently, the tourism industry is dominated by the typical backpacker living on a shoestring budget. These efforts are headed by none other than Sunil Pant.

Pink Everest: Nepal appeals for gay tourists


Queer Desi Hotline Opens!

Some great news below -- read and take advantage of this excellent resource!
"The South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association of New York City announces the launch of its LGBTIQ support hotline. This is the first such hotline for LGBTIQ South Asians in the USA. While the hotline is for everyone, we particularly hope to reach those LGBTIQ folk who are unable to take advantage of our other support events and resources. The hotline is supported by a grant from the Stonewall Foundation, by The Asian Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS and by generous contributions from the South Asian LGBT community. Please note details below and spread the word!"
SALGA Hotline
Thursdays from 5-7pm.


Want some masala in your hamantaschen?

In honor of Purim this Sunday, we feel like this Dana International melody is perfect to jump-start our weekend. Dana International, to those Eurovison deprived, is an international superstar known for her dance-able beats and supreme voice. Oh, and she's probably the most well recognized transsexual in the world.

In Secret Hodi (Movie from India), Dana performs a duet with Isreali cutie, Idan Yaniv. The song is great and the video is just the right amount of camp. Dana, get started on some new music, girl!!! In the meantime, enjoy below:


We all want world peace

While there have been scattered hijra pageants in India in the past, earlier this week, Mumbai hosted the nation's first formal transgender pageant. Auditions for "Super Queen" have been taking place across the country for the past several weeks; contestants had been handpicked from ten Indian cities. Veteran actor Zeenat Aman and starlet/LGBT activist Celina Jaitley were on hand as judges.

The event has been organized by 12 Noon entertainment; some of you may be familiar with its CEO, trans-activist Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi. Impressively, they have been able to garner support from the likes of Salman Khan and even Pratibha Patil, the current President of India. While we at Queeristan are sorting through the media trickling in, we have been by conflicted by the dichotomous the use of "eunuch" by some sources and "transgender" by others. From our knowledge, the pageant did not require contestants to be hijras; however, if any of our readers know more information, please do share.

Regardless, it is extraordinary that such an undertaking has gained so much (positive) media buzz both within India as well as abroad. We send our congratulations to the winner, Bobby, and all the contestants. We would take this chance to drop the word "fierce", but it's not 2006.


The internet- Finding dirt on others has never been so easy!

Although I prefer Safari and Firefox over Internet Explorer, I may just have to switch back because of this hilarious commercial.


Some Just Enjoy the Rickshaw Ride

Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras was just your regular professor sort of guy, who (like anyone else) liked a little something-something on the side. Some of his students did not seem to stomach their professor's dalliances too well and set him up to be captured on tape having sex with a male rickshaw-puller. Professor Siras' situation is complicated by the fact that he teaches at Aligarh Muslim University, an all womens', Islam influenced college.

The school deems the mishap a "scandal that no institution of repute can overlook." Siras, who was on the verge of retirement, has since been suspended from the university. However, we at Queeristan are curious about what particularly defines this as a scandal-worthy.

- professor sex scandal (+1)
- older indian dude caught having sex (-2)
- pre-martial sex in India (+3)
- caught with a guy (+10)
- caught with a rickshaw-walla (+17)
- threat of an MSM professor at a womens' college (-5)
- above at a Muslim women's college in India (+12)
- sex act recorded by media who broke into his house (+43)

total: 79

Let's be honest, the "anal sex" factor only plays a supporting role in this scandalous/intriguing story. We seriously question the ethics of Aligarh's media news, there is so much going on that we cannot separate the absurdity from fact. Regardless, we hope that Siras can now enjoy his afternoon delights in peace.


Queering Around

After essentially a year-long hiatus, with an occasional post, we're back. It's a new decade and we're refreshed. Of course, in typical desi-timing, we waited until February of the new year to announce our comeback.

We've missed a lot in our hiatus, including the huge news of Delhi finally legalizing homosexuality, overturning a vestigial law from the British Raj. No worries though, we will catch up quickly. When we started this blog, we had no idea there would be so much news to report. We were quickly overwhelmed and humbled. So much is going on, but very few places are aggregating the news or connecting the dots. We promise to update at least once a month.

While we may have been absent here, we have been busy queering around in our daily lives. Our own NeroX2 was interviewed by Time Out Chicago - check out the article by clicking here. He's been organizing with Trikone Chicago, reaching out to queer South Asians in the city and metro area.

There's a lot of reasons to come back, but the biggest reason is you guys keep coming back to us.


Muslim Country motions to Legally Recognise Same-Sex Unions

Yes indeed, you heard us correctly. India has been making small steps towards becoming an entity fighting anti-discrimination by first decriminalising homosexual acts in the nation's capital. This has been rivaled by a surprising Muslim country who seeks to get into the European Union. Albania, a Muslim populace of 70%, has put forth a motion to legalise gay marriage. Although it seems like a long-shot with Albania's conservative yet secular culture, it looks promising that this former Communist state will perform leaps and bounds in breaking Eastern Europe's reputation of being anti-gay.

Reports on this are on the following websites:
Balkan Insight