Sunday, September 13, 2015

333 under 377

About a month ago, India's crime records bureau released stats for 2014 (very efficient, considering the year had ended only some six months ago). The stats made news this time because, among other things, the numbers for Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code were tabulated and released for the first time  -- we don't know what was behind this - was the bureau driven by a desire simply to deter crime or to highlight how India still discriminates against gay people.

Maybe it was just part of the new efficiency under a tough taskmaster who is scaring the bureaucracy into doing some work for a change. (Stats on environment-related crime were also released for the first time, so I am ruling out any motivation to support equal rights for gay men). In fact, the Deccan Herald noted a new keenness to prosecute LGBT individuals, but gave no basis for that claim - maybe that was just the handiwork of an enthusiastic reporter or sub.

The media reports of these numbers agitated the people who are against Section 377, especially LGBT activists. Not! That non-reaction was understandable at the time, as most people, relying on anecdotal evidence, may have assumed that almost all of these cases were filed against men abusing children rather than adults in a consensual relationship.

Now a Hindustan Times reporter has apparently done some digging around and broken down the numbers some more for us. It seems one-third of the total 1,148 cases of Section 377, that is 383 cases were not of child abuse. My gratitude to the reporter and HT for this detail, although some of the statements and conclusions in the same report are maddening.

The same report implies that trial courts acquitted the accused in 50 of these 383 cases while the rest of the cases are still pending in courts across the country. If activists in the metros and Tier-2 cities are unaware of these 383 cases, this could mean that gay men in relatively remote places away from the attention and capabilities of activists, the media and organisations like Lawyers' Collective are being prosecuted.

This story will be repeated this year and year after year, and these men will remain just statistics in a government bureau's report and, at best, mentions in news reports and blog posts like this one. A lot of people still live with the fond hope that the Supreme Court will reverse the judgement of its own two-bench court in favour of that by the lower-rung Delhi High Court, so that we will be free of Section 377 and start the long march towards equality for LGBT people backed by the law. But even if that miracle does happen, it looks like the SC will continue to take its own sweet time to hear the curative petition against the injustice of its two-member bench in a process as transparent as vantablack -- even lawyers don't seem to know how it prioritises its work and when it will deign to consider the petition.

That's very convenient for the legislators we elect as they can always hide behind the legal system and refuse to evolve from politicians into lawmakers who also remove obsolete laws. They will come to our community events, even invite us to their events, indulge in some rhetoric to raise our hopes, pose for pictures with some vain LGBT people, and fail to deliver. The voices of exceptions like Tathagata Satpathy will be drowned out in the din of the empty vessels in Parliament.

Agha ᗅᗺᗷᗅ - Thank you for the music

I just watched an interview of Salma Agha promoting the upcoming 'Dunno Y 2' and her song in the film. (Watch the interview here if you are fan/curious about her/the film - it's a bit irritating how she attempts to be non-committal about her views on same-sex love).

Most people probably remember her as the 'Nikaah' actress and playback singer though she acted/sung in a few more forgettable films - of these, I can't forget her 'Mera naam Salma' number though.

More than all of these, even 'Nikaah', I will always remember Agha for an album of songs with her sister as co-singer, with lyrics by Amit Khanna (and 'music' by Bappi Lahiri) that came out even before 'Nikaah'. I was probably in my early teens then, and had discovered Rhythm House store thanks to my mom and her brother's love for music and a new LP player.

I already had a tape of ABBA hits (my first), gifted to me by the uncle (no, I wasn't out to him - I came out many years later). By sheer chance, I spotted the LP of the Agha album and bought it. I am sure it wasn't a hit album - most people my age haven't heard about it and it's not even listed in Agha's discography on Wikipedia. So I am sure not many here will share my enthusiasm for it. Watch one of the songs from the album below. Maybe it will inspire someone to produce a stage musical, in this season of ABBA copycats and musicals!


Saturday, September 13, 2014

How we define 'rape'

I won't go into the question of what sexual acts should or should not be termed 'rape'. In this note, I just want to remind ourselves that Indian law and society only see it as a violent act against a woman by a man. I believe that it should include such acts against any person, by any person, man, woman, transgender....
We live in a time where gender lines are blurring and people are asserting the rights to change parts of their physical sex and to present themselves free of the limitations of birth, culture, orthodox ideas of gender identity and sexual orientation. In such a time, shouldn't our rape/sexual assault laws become fair and representative of our evolving notions of selfhood? Even the widely acclaimed Nalsa judgement on recognition of transgenders does not expand the definition of rape although it expresses concern that they are vulnerable to sexual assault.
Friends and acquaintances have told me about men who approached them claiming that they were forced to have sex by other men and even women. Such incidents may be fewer in number than rapes in the traditionally or legally understood sense, but does it mean there should not be laws against such acts? 
I acknowledge this is not the first time this question is being raised. In fact there was a proposal to amend the law in India after the well-known gang rape of a woman in Delhi in December 2012, but I believe the Congress-led government developed cold feet, ironically under pressure from women's groups
What prompted me to bring up this question again today were two recent news items. One was a report of an incident of groping of a woman by a hijra in Bombay. And the other was a report about Pinki Pramanik's exoneration of charges including rape
Some LGBT activists are unsurprisingly thrilled at the second piece of news. I am not in a position to discuss the merits of the cases against Ms Pramanik but note that as per the news report, the defence claimed that the charge of rape cannot be made because the law doesn't apply to rape by a woman. My sympathies are with Ms Pramanik with regards to the way she was treated by the media, the police, the medical establishment and many other people as a fallout of the cases against her. And I am glad the cases have now concluded. 
More importantly for the rest of us, especially lawmakers, it is time to reflect on the questions I have asked here and consider amending the law. I admit the rape of a man by another man is already within the ambit of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. In fact, there seem to be some Indians who think sex between men can only be an act of violence and not an expression of love. The example of such a person that immediately comes to mind is Meenakshi Lekhi, although she is a lawyer and a lawmaker, and she ought to know better. Some people will find the example of Ms Lekhi extreme and refuse to see her as someone with a belief system beyond one that is articulated by the BJP to which she belongs. But I believe she represents the tip of the metaphorical iceberg of ignorance in Indian society.
The battle against such ignorance will continue. As queer individuals, I hope we are more aware and proactive about fixing much that is wrong with our laws, not just Section 377.

PS. I am not sure why activists who have taken up this case of rape of a hijra   ( aren't insisting on application of Section 377. They seem to be relying on the rape law instead.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, 2014 - a roundup

Varta has just published my experience of the 5th Kashish film festival here. Hope it's worthy of your time. Apologies for the errors of syntax and grammar. (In my defence, I had the handicap of an injured wrist that made typing painful.) Here's an extract from the beginning as an appetiser:

Every year, a couple of months before May, one feels trepidation: will there be a new edition of Kashish or not? If you have had a glimpse behind the scenes into the sheer amount of effort and hand wringing to put together one edition, you’d understand why the apprehension. But each year Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival not only happens but also grows bigger in scale in what seems on the face of it a miracle. Festival director Sridhar Rangayan has a zest for cinema and an indefatigable passion for LGBT equality, which is probably why, come May, one knows that Kashish is definitely on, come hell or high water. Of course, it must require Sridhar to summon all of his will power and tap into all of his goodwill to bring together an ever-growing band of friends and queer allies, starting with festival co-organiser Humsafar Trust and festival patron Shyam Benegal.

Mumbai's iconic Liberty cinema had Kashish billboards and the festival name on the marquee. The centre of the Liberty building's exterior was draped with a Rainbow flag. (Pic courtesy: Vivek Anand) 

Monday, December 31, 2012

The pink rupee

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on the potential of the "LGBT market" for an insight report on the "pink economy" that was published by MSL Group India and produced by their head of content (and my friend and former colleague from my days at Mid-Day), +Ashraf Engineer. The report was recently launched.

The full report can be read here but below is a draft of the piece I wrote. Would appreciate your comments:

It is not our case that LGBT people will buy a product or service solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI). However, there are some potential benefits from promoting your brand as a queer-friendly one. It is important to consider these while also setting realistic expectations from this emerging niche market.

It is safe to assume that LGBT people are no different from society at large in terms of their dispersion on metrics such as age, education, economic background, income, religion and so on. What sets them apart is not just SOGI, but also their spending (and saving) behaviour. That, and to some extent, their ‘look West’ policy for attitudes (towards society and the individual’s place in it; relationships; human rights, etc.) and popular culture (for example, TV shows). (Instead of labelling it ‘Westernisation’, it may be more apt to term it the evolution of a global identity, a process which is clearly not limited to the LGBT community. However, that is a different debate.) An crude comparison for our purposes may be the perceived Western outlook of the Parsi community.              

Money, money, money: One of the chief reasons to be upbeat is, of course, money. It is not that this ‘community’ comprises individuals with higher-than-average incomes, but more disposable income. And they are good spenders. Especially on clothes, gadgets, travel, grooming, alcohol, entertainment and so on (in random order).  

Growing numbers: No, homosexuality is not infectious. What is spreading though is confidence. More people than ever are ‘out’ and choosing to lead a gay lifestyle -- they prefer to remain single rather than cave into societal pressures to get married; stay independent of their parents and siblings, or possibly migrate to a metro; and be more bold in their career and other economic choices. This confidence comes from a mix of factors such as decriminalisation of homosexuality, globalisation, the spread of the Internet and social media and a younger demographic profile of the community. This sense of confidence and the spread of social media is starting to coalesce LGBT people into a group that often thinks and acts alike. Note the popularity of Blackberry phones (because of BBM), at least among the more avid networking and sexually active set. This sense of confidence and community can only increase with legal and social reform that we feel is inevitable.

Leaders, not followers: Not every LGBT person is a style diva. However, the LGBT community creates trends rather than following them. Quite a few LGBT people are early adopters, be it technology, fashion or music. More importantly, they are excellent at networking and influencing. This should make them a good audience to test new products and services for one.  

Brand loyalty: Perceptions highly matter in the LGBT community. If your brand is seen as ‘LGBT friendly’ (e.g., supportive of equal opportunity at the workplace, Gay Pride), then you are on the gaydar. How much love you receive depends on the friendliness ranking. But if you are perceived negatively, be ready to face some music. The community can lobby, and how. Examples of this abound in the developed world but closer home TV9 had to face heat for a particularly homophobic story by its Hyderabad bureau and even had to cough up a fine of one lakh rupees to the National Broadcasters’ Association besides running an apology for three days. Another example, the makers of ‘Dostana’, a film that was praised, but mostly panned, for its gay quotient, have already started clarifying via the media that the sequel will be more positive. And they are busy trying to push the stars of their new releases as ‘gay icons’, a term much abused in Indian journalism, incidentally. The stronger sense of allegiance probably comes from the stigma and marginalisation faced by the LGBT community. So generally speaking, if you are starting a queer-run business, then you should receive at least an initial wave of support to help you take off.

Having said all this, look before you leap. Profit is a legitimate pursuit if the means and the intent are legit too. It is better to to have no pretenses of being LGBT friendly, nor venture into this market half-heatedly, if one does not have the appetite to defend one's conviction. There is yet value judgement around issues of SOGI, there will always be. It is difficult to imagine a time when there will an Utopian embracing of human diversity by hundred per cent of the world's population. Even countries which have made progress in bringing laws that demand equal treatment for every citizen see cases of homophobia, often violent. Human beings judge each other, and brands, according to their personal understanding of what is moral. Some of that good and bad halo will be attached to your brand as well. Gutsy brands wouldn't care though not just because boldness expands the market (and money has no colour) but because they believe they are doing the right thing.

The question of the size of the LGBT market is the most contentious one. How many LGBT people are there, even the Supreme Court, which is hearing appeals against decriminalizing of homosexuality, wondered recently (as if that should be a deciding factor, with all due respect to the honorable judges). The hair-splitting over statistics is tied deeply to the question of identity. Sexual behavior and identity is not set in stone though; sexual orientation at least is a continuum. Some days you might be towards one end of the scale and on other days towards the opposite end (the two ends being exclusive attraction to the same sex and exclusive attraction to the opposite sex, with a range of bisexuality in between). If there are no neat boxes to put people in, how do you count them? Then, some people dislike the various terms that are current, some dislike being labelled per se, and many, many more are scared to identify with any label because of the stigma and discrimination. Any surprise then that there is no reliable estimate of the LGBT population? What has emerged so far, though, is that the percentage of exclusively gay men and women who are sexually active could be 2-10%. However, the percentage of sexually active bisexuals is believed to be much higher at 35-45%. Also, while estimating the market size, one needs to include the wider set that is not sexually active. How much these numbers translate into money terms is anyone's guess but OutNow Consulting, which is not based in India, recently estimated it at US$200 billion annually, based on 6% of the country's GDP, assuming that percentage of the population are LGBT adults.

This percentage probably represents the potential, an opportunity that can be exploited in the best conditions, not the current conditions. If there was already as huge a market as OutNow estimates, then queer-run businesses that are targeting this market mainly should have been able to ride out the poor conditions of rising rentals and inflation, and high interest rates that afflict the economy in general. A US$200 billion market will be up for grabs but with greater legal reform and change in society's attitudes, further penetration of the Internet, and, of course, the first movers in the market.