Sunday, May 04, 2008

An interview with Bindumadhav Khire

A short version of this interview was published in the The New Indian Express' Zeitgest magazine on Saturday, 3 May 2008.

Bindumadhav Khire is a techie who gave up his career in the US to return to India and got involved with issues close to his heart. Based in his native Pune ever since his return, Bindu is a gay rights and AIDS activist. He has been speaking about queer issues at various forums in India, particularly in his city. In 2005, Bindu donned the hat of a Marathi writer with his novel, 'Partner'. NGOs working in the field of sexuality have been using 'Partner' for sensitisation. Bindu’s latest book, 'Indradhanu: Samalaingikateche Vividh Ranga' (Rainbow: the various hues of homosexuality), discusses different aspects of homosexuality from an Indian perspective. 'Indradhanu' promises to be of value to people from various backgrounds, especially gay and bisexual youth struggling with their sexual orientation, and their parents and friends; people from the medical fraternity; NGOs working in related fields; policy makers; corporates; and the media. Bindu is currently working on another Marathi book, ‘A, B, C of Sexuality’. Excerpts from an email interview with Bindumadhav Khire:

Being gay should be a non-issue in an ideal world. What were the milestones, and highs and lows till you reached a point of self-acceptance, when you could acknowledge your ‘gayness’ to all without it becoming a confessional?

I went through denial (when I hoped I would change), depression (I thought of committing suicide) and hate (towards God for making me gay). I was shy, very poor in communication, had zero self-esteem. I was married and got divorced a year later. When I was in the US, I got in touch with San Francisco-based Trikone (an LGBT organisation) and that’s how I started becoming comfortable with my sexuality. I volunteered with them and became part of the 'Trikone family'. I became the assistant publisher and then publisher of ‘Trikone’, their quarterly magazine. As I became more comfortable with my sexuality, I started feeling suffocated and felt that I had to come out. I first came out to a friend at the workplace. Every coming out then was an adventure. I participated in the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, the San Jose Gay Pride Parade…. When I came back to India, I came out to my parents. This was the most difficult part. They were shocked. It's taken them time to cope with my being gay. My mother's been just great. My experiences in the US and achieving financially stability went a long way in helping me so that now I don’t give a damn what neighbours, friends and strangers feel about me.

What made you give up a lucrative career as a software engineer in the US to return to Pune much before NRI homecomings became a trend? You could have stayed there and been involved with causes close to your heart in the local community?

Once I was comfortable with my sexuality, I saw no reason to file for a Green Card and stay in the US. I also felt guilty about having got married. I wanted to come out and expiate that guilt. Also, despite having stayed in the US for four years and loving every moment of it, I did feel a bit like a fish out of water. I am more comfortable here (in Pune).

How much did you have to educate yourself so to speak about the work you are doing now, and how did you do it?

A lot. A lot of reading and learning had to be done. Luckily, I received much help from some outstanding people like Dr. Raman Gangakhedkar (he taught me pre- and post-test counselling and related ethical issues), Dr. Vijay Thakur (he taught me the principles of befriending and the basics of running a helpline), Dr. Bhooshan Shukla (he gave me info on sexuality), Sunita Wahi gave me a lot of books to read.... I could go on and on. Also, I had to do a lot of soul-searching on each of these issues… especially the ethical part.

What's the gay scene like in Pune, which is considered quite conservative? How visible is the community? Despite its young student and BPO-KPO communities, is Pune still like Mumbai of the late 1980s when the only community activity in the city was one gay disco a week and one evening of cruising in a park?

The community is not visible at all. The important difference from Mumbai of the 1980s is the advent of the internet. The number of cruising sites has increased as has blackmail and harassment. In the medical field, not much change though – most psychiatrists are either homophobic or hypocritical. They are our biggest enemies.

You recently said that for every one gay person in Pune who has helped you, there have been 10 heterosexuals who gave you their support. Why do you feel our community itself is ignoring you? What is the rationale for their apathy?

This apathy did come as a surprise. I think most closeted gay people hate anyone who has fought and found his freedom; they are jealous of anyone who escapes from hypocrisy. But I don’t blame them. At one time I used to hate Ashok Row Kavi for the same reason.

What are the top three issues you think are hurting gay people in India and what's your practical prescription for these?

The biggest problem is either ignorance or apathy in the community about the issue of Section 377 (of the Indian Penal Code). I have come across many gay men who don’t even know it's illegal for them to have sex. Here, of course, we activists are to be blamed. We have done a shoddy job of highlighting the 377 issue. It's shameful, the kind of third-rate people who call themselves gay activists these days. Sometimes I think the gay movement will go down the drain the way women's lib in India has failed miserably. The other serious problem is that for many who know about 377 don’t care whether it stays or goes. I can't figure that one out. How could anyone not care whether that ugly piece of law is erased or not, I don’t know. Is it because many of us have decided to live a double life anyway?

Number two: how many of us have taken the time to seriously become comfortable with our sexuality and gain basic knowledge on alternate sexuality? So many of us spend the whole night finding new partners on the net or at (cruising) sites, and spend the next day hating ourselves for it. We don’t really give a damn about our mental health. That’s sad because instead of accepting our sexuality as beautiful and our love as pure, we spend our entire life burning in self-hate.

Lastly, despite knowing the high incidence of HIV in the gay community, many of us still continue to have sex without condoms. We refuse to become mature and take control of our life. I can provide you information and condoms but I can't control HIV infection unless YOU care about yourself.

Activism and writing have always had a special bond? Did the need to write arise from there for you?

I think so. I used to feel ashamed to tell gays and 'straights' that "no, sorry but there is no book out there in Marathi that discusses gay issues". There was also another reason. In the US I had many gay friends to talk to. In Pune, I felt very suffocated as there were few people I could talk to about my issues and feelings. I think ‘Partner’ was the outcome of these two reasons. The HIV/AIDS helpline manual came from the experience of running my own helpline and helping set-up and supervise another HIV/AIDS helpline in Pune. Again, there was nothing in Marathi on the hows of setting up such a helpline. Writing has become a need for me… Also, instead of repeating the same things over and over, it's better to put these down so that people can have access to answers long after I have (mentally) burnt out.

As an activist and former techie, do u feel an acute lack of online gay-themed literature in Marathi and other Indian languages?

Yes, definitely. The Indian gay movement's biggest failure is not being able to present its views to the common man in a language he understands. All we have is people who write in English, which is read by a negligible percentage of the population. Very few Indians are comfortable with English. It is also a relatively ‘safe’ language; there is a lesser chance of an aggressive reaction from people if the medium is English. It's not that English should not be used to voice our issues but by using only this language we ensure that gay issues remain Western or elitist subjects and indirectly help in propagating the stereotype that ‘gayness’ is a Western import.

How do Marathi press, cinema and theatre portray gay issues? Do they mainly demonise us or invisibilise us?

Newspapers ignore these issues. But the gay Marathi-speaking community is to be blamed too. How many of them write on gay issues? Is it not our duty to utilise the free press that we have, to talk about our issues? As far as cinema is concerned, except for Amol Palekar's 'Thang' (Quest) there is no Marathi feature film that has dealt with gay issues. Again, the gay community needs to make gay films. I hate this stand of waiting for someone else to come and fight our battles – is it a cultural thing with us Indians?

Do plays, books like yours and movies like 'Thang' generate either heat and dust or any debate in the Maharashtrian community?

Very few people want to see facets of life that make them uncomfortable. So they either choose to ignore (partly because they are in denial) or they get all worked up about it and froth at the mouth. There is no sincere attempt to understand issues related to homosexuality – because most people don’t want to. Still, it is important we keep on voicing our issues through various media. For those few who want to become more human, these resources should be available in Indian languages.

Disclosure: This writer is associated with Bindumadhav Khire's NGO for gays and men-who-have-sex-with men, Samapathik Trust, Pune ( Helpline: (0) 9890744677 (7 pm to 8 pm – Mondays only)