Straight to Normal: My Life as a Gay Man follows the 50-year-old author, Sharif D Rangnekar, through the years growing up in different cities in India. As he grows older, he comes to a realisation about his own sexuality and documents the different aspects of the world around him with respect to his own sexuality. As a gay man, he follows the course of the gay movement from its inception up to the very recent and significant Section 377 verdict of the Supreme Court. In some ways, the growth of the LGBTQ movement in India was parallel to his own growth over the years. After the release of his book, he was informed that a few bookstores across the country were refusing to display his books openly. And that is quite a shame because this book could provide a queer person in India a narrative that they are familiar with. Sarahbeth Nimmi George caught up with the writer
How has the movement progressed from the time it started?
Initially people were addressing homosexual identity through the issue of HIV-AIDS and then it expanded to include other narratives. A young lawyer called Sidharth Gautam co-founded AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA) which was India’s first AIDS activist movement. He,along with six others, published Less Than Gay: A Citizens’ Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India in 1991 to highlight the rights of gay individuals.
I think the turning point for the movement was 2001 when Anjali Gopalan’s Naz Foundation filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court challenging Section 377. In fact, we are sitting in Gulmohar Park in New Delhi where the movement really started.
I was part of Humrahi, which was a forum forgay and bisexual men, where many would come together for a sense of community.Then there was an abundance of anger and outrage in 2006 (not documented in the book) when there were many cops who would get on gay chat sites posing as gay men to get information on the men on these sites and later target them.
Then in 2009, as soon as the Delhi High Court read down Section 377, the largely hostile and homophobic press suddenly started portraying the LGBTQ community in a positive light. They even began questioning the differing views of the government at that stage. I think from then on, it was bound to grow because more people started coming out after 2009 in both Tier I and Tier II cities.
Then, when this judgment was overturned in 2013 by the Supreme Court, it put a lid on the lives of many who had had the courage to come out. There was anger especially because a generation had to rein in what they felt because they had become criminals again.
A lot of us who had spent most of our lives without having experienced that freedom of expression found it easier to make adjustments even though we didn’t want to. Those were really the days which tested us. There were many who didn’t want to go back and expressed all of this on social media. Conversations began to take place, more people started to come forward.
At the same time, many workplaces were revising their organisational policies. So, all of this was happening between 2009 and 2013, and some of it being pulled back in 2013. But we also found a very strong ally in the press, and, additionally, universities started having queer-friendly conversations. There were schools that were sending their students to pride marches.
It wasn’t freedom, but at least there were conversations taking place. Even today, we are far from attaining all our rights, but a movement exists. Different sides of the conversation were being documented by the varied voices coming out. You weren’t just hearing of Ashok Row Kavi from Humsafar and it wasn’t only an Anjali but you also heard of Gautam Bhan, Akshay Khanna. There were so many groups speaking up over a period of time. It was more collective by then. When the Delhi Pride began, only six to seven people would turn up and now it’s a celebration.
Earlier, LGBTQ existed as an umbrella term for all those who identify as part of the community, but now there is more diversity within such as the inclusion of Dalit queers, lesbians and transgenders.
So, the movement has become more open to other members of the community?
Yes, it has moved forward. A lot of that credit goes to those leading the movement. The politicisation of the movement really helped improve the cultural identity of the community. People are now re-looking at the idea of inclusion. There is a realisation that there are so many of us and we could be so alike yet so very different. We need to engage with each other as there are multiple cultural identities that play a significant role in the conversations being had surrounding the issues of equality. It is important to take into consideration the diversity within this group in order for it to make any lasting change.
What does the idea of acceptance mean to you?
My mother was an exception; she had apprehensions, but she never negated by identity as a gay man. It was very tough for her as well because there was very little information out there to share when I came out to my mother. I had to do simple things (what might sound simple now) to ensure she was comfortable, for example I introduced my gay friends to her at home to allow her to engage with them.For us Anjali and Humrahi was a great thing. But today I feel as though it is much easier because of the amount of information and literature being written about the community. There’s backing from medical groups, there is also some backing from the press. Additionally, there were movies such as My Brother Nikhil, Fire, Aligarh, Bombay Talkies, Sisak and the latest Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga. We have queer and gender studies now. And though one may not choose to come out to their parents, one does have enough support groups out there.
Did the pink economy empower the LGBTQ movement?
The concept of the pink economy was beneficial for the community, but it also depends on who started the business and its clientele. There were several travel agents, agencies, parlours and lounge bars which catered to the LGBTQ community. But let’s be clear that if an establishment opened their doors to host LGBTQ parties were often venues that weren’t doing terribly well on other days of the week. Those specific nights where the venue was opened up for parties meant that there were at least some 80-100 people showing up and these places might not have seen such a crowd on other nights of the week and so for them it was beneficial but, on those nights, the party organisers were usually part of the community. So, you can judge them for exploiting the community, but you could also say that they were providing the community space when other places were not.
Have office spaces become inclusive for LGBTQ people?
Of all the work spaces,the IT companies are the ones that are seriously looking to change policies.Some of stems from the fact that youngsters today are coming out of colleges which are open to diversity. You have companies taking cognisance of such identities and looking at supporting them through counselling and surgeries. So, it’s a much better scene and it’s picking up.
I think within the press, it comes down to which form of media we are referring to. But what I can say is that a lot of journalists and editors don’t function like they used to, where the editorial policies were rigid.
Over the years, have you seen a normalisation of attraction between same-sex individuals?
The striking down of Section 377 allowed people to have open discussions about homosexuality. Today the youngsters that I have met are already part of larger LGBTQ groups and know about their identities than we ever did.
While we were growing up, we didn’t have a lot of these spaces. We didn’t have inclusive colleges and workspaces, which prevented us from connecting with other like-minded individuals. I think that’s what I was also trying to put forward in this book by highlighting the different uses of certain spaces when you’re gay. There will still be large parts of India that haven’t reached this point yet. In fact, in November 2018,a 28-year-old man committed suicide because he was depressed. A 32-year-old friend of mine also died a few weeks ago.
Even violence against members of the LGBTQ community has always been happening, but now people are talking about it. I was attacked when I was younger, but if it had happened today, I would have been shouting hoarse, because the environment has changed. We didn’t even have a #MeToo movement till about a year ago. The good thing about the present is that people are talking about hate crimes and perhaps we can put pressure on the police to take note of such hate crimes as there should be zero tolerance towards it. It will take a while for the society’s perception of the LGBTQ community to change, but action should betaken to prevent such crimes.