In a bursting country of billion people, it’s rare to be known as the “first” to do anything. Yet, journalist Ashok Row Kavi is well-known in India for being the first gay person to come out publicly in the country. His first coming out interview was in 1986 with Savvy Magazine, an Indian feminist magazine, explaining what “gay” really meant.
With his background in journalism, he founded Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine in 1990. In 1994, Ashok went on to establish the Humsafar Trust, a large sexual health NGO in India which focuses on HIV and LGBT rights. We caught up with Ashok in Delhi to talk about gay life in India…
Out & Around: What is unique about India?
Ashok: Everybody looks at India like a country, a nation. I think this is a huge mistake. It is a civilization. Whenever outsiders come here, the first thing foreigners notice is that this is a non-Judeo Christian civilization. The devil and homophobia are not part of the history. There is nothing in the Hindu bible against homosexuals.
India is becoming a big destination for gay and lesbian tourists. When you go to a Hindu temple and ask a priest to marry you, the priest agrees. It is not a big deal. Foreigners think this is amazing. The priest sees the marriage as two souls who get married. They are kindred souls, so what is the big deal? .
Of course, we have the British law. Same-sex marriage would not be recognized by the law. Just like section 377 [British anti-sodomy law that was overturned in 2009], this will have to be fought out in the courts.
Out & Around: What positive changes have you seen for LGBT individuals in India?
Ashok: There are now spaces for LGBT people where they can be themselves. In the old days it was hidden, where one garden suddenly became gay. Now you actually have bars or discos that turn gay on a particular night. There is not enough clientele for the full week, but that will happen.
Project Bolo, [an Indian version of the It Get’s Better Project] also gives us hope. People can say, “Oh my God, look at the number of videos. What’s so wrong? What’s the big deal? Why shouldn’t I be out?” It gives a feeling that we are there in the social landscape. For a lot of people in isolation, that is a huge relief. Seeing a name in the paper is one thing, but seeing it on video is a big deal. [click here to watch Ashok’s Project Bolo video]
Out & Around: What is one obstacle in India that you wish you could change for LGBT individuals?
Ashok: The right to your private space and autonomy. You may be 35 or 13 and doing very well, but you have no right to privacy. Your mother will check your pants and shirts. If she finds a letter, than she will read it. You don’t have privacy of space. That’s half this issue. There will be guys I date who will ask, “Do you really have your own place?” I say, “Yes I do.” They then ask, “Are you sure? No mother, sister, or wife?” And they’ll have their eye on the door because they don’t believe people have their right to their own space. In most houses, people don’t have their own room. They don’t have their own autonomy.
It’s very interesting the way of life. If you go in the train, strangers will ask you, “Are you married? Why not? How old are you?” Then they will go into hysterics. “Oh it’s so sad. You have such little time. You may not have children. How tragic.” If you tell them to mind their own business, they feel genuinely hurt. They want you to be happy so they want to ask about their spouse.
Out & Around: What is your advice to others?
Ashok: People have survived this. I certainly have. You just have to stand up. I remember the huge fight after my dad died. My mother and aunt tried to marry me off. They wanted the dowry, and they also to have another woman in the house. I said, ‘”I can’t get married, I can’t have sex with women.” My aunt said, “We don’t care if you are having sex with crocodiles or elephants. But you have to get married.” You can’t fight. They rationalize everything already. I asked my aunt, “Do you think it’s right to get married even though you can’t have sex with a woman? Don’t you think it’s unethical?” And she said, “Well, that’s just karma.” There is no reasoning with them! There is no answer because every answer is covered on their chess board.
That’s where a lot of frustration sets in. Many Indian gay men and women run away to America. For the sheer fact that they get their space and autonomy, they don’t ever want to come back. But then they miss out on a lot of other things. They miss out on India.
Source – Out & Around: Stories From a Not-So-Straight Journey