Add to that a male-dominated society deeply conservative about sexual matters and you get the picture of what it means to be a lesbian in India – it is a life of double discrimination – first because of your gender and then because of your sexuality.
“What a lot of lesbians face is ignorance – many people here think that there is no such thing in India. But when families do find out, the problems can be immense,” Maya Shankar, of the Delhi-based lesbian support group Sangini, told TrustLaw in a interview.
In the anonymity of India’s cities, lesbians can find space to blend in. But in rural India coming out often means violence, brutality and even death.
Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate for lesbians in India is high. Shankar cites a recent case in Bengal in the northeast of the country where a lesbian couple was driven to suicide after a torrent of abuse and discrimination.
“The families didn’t even take the bodies back for cremation,” she said.
There also have been cases of lesbians raped by their husbands, brothers and fathers in a bid to “cure them” or locked into a room and starved for days until they denied their lesbianism and said it was all lies.
ISOLATION AND IGNORANCE
Despite India’s conservative attitudes towards sexuality, gay rights got a major boost in 2009 when the High Court decriminalised homosexuality by overturning the anti-sodomy law known as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code – a law that was enacted in 1860 by India’s British rulers.
The most stubborn opposition against repealing the law had come from those who argued that homosexuality “pollutes the entire society” and goes against traditional Indian sensibilities.
But the High Court rejected that argument, saying that “moral indignation, howsoever strong, is not a valid basis for overriding individuals’ fundamental rights of dignity and privacy”.
For lesbians, the invisibles of India’s gay population, such a ruling has made little discernible difference.
“There is still total rejection of the notion of lesbians and no real social acceptance,” Ranjana Kumari, head of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, told TrustLaw.
Family pressure on girls to get married is one of the biggest problems for lesbians.
“One of the key things we do is to provide support to women who have run away from home with their girlfriends because pressure to get married is overwhelming,” said Shankar, who runs Sangini’s telephone helpline with her co-worker Betu Singh from their sitting room in a suburb in the south of Delhi.
Lesbians also phone the helpline because they are lonely, afraid of growing old and being alone, or being confused about their sexual identity, she said. Caste and class issues also contribute to anxiety.
A lack of networks also contributes to isolation, Shankar said.
Some of the biggest cities have helplines but several have run out of funding, particularly if it comes from international organisations and donors, which give most of their funding to agencies supporting sexual minorities in India.
Much of that work is focused on HIV/AIDS work and goes to groups working with men who have sex with men, leaving lesbian support groups scrambling for support. Sangini makes ends meet with funding from the Sweden and the Netherlands.
Despite all the problems for Indian lesbians both Shankar and Kumari said lesbianism very slowly is becoming more visible and that small networks are beginning to emerge in the biggest cities.
“Things have changed in the last 10 years, at least in cities,” Shankar said. “We have helped women from a vast cross-section of society, and it’s clear that it depends on your background – it’s easier to be a lesbian here if you’re economically independent.”
Kumari agreed: “Only socially accomplished women are very tacitly conveying their choice (to be with another woman).”