Monday, January 21, 2008

Long walk to freedom

Lesbians in Kerala struggle to keep body and soul together in a highly conservative society

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last month, Roma, 20, and her girlfriend, Geeta, 20, were travelling from Thiruvananthapuram to Palghat in an unreserved compartment of the Chennai Mail. At Kottayam, two girls got into the train. “The moment I saw them, I knew that there was something wrong,” says Roma. “They looked extremely disturbed.” Since the compartment was full, Roma was unable to talk to them.

At Ernakulam, the bogie emptied, and only Roma, Geeta and the two girls remained. “Once the train started moving, I asked them where they are going and they replied they were going to Chennai,” says Roma. When she asked them where they were staying in Chennai, they did not reply. “I knew they had never been to Chennai,” she says. “They were two girls from a village and looked completely lost. Since they were unwilling to open up, I told them I worked for Sangama, a Bangalore-based lesbian organisation” (

She gave them Sangama’s visiting card and told them that if they had any problems, they could call and ask for help. On the back of the card, Roma also wrote her mobile number. At Palghat, Roma and Geeta got down. Through the window, Roma said, “Whatever problems you are facing, please don’t think of committing suicide.”

The next day at 8 a.m., the girls called Roma from Chennai. They confirmed what she had suspected: they were lesbians. One of the girls said, “We love each other but we are facing a lot of problems from our parents. So, we have run away from home.”

Astonishingly, this was their fourth trip on the Chennai Mail. Every time, the train arrived at Chennai, they would spend the day at the station and take the evening train back. They would reach Thiruvananthapuram and take the evening train to Chennai once again.

“They had Rs 900 with them,” says Roma. Once that money got over, they were planning to commit suicide. Roma told the girls she would get back and called Sangama. She told a volunteer, Dixon, to get in touch with the girls in Chennai. He called and asked them to come to Bangalore, because Sangama runs a shelter. Later Roma called and told them, “There are a lot of Malayali lesbians here. You will get free board and lodging and will be able to stay for a few months. It is better than committing suicide.” The girls took the night train to Bangalore and reached Sangama. “For the past few weeks, they have been staying there,” says Roma.

The 5’ tall Roma looks petite and fragile. She lives in a three-room house with a terrace in front. An overhanging tree provides a much-needed shade. Inside the house, there is very little furniture: a bed placed against one wall, a table against another. Roma has been living with Geeta for the past one and a half years and they do freelance jobs in data composing to earn a living. Like all lesbians, she also went through a traumatic time.

In Tiruvalla, where she lived, two years ago, Roma got friendly with a neighbour, Sana, who was the same age as her. “It was not a lesbian relationship because there was never a sexual angle to it,” she says. “We used to write letters which contained sentences that implied a deep friendship.” Sana’s brother saw the letters and created a ruckus. Feeling under tremendous pressure, they fled to Thiruvanathapuram. The parents informed the police who managed to trace them because of a call Roma made on Sana’s mobile phone.

“In the court, I said we were both 18 and wanted to live on our own,” says Roma. “The court released us, but the police forced us to sign a statement stating that we wanted to go back to our families.”

What was most stunning to Roma was that when the girls were being sent back to Tiruvalla, it was in a convoy of jeeps. “The police behaved as if we were dangerous criminals, when, actually, we were just two young girls who liked each other,” she says. “I cannot forget that experience.”

Sana wilted under family pressure and got married. Roma, however, was made of sterner stuff. She left home and stayed with friends in Kollam. There, she met Geeta and fell in love. “Today, my parents, as well as Geeta’s, have accepted our sexual orientation,” says Roma. “So, our situation is far better than what the others are going through.”

So, is it difficult to come out in Kerala? “Let me give you an example,” says Roma. “Geeta and I are living in a rented accommodation. If the landlord comes to know that we are lesbians, he will immediately ask me to vacate the house.” She says that she knows of many lesbians who, because of intense social pressure, have got married but are unhappy and pine for their woman lovers. Others, who are less resilient, have ended up committing suicide. “There is no mental or physical space in Kerala to be a lesbian,” she says.

Roma is getting ready to go out on an errand, when her two friends, Meena, 29, and Lata, 41, drop in. While Meena looks delicate, with her slim arms and legs, Lata is broad-shouldered and has a confident look in her eyes. They have been a couple for six years now. “During all this time, we have not spent a single night apart from each other,” says Lata. “I cannot sleep if I do not feel the warmth of Meena’s body next to me.”

Lata says that as a child, she was always attracted to women. She had an affair with another student when she was in Class six. “We had a physical and emotional connection.”

However, that did not last. By the time, she was in Class ten, her family came to know about her lesbian tendencies and pressured her to get married. But she said no. However, the resistance began taking an emotional toll on her. In despair, she consulted a psychiatrist, but he told her that lesbianism was an innate trait.

Eventually, she left her home and moved into a hostel. It was there that she met Meena. “When I saw Meena for the first time, I was not attracted to her,” she says. “But, after a while, I got friendly, and I told her my life story. Immediately, Meena showed an interest in me.”

At that time, Meena, who was an abandoned child, was looking for an anchor in her life. Lata remembers, with a radiant smile, how she seduced Meena for the first time.

The younger girl slept in a dormitory, while Lata shared a room with three other girls. For three nights in a row, in November, 2000, Lata would go near the window and throw pebbles at Meena to wake her up. But Meena did not come out. “Then, on the fourth night, she came to my room,” says Lata. “Till then, we had never touched each other. I hugged her and kissed her. She kissed me back. Then we made love.”

Meena says she did not enjoy her first sexual experience with Lata. “In fact, I was put off,” she says. “But, gradually, I learned to enjoy it.” She is frank enough to admit that she is physically attracted to Lata more than enjoying an emotional compatibility. “She is a good lover,” says Meena. “Lata shows a lot of affection, but she can be rude and short-tempered. She is very suspicious and extremely possessive.”

Lata, who has found a partner after several years of solitary drifting, says she is scared she will lose Meena. “That is why I am so possessive. I am very happy now.”

But what if Meena, who is 12 years younger, finds another partner? “If she leaves me, I will commit suicide,” says Lata. “I have very strong feelings for Meena. We have gone through happiness and sorrow together. At my age, I don’t think I will get such a nice girl.”

Meena entwines her fingers in Lata’s, looks deeply into her companion’s eyes, and says, “I will never leave you.” They seem to have an intense physical relationship. They sit next to each other, their shoulders and legs touching, always holding hands. Later, in the evening, when they stand on the terrace – the sky is a cloudy grey and a gentle breeze is blowing -- Meena leans gently and places her face on Lata’s chest. The older woman gives a tender smile. Then Meena caresses Lata’s hair and the minutes pass in a blissful silence.

However, it is a temporary bliss. In the hostel where they stay, there are suspicions that they are lesbians. A few inmates have taunted them. The hostel administrators are trying to evict them. “But we are holding firm,” says Lata. “We will fight all those who oppose our relationship.” When Meena hears this, she gives a supportive smile.

At lunchtime, Michelle, 40, comes in. She wears cargo pants and has brown streaks in her hair and kaajal-rimmed eyes. She speaks with a distinctive twang, having been brought up in Australia. A Malayali, she is the intellectual in the group, and carries a book, ‘Sexualities’, which is a collection of papers on sexuality in India. She has published papers herself and has found her life’s goal: fighting for minority sexual rights in Kerala. At the outset, she makes it clear that she would be uncomfortable with personal questions “of the voyeuristic kind”. So, it is a factual Q & A with her.

Are most women in Kerala scared to come out?
Yes. This is because of the conservative society in which we live in. We have to worry about being harassed in the streets, about losing employment, about the attitude of the family, so the majority of the people who have same-sex relationships say that the only way they can remain in Kerala is by keeping their relationship private. But I am increasingly meeting men and women who want to come out and tell people about their orientation.

Is it a strain not to come out?
It depends on the individual. I know of men and women who have come out, and they said that even though they have other problems, they felt a relief. They did not have to hide all the time.

What is the reaction of parents when they are told that their daughter is a lesbian?
It is usually bad in the beginning. Sometimes, the parents forcibly separate the duo, put them under house arrest or send them to a psychiatrist.

What is the most common experience for lesbians?
It is the pressure to get married. The traditional notion of family life is very powerful, even for somebody who just wants to remain single. Another problem is to find a partner who will actually stay with you. If same-sex couples tend to break up more easily it is because they have to endure a lot of social pressure. It takes a huge amount of courage to have such a relationship in Kerala. You also need a partner who has the same level of courage. Most feel it is best to leave the state.

If you are a lesbian, would marriage help get ride of this tendency?
I know of people who have got married in the hope that it would change their orientation, but it did not happen. They had the same desires for a woman as before.

Is Kerala society changing or is it hypocritical?
It is both. Our group did not exist ten years ago. In the last five years, more and more same-sex organisations have come up. There is a greater visibility in the media and there are more positive stories. In my experience of interacting with sexual minorities in Kerala, I am meeting more people who say that their parents and their friends know and have accepted their preferences. It is good news, but there is a long way to go. Personally and politically, I want to link same-sex rights with general sexual rights: the right to choose one’s sexuality.

(A shorter version has appeared in The New Indian Express)

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