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Photo ops are important to move the needle on same-sex marriage

We may not always understand the rights the Constitution extends to everyone. But we understand marriage. It’s in our DNA

‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’ is a mainstream Bollywood romcom about a gay couple.
‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’ is a mainstream Bollywood romcom about a gay couple.

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On 3 July 2022, a gay couple tied the knot at a private ceremony in Kolkata. The pictures of groom and groom, one in a dhoti-kurta, the other in a sherwani, both colour-coordinated, went viral along with images of their haldi ceremony and saat pheras. The coverage of what was dubbed “the first gay wedding in Kolkata” was euphoric as Instagram influencers proclaimed “love is love is love”. One of the grooms told the media they had encountered nothing but support from everyone they had gone to—hotels, the event company, decorators, photographers, even the panditji.

I have to admit I rolled my eyes a little at the gush. Every media report seemed to find it “adorable” but few mentioned that legally it meant zilch. Same-sex marriage is not recognised in India. The Supreme Court has just transferred all pending petitions to itself as it agreed to consider the issue and directed the government to file its response by 15 February. A group that calls itself the United Hindu Front held a protest outside the court saying the Supreme Court should not hear the case because homosexuality is against Indian culture.

Also Read: How to talk to your child about LGBTQ+ rights and issues

But as the two Kolkata grooms found out, if Indians understand anything, it’s a big fat wedding. We may not always understand the rights the Constitution extends to everyone, even to those the state calls “anti-nationals”. But we understand marriage. It’s in our DNA.

In the West, the standard coming out line might be, “Mommy, Papa, I am gay.” In India it’s probably, “Mommy, Papa, I am not going to get married.”

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, read down in 2018, criminalised sex against the order of nature. But marriage is very much in the order of nature for Indians. When the citizens’ collective AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan put out Less Than Gay, a report on homosexuality, it demanded, among other things, legal recognition of same-sex relationships. This was in 1991. Even decriminalisation seemed like a pipe dream. Marriage was like asking for the moon.

But times change. A 2022 Gallup poll found 71% of Americans support the right to same-sex marriage. A 1988 National Opinion Research Center poll in the US found 82.6% opposed it. In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act to “protect the institution of marriage” from same-sex couples. Now US President Joe Biden has signed the Respect for Marriage Act to protect same-sex marriages and he has Republican support.

Those who oppose same-sex marriage saying a conservative country like India isn’t ready for such revolutionary measures forget marriage is a conservative institution. When Ayushmann Khurrana was promoting Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, a mainstream Bollywood romcom about a gay couple, he slipped up and said India was “very progressive” and had “legalised same-sex marriages”. At that point it had just decriminalised homosexuality. Khurrana apologised for his mistake but in some sense he had intuitively grasped something. “The right that makes us human is the right to love,” Justice D. Y. Chandrachud said in his remarks as the court read down Section 377. As Saurabh Kirpal argues in his book Sex And The Supreme Court, “The thrust of the judgement of the Chief Justice was to recognize that a person of alternative sexuality had the right to choose their own partner.” But what use is that right to choose a partner if the state refuses to legally recognise that choice in any meaningful way? The acceptance of alternate sexuality is expressed culturally not so much by the acceptance of the individual but of their relationships. From Shubh Mangal to the gay episode of Modern Love Mumbai to the Pure As Love ad from Bhima jewellery with a trans model to Dabur’s lesbian karva chauth ad—all portray acceptance via relationships. To put it in Indian terms, what’s the point of accepting your queer child if you cannot see them “settled”?

The lawyers arguing for same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court will base their arguments on the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. But the cultural context is already set. Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik says India’s ancient texts speak of eight ways in which a man can marry a woman. Marriage laws, he writes, were all about inheritance and distribution of property and wealth. “They were not obligatory for those without power, status or property, revealing marriage is a cultural idea, not a natural one, and related to inheritance of power, status and property.” Thus he argues that if Hindu laws could once be reformed to bar polygamy and sati, they can easily be reformed to accommodate same-sex marriage as well.

They already have been by the likes of the gay couple in Kolkata. The press got it wrong on one count. Theirs was not the first gay wedding in Kolkata, just the first one to go viral in the age of social media. As long as humans have fallen in love, they have wanted others to bear witness to their love in ways big and small. The media likes to cover “firsts” but the truth is we will really never know when the first same-sex wedding really happened. Before the “first gay wedding in Kolkata”, there were stories about the first gay wedding in Hyderabad. And long before any of them, two policewomen in Bhopal hit the front pages of newspapers when they were fired after they decided to get married in a Gandharva ritual in 1987. The women claimed they did not even know the word “lesbian” but they understood love and marriage.

The first gay wedding I read about happened in Delhi. In 1993, Aditya Advani came to India from California with his boyfriend Michael Tarr and complained to his mother that no one would ever come to his wedding. She promptly organised a wedding in their living room and the family priest presided over it. “Openly gay and married in my parents’ drawing room at the age of 30!” Aditya said in an interview to the LGBTQ+ magazine Trikone. “Right on schedule as a good Indian boy should be.”

Years later, I met his remarkable parents in Delhi while working on a project on ageing in India. His mother’s main complaint was that children like Aditya had flown away to places like California while the parents were left behind. Then Aditya did something else a “good Indian boy” would do. He came back to India with Michael, they had children via surrogacy and raised them in Delhi. I wondered whether they faced issues as an unconventional family. Not really, Aditya told me, Indians love children. The state was another matter. The lack of legal recognition of marriage means a couple like Aditya and Michael has to jump through bureaucratic hoops to stay together as a family. In a sense, the Supreme Court will have to adjudicate on the unfairness of that.

Some argue that this singular emphasis on marriage risks turning the whole movement for LGBTQ+ equality into a one-horse movement. If same-sex marriage is recognised by law, is there anything queer about being queer any more? Would we see same-sex marriage matrimonials with the same caste and colour biases that we see in the heterosexual world? Probably. Queer people reflect the society they live in.

But the fact is that as long as the institution of marriage exists, LGBTQ+ people will demand the right to be part of it. Queer people don’t have to be assigned the role of revolutionaries by default. Some might want to tear down the house. Most want to live in it and crave the boring things other couples take for granted—joint tax returns, life insurance policies, hospital visitation rights.

Marriage will be about all that, not just pretty Instagram reels like the gay wedding that happened in July. But I understand now that photo ops and reels are important to move the needle in an image-driven world. It’s about sending out a message that this too is possible with or without the law. And if the court makes it legal, the old coming out line of “Mommy, Papa, I am not going to get married” will not work any more. A new generation of LGBTQ+ Indians will have to figure out a new coming out story.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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