Earlier this week, the Instagram account LGBTQIAP Plus History of India posted photographs from the Hindu and Jewish marriage ceremonies of Mona Bachmann and author Ruth Vanita in June 2000. The caption placed this landmark ceremony in a contemporary context: the postponement of the hearing of LGBTQ+ marriage equality cases to 6 July by the Delhi high court to hear “real urgent matters” during the pandemic. “Nobody is dying because they don’t have marriage certificates,” the caption echoes a statement by the government’s lawyer.
Such unique juxtapositions of past and present can be found on the Instagram page, started in 2016 to document the struggles and joys of the queer community in India. Over the past few years, especially since gay sex was decriminalised by the Supreme Court in 2018, interest in the page has increased.
Anindya Kar, page founder and chief medical officer of the Kolkata-based Advanced Neuropsychiatry Institute, says: “I was doing some important work regarding mental health issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community with the World Psychiatric Association. While I was looking for queer history, I couldn’t find any Indian perspective in this context. We usually view history of the queer community from a Western gaze. I was going through a lot of research material and was struck by the amazing (Instagram) archive by The AIDS Memorial. That’s when I decided we should have something from an Indian point of view so that people could take pride in this rich history.”
So you find mentions of erotic gay couples dating back to ninth century Gujarat, symbolising sexual liberalism, and writings on same-sex love by Pandey Bechan Sharma, published in May 1924 in the Kolkata biweekly Matvala. In June, the Pride month, Dr Kar has been posting extensively about Siddhartha Gautam, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 28 in 1991. He, along with six others, had founded the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan—India’s first AIDS activist group—which published Less Than Gay: A Citizen’s Report On The Status Of Homosexuality In India. When it came out in 1991, it was the first such Indian publication on sex and sexuality.
Though Dr Kar knew about Gautam, he came across more details recently in Siddharth Dube’s book, An Indefinite Sentence: A Personal History Of Outlawed Love and Sex. “For the first time, I found a book that was exclusively about contemporary Indian LGBT history. Besides Gautam, Dube was also friends with other queer men and women, sex workers, and those who were amongst the first to fight for queer rights. You will find bits of those histories in the book. I thought Pride month was a great occasion to highlight them,” he says.
The page features instances of the portrayal of same-sex love in popular culture as well—be it literature or cinema. Take, for instance, Khush, a short film directed by Pratibha Parmar about lesbians and gay men from India and other parts of Asia, discussing their journeys. It won an award for best documentary at the 1991 Frameline Film and Video Festival in San Francisco, US.
A post from the 1990s about the gay magazine Pravartak shows it had a classified column, “Networking”. Queer members used to write letters to each other through a post office box and decide on the time for a call, or the dress code for a meeting. “Today, with social networking, with everything happening with a click, people might not understand how this section worked,” smiles Dr Kar.
His process for getting testimonials and archival material has changed too. He once had to scour for details; today, people are more forthcoming with personal stories. “I have a lot of queer friends who are in their early 50s. While they tell me stories of how they would meet, and their struggles, they are not very comfortable with those being published. However, millennials are more forthcoming with their stories. They are more confident and want to open up,” he says.
Through all this, the page, rooted in mental health, has never lost sight of its original intent, “which is to highlight that same-sex attraction is just like heterosexuality or bisexuality,” says Dr Kar. “It has taken decades for the Indian Psychiatric Society to give a position statement to declare that homosexuality is not an illness. It finally acknowledged this after the World Psychiatric Association released a Position statement on same-sex attraction in 2018. It is not sexuality but homophobia that creates a negative environment. People are now coming forward to understand how to cope with that. Things are changing,” says Dr Kar.