Ravi grabs a table on the terrace of a dimly-lit café so that street noise can muffle our conversation. He is a gay man who cheats on his wife with other men. "This is my life," he says. "Do I like it? No." The 39-year-old sales agent, big-built and clean-shaven, receives several calls from men propositioning him for the evening. One caller, who has left his wife in a small town, now freely dates men in Delhi. "I'm not too keen on him," says Ravi. "He isn't careful, because his wife is so far away."
Thousands of gay men in India are leading a double life. Marriages were often used as a cover when homosexuality was prohibited. After a decade-long legal battle, it was decriminalized in 2009. But family pressure reduces the changed law to a technicality. Parents force marriage at the cost of their children's happiness, and sometimes their lives.
Arun, a 34-year-old engineer, has attempted suicide to escape marriage. Sitting in a quiet corner of a restaurant, he blinks back tears poised to dissolve into his thick stubble. To see his elderly father and mother in despair is killing him. "I'm their only son," he says, his large frame huddled over a coffee cup.
India, while rapidly modernizing, stakes claim to preserving family values. It chides the West for its divorces and broken families. But sanctity of marriage is often built on silence and hidden pain. Mum and Dad, even after they know that their child is gay, insist on traditional marriage. They agree to lie to the in-laws and turn a blind eye to the extramarital affairs. The bride's future is of no consequence in this deal. "The majority of parents will seek this solution," says Bharat, an openly gay lawyer who used to be married. He runs a group called Samajh, which counsels parents with gay children.
But there is little that civil society organizations can do in private affairs. "Speaking to them doesn't help; they want the marriages regardless," agrees Anjali Gopalan, head of Naz Foundation, which led the campaign to decriminalize homosexuality.
A Lifelong Charade
Wives who figure it out cannot leave, due to parental and societal pressures. They endure loveless relationships. Those who don't know about the affairs, at least in the early years, are also at risk of contracting diseases. "There is also a lot of denial from women," said Gopalan. "The best we can do is advise men to reduce the number of partners and take precautions."
It can be argued that extramarital affairs are increasing. Knowledgeable people within the LGBT community estimate that the majority of gay married men living in big cities cheat. Living a double life is getting easier because of rapidly growing Internet access. Social networking sites have become a safe hub to arrange meetings without getting caught or risking police harassment.
Ravi thinks his wife knows the truth after finding certain Internet content on his computer. He explains that dating other married men was safer, because they sympathized with each other and knew how to be discreet. But the polite salesman seems indifferent to his wife's situation. "It is unfair for everyone," he says.
While daughters are seen as a burden to be shed, sons are the custodians of family honor who must sire heirs. Gay men gradually run out of reasons for declining marriage proposals. Eventually, relatives begin to ask what's wrong. The rumors of impotency are the worst dreaded. So marriage provides a convenient illusion. "Why cause the elders pain when they will never understand?" asks Ravi, explaining that he will probably stop seeing other men when he grows older.
Once the children are born, men see their duty fulfilled, because their spouses will be preoccupied with raising them for years. They also suffer cruelty stemming from bitterness that forced marriages induce. As time passes, husbands even cease to hide their boyfriends. Arun recalls one date when the man took him home even though his wife was present. The prospect of a deception-filled life made Arun cancel his wedding and leave India for many years. After it was called off, the humiliated bride had to leave the town she grew up in.
When parents are confronted with the truth, there are visits to doctors, spiritual gurus, and mystical healers. Arun's worst memory is of his father and mother being in the room when the doctor asked him questions about his choice of porn. They waited outside during his physical examination. "I pray that nobody has to go through that," he says, describing his life as "a comedy and a tragedy." Arun returned to India after his parents promised not to push marriage. Within a few months of his return, however, he senses the pressure building again.
Real change in the colossal psyche of 1.2 billion people could take a long time. Mainstream cinema, watched by millions, continues to reinforce the stereotype of the gay man as a pansy. Much of the so-called progressive crowd indulges in peripheral tolerance as long as it's someone else's problem.
Bharat pointed out that the country, after all, has bigger problems to worry about, like poverty and corruption. "Nobody has time to take this seriously, but out there, young men are killing themselves," he says.
Meanwhile, Bharat advises young men to study hard and become financially independent. Recently, the lawyer tried to reason with a father who had disinherited his youngest son for being gay. Bharat urged the son to get a job. "Moping doesn't help," he says. "There is a better chance of their families listening to them if they behave responsibly."
(Ravi and Arun shared their story on the condition that their real names not be used.)