Same-sex marriage in India
For Froza Saluja, 42, and her partner Arpita, 38, finding love in deeply conservative India was near impossible before the couple met through a unique Indian organisation called the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau.
“I was looking for a partner for the past three years, before which I was in a serious relationship.”
Saluja says the moment she saw Arpita’s profile through the bureau’s matchmaking website, she wanted to meet her. “We took time for nearly three months to decide about our marriage and hence took decision of getting married. We got married in April 2017.”
The couple now live together in an apartment in Chennai but, although their relationship is solid, she says they still face some discrimination from neighbours.
“Surrounding people have guessed our relationship and only a few of them understand us. Most of them want us to leave the place and we are facing this discrimination now. Honestly, we were not interested in knowing about other couples as we were very happy about the decision we took. We never bothered to take a third opinion.”
Although homosexual sex remains deeply taboo and illegal in India, across the country many couples have consummated symbolic gay weddings, overseen by Hindu priests. These ceremonies are similar to other Indian weddings, but have no legal status.
In India’s fast-developing IT heartland of Hyderabad, a new Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau is now operating and has already organised about 42 weddings across the country, with about 50 other couples who met through the site living together. About 1500 others are registered as looking for same-sex love.
“I came to realise there is a strong need for a marriage bureau for homosexuals in India and started working on it,” says Urvi Shah, 23, the bureau’s chief executive. “India is a country where people value arranged marriages. Our ancestors have been going through this system of arranged marriages for a long time. We as a company try to act like supportive parents for our clients to try to help people find a long-term partner.”
For Vishwa Srivastava and Vivek Patel, who have just celebrated their first wedding anniversary, the motivation to get married was more for symbolic and spiritual reasons.
“In India there are many cases of gay couples getting married but they do it mostly just for themselves,” Srivastava tells me. “They do it knowing they won’t have legal rights, but they want to do it because they know there is a strong spiritual consequence of a wedding in India. Weddings are very highly valued in India, so gay people want that as well.”
Srivastava says it was after only a few dates that his partner told him he was in love with him. “Soon after that I proposed marriage to him. My parents absolutely adore him. I think they love him more than they love me – which I think is absolutely wonderful. My mother was our wedding planner.”
The first thing his mother had to do was to find a Hindu priest willing to marry the couple. “The priest said that souls don’t have a gender – in different lives we take different forms – sometimes we are men and sometimes we are women,” Srivastava says. “So the gender of two people doesn’t really matter – it’s the soul that matters. It doesn’t matter whether they are both men or not because in a different life they could be in a different form. The priest also said there have always been same-sex couples in India.”
Srivastava says that despite receiving some negative reactions, the wedding went ahead with the blessing of most of his family and friends.
“There were initial negative reactions from my extended family members. My mother told them she thought it was beautiful and she wants her son to have that. She said, ‘If you want me to respect your family members when they get married in the future, then afford the same respect to him when you come to my house.’ I think that clarity of communication she had eventually got everyone else comfortable with the idea. I think I fell in love with my mother even more so after that.”
In India, homosexual acts remain a criminal offence according to section 377 of the Indian penal code, which dates back to a British law implemented in 1860. This law was overturned by a Delhi High Court in 2009, only to be reinstated in 2013 by the Indian Supreme Court. In January this year the Supreme Court ordered a review of the law, noting that gay Indians should not be forced to live in fear.
Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, heir apparent to the throne of Rajpipla in western Gujarat, has dedicated his life to bringing about gay law reform in India.
“I happen to be the first member of a royal family to come out openly as gay, and as far as I know the only prince in the world to have ever come out publicly,” he tells The Saturday Paper.
“The main reason for doing it was to point out the hypocrisy pervading the society. I am coming from a culture where homosexuality has existed since the bygone era but nobody talks about it and it’s a taboo and shunned. So I was sure that my coming out could help to open the Pandora’s box for a lot of debates and discussions to happen on a subject like this. I always believe that the more you can talk about something the more change you can expect to happen.”
The prince says homosexuality has always been part of Indian society and it should be celebrated as such.
“The fact that we had Kama Sutra, which was the oldest sex encyclopaedia, written 500 years before Jesus Christ was born, which openly talked about homosexuality, then we have temples which are centuries old which are openly depicting homoerotic sculptures and statues. So it was definitely the influence of other cultures, especially Christianity and Islam, into our country that has changed the beliefs of most of us into becoming homophobic…
“When India did away with the British law, they should have also done away with these British laws and had our own laws based on our own culture and heritage instead of depending on laws made by those who colonised us. People saying that homosexuality is a Western concept – it is not going to help them because the evidence is there. In fact, I say the opposite – I say homosexuality was not imported, but it was exported from India.”
Manvendra says in order to understand Indian society, one needs to understand the distinction between public and private behaviour. “In India what is done legally and what is done socially are two very different things,” he says. “Even though in India there is a law making homosexuality a criminal act, homosocial behaviour is accepted.”
Manvendra was originally a board member of the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau. He says that even before the existence of such a bureau, there were many gay marriages taking place secretly. “I have seen so many marriages in India between same-sex couples. It is only when they come out and talk about it openly that this stigma and discrimination follows,” he says.
“Same-sex marriages have always happened in Hindi culture and there is even a name for them – Gandharva Vivaah – which is a very old Sanskrit word. If you read our Hindu texts, we have examples of gay gods and lesbian goddesses. Transgenderism has also been a very old and well-established cult in India – we have a goddess that is worshipped by the transgenders. This goddess is also of a lesbian origin and even our prime minister worships this goddess. It is very mainstream.”
The pursuit of arranged marriages for same-sex couples follows a long-established Indian tradition of arranged marriages. However, although some Hindu priests are willing to oversee same-sex marriage, Manvendra says it will likely take a long time before the Indian courts and parliament are willing to embrace these changes.
“People have asked me – what is Indian society today? I say that in India, society is nothing much but a bunch of bigots and hypocrites – you know?
“Even after section 377 gets neutralised, our job is not finished yet. The main talk ahead is to mainstream homosexuality in India. That means getting people from the non-LGBT community to support and accept us. Because even when we get rid of the law in India saying to be LGBT is a crime, socially anyone who is gay in India is still a criminal.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 24, 2018 as "Mixed blessings". Subscribe here.