Being Lesbian in India

A sardonic laugh is coming through the receiver of my hotel telephone.

The laughter belongs to Geeta Kumana, India's leading lesbian activist. Soon, I am to discover that her sense of humor -- while often guarded in a world where she has had to fight tradition, religion, the government, her own father, and even other lesbians -- is an inextricable part of this remarkable woman's ability to forge on in a society that does everything it can to shut her up.

At the end of a three-and-a-half week tour of India, courtesy of DavidTours, a gay and lesbian tour agency (www.DavidTours.com), I find myself in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India's most cosmopolitan city and Kumana's home. For weeks we've been e-mailing back and forth, and now, finally, we have agreed to meet in my hotel lobby and go for lunch.

"How will I know who you are?" I ask her. And this is what elicits her laugh.

"I'll be the one who looks like a lesbian," she retorts.

With a sturdy frame and short haircut, Kumana, 35, has a decidedly butch personae, a trait that has served her well in her role as a lesbian activist in a staunchly conservative country where, in her native Hindi, "there's still not even a word for 'lesbian.' We're that invisible."

Like many, Kumana knew from an early age that she was attracted to women instead of men. But growing up in India, there was no mention of lesbians and gays, "so I constantly denied my feelings."

After a little school-girl kissing in college and a serious, but ultimately failed, romantic relationship with a man, at 22 Kumana met her first serious girlfriend during a windsurfing regatta. "She seduced me, and we were together for four years," says Kumana with another one of her wry laughs that suggests the relationship was a psychological as well as a physical catharsis.

Kumana eventually met other lesbians, and was invited into a private, hush-hush support group that called itself Stree Sangam. Once a month, about 15 women would show up to talk about their lives as lesbians or bisexuals. "It was brilliant to finally talk to people who understood me," she says. Kumana credits Stree Sangam "with my development into a lesbian woman."

As Kumana became more aware of herself and thus more self-confident, she started to come out, first to two straight female friends, then finally to her father. Like most of Indian society, Kumana lives in an inter-generational household. Her parents are divorced, and she resides with her dad.

"For the longest time, I lived with his denial," she says. "Then one day about five years ago we had an argument and he called me a 'lesbian bitch.'" Since then, she's tried to broach the subject diplomatically, such as talking about Rock Hudson and Jodie Foster movies. But her father refuses to entertain an open discussion. "He just told me I was avoiding marriage because I didn't' want to take on the responsibility of children," she says. At one point, he even became "verbally abusive," she says, until she confronted him. "I just won't accept this anymore," she said firmly. "It has to stop."

These days, they don't talk at all about her lesbianism. "He's not in denial now. He's in non-acceptance."

In an incredible testament of her strong will, however, Kumana still brings dates, even one-night stands, home to spend the night. "He knows when I'm sleeping with someone: If I ask for extra sheets, he knows the girl is sleeping in the other bed. If not..." She pauses. "Well, I don't want to take someone to a motel when I have a home."

Kumana's courage in standing up to her father -- a feat that has to be viewed in the context of the iron grip that most Indian parents have over their children, and that Indian men still exert over women -- was just a foreshadowing of the grit that would eventually propel her to become India's most visible and outspoken lesbian activist.

It wasn't long before Kumana outgrew the lesbian support group, Stree Sangam. "It was very, very underground," she says. Because the women were too frightened to have any public face, the group remained the domain of a small clique, all of whom (including Kumana) were of India's upper classes. "I felt we weren't helping the women who were most vulnerable."

In 2000, Kumana split off from the group, and spent 8000 rupees (roughly $165 -- a sizeable figure in India) of her own money to establish a new organization called Aanchal. "The word Aanchal refers to the protective fold of a sari," the traditional Indian dress, says Kumana. "So I interpret the group as women protecting women." Most of the money went to establishing a phone helpline, which initially was open just one night a week.

Today, Kumana has raised enough money to expand the helpline to three days a week (Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 3 PM to 6 PM) and to hire a part-time counselor. As the group's director, she is the country's first -- and probably only -- full-time paid lesbian activist.

Initially, Kumana had no money to do outreach, and resorted to making up simple stickers with the organization's helpline number on it, then pasting them all over the women's compartments of suburban trains going in and out of Mumbai. "That got us a flood of calls from men looking for lesbian peep shows."

Kumana knew she had to do something to break the shroud of invisibility. Taking 600 rupees ($12.50) from the group's already strapped budget, she tried to take out an ad in The Times of India, the country's largest English-language newspaper. Initially, the paper rejected the group's tiny blurb.

"They told us lesbianism is a Western concept that doesn't happen in India," she says, rolling her eyes knowingly. Kumana refused to relent, and the newspaper finally agreed to run the ad with the word "lesbian" replaced by the phrase, "women who are attracted to women."

Today, thanks to the remaining money of a $5000 grant from the Global Fund for Women in San Francisco, Aanchal has been able to hire an agency to develop a new series of more sophisticated spots. "We thought having a well-known agency would help keep our ads from getting rejected, but we're still getting refused," she says. So far, none of the country's major women's magazines has agreed to run an ad.

But Kumana won't be discouraged.

"In India, the discrimination against you as a woman starts from day one: Girls get less food, less education, and we're told our brothers deserve it more. Then you are told you have to be beautiful and feminine to appeal to men. And even if you dodge that, you earn dramatically less money."

In spite of what can sometimes be a bleak picture for women in general, and lesbians in particular, Kumana is not dire about the future. Indeed, she is surprisingly hopeful. Despite the obstacles, she and the lesbians of India have both tenacity and patience -- important traits in India, "where nothing is easy and nothing happens fast," she notes, letting out another sly chuckle.

For more information about Aanchal, e-mail the organization at aanchal69@hotmail.com.

For more information about international tours for gays and lesbians, visit www.DavidTours.com.

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