A very interesting thing happened to a friend of mine here a few days ago. He received an SMS from one of his clients saying simply “I love you.” My friend (who is married with children and straight) felt fairly certain that this was a sort of come on from his client. This client had always been a little overly affectionate, always specifically asked when dealing with my friend’s firm that my friend be the representative. Although the client was 60 years old and married himself, many in the office had always felt that he was gay and had a laugh or two about it among themselves.
My friend was in a bit of a pickle about what to do, so he ignored the text message entirely, but a few days later when meeting in person with the client, he was asked why he had never responded. The situation felt awkward for my friend and so he quickly made up some excuse and moved on to another topic. He and his wife asked me the other day what I would have done. I asked them a few questions. Were they certain this man was gay, and this was a sort of come on? How close were they to the client? Could this not simply be a strong voice of affection with nothing else implied? They felt certain this was an expression of gay affection and possible sexual attraction.
I concluded that the best thing to do in this situation was to pretend to have read the message in a way that they felt it had not been intended. And not to ignore it, but reply with something along the lines of “I love working with you as well, thanks”. This would save any embarrassment of rejection from the sender while still acknowledging with kindness that the message had been sent.
It is very interesting where India is today in its acceptance of gay people (or gay attraction or feelings for that matter). Although there are many cultural differences, I still feel a parallel can be drawn with the US and its attitudes some 40 years ago. Here is the situation as I read it today:
1. The young and the well educated seem quite accepting of gay people. For instance, most of my friends here all know that I am and they have no issue with it (that I know of).
2. People such as my friend’s client are in a bit of a sad situation. Supposing he is gay, he must feel quite isolated and a little desperate to send this “I love you” message. In a healthy and accepting society for gay people, this would be the ultimate thing one would say after basic flirting, dating, courtship, etc. You know, like it is for straight people. It would not be a cry from the dark, as it seems to be here.
3. As I have written many times before, marriage and procreation are at the very heart of Indian society. In general this is a very good thing, giving people connection to each other and support in times of need. The downside is that most people cannot imagine allowing anyone to upset the status quo with an alternative arrangement. Gay people and their relationships are effectively invisible. Gay sex happens all the time, but it is never talked about and certainly must not be legitimized with allowing relationships to form publicly. Even among gay people that I have met out at parties, many of them believe quite plainly that it is their duty to enter into marriage and have children, even if they are not attracted to the opposite sex. Many of these feel it is perfectly acceptable to continue gay relationships on the side.
4.Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code still criminalizes homosexuality.While a barrier to wider acceptance, I tend to believe that laws follow social acceptance more than the other way around. For example, although the US only definitively overturned sodomy statutes nationwide in 2003, society had already changed to a point of widespread (if not perfect) acceptance of homosexuality. This was a result of many changes throughout the culture in the preceding decades.
It is my personal opinion that openness breeds acceptance in the long run. When people know that a member of their family is gay, they are less likely to stereotype or hold hatreds based on these. They are no longer able to pretend that no one they know is gay. As I have discussed with many gay people here, I personally believe the most powerful thing any one of us can do politically is to come out, to live openly. Societies are ever evolving, and the first ones to come out suffer the worst hatreds, of that there is no doubt. Coming out in India today is no picnic.
But each successive wave of out people makes it easier on those that follow them. It has to begin somewhere. I was able to come out with less trouble and rejection than those that came out before me, because they had paved the way and there was some general cultural knowledge of such things. My own coming out has made it easier for a younger generation (such as my niece). Eventually, people will come to see being gay about as threatening to them as left handedness or a different eye color. But this takes many years and many small acts of bravery.