Nearly two years after Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of India on September 6, 2018, gender and sexual minorities in India continue to navigate the twin evils of social invisibility and stigmatized discrimination.
This is painful and far from surprising, in the world’s most populous democracy, which, 73 years after Independence, is yet to achieve more than token equality for its citizens irrespective of caste, creed or community.
Indeed, in many ways, we are less equal a place than we were a few years ago, having dropped 10 places to rank 51 out of 167 in the Democracy Index by complied by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in 2019.
The primary cause of the democratic regression was, as noted by the EIU in their report, an erosion of civil liberties in the country. So then, while marking Pride Month in June 2020, and the WHO Decade for Healthy Ageing 2020-2030, what of India’s ageing LGBTQIA+ population?
The Pride Movement emerged after the Stone Wall Riots in 1969 as a tradition of protest and connectedness among the sexual minorities. Typically, Pride Events give a chance to the LGBTQ community to come together, celebrating their concerns, and sharing the achieved social changes.
In this year, due to the COVID-19 crisis, more than 220 Pride celebrations were postponed or canceled globally, which is an emotional setback for this group, who look forward to these events of the year.
To prevent their isolation, Interpride and the European Pride Organizers Association, are planning to organize a digital ‘Global Pride’ towards the latter part of June.
Though a reasonable substitute, digital meeting fails to replace a personal gathering of a minority group, who look at these events for sources of social support from their communities and resilience against the crisis. When the threat of the pandemic looms large over the world, let us have a look at the sexual minorities in India who are as usual, more vulnerable now than ever.
Emphasis on Young LGBTQIA+ Adults in Civil Right Movements
Much of the discourse about queer rights in public spaces occurs around young LGBTQIA+ adults. Our debates are around bullying in schools, colleges, and public spaces; the challenges of coming out and acceptance; equal opportunities in employment and housing; the recognition of partners and marriage and parenting rights– the aggressions and structural exclusion of a young gay or trans adult is exposed to.
It is equally, if not even more important to discuss the civil rights of older LGBTQIA+ adults.
These include, but are not restricted to equity and inclusion in healthcare (a sector that becomes more important with age); legal provisions to recognize same-sex partners as beneficiaries in insurance, nomination for employment, transfer of pension and beneficiaries to assets; recognition as next of kin in hospitals and nursing homes; and palliative care and death ceremonies that are respectful of queer identity.
For context, older adults in hospitals are routinely asked where their spouse is – the assumptions being that all older adults are heterosexual and married with children. Nursing homes usually provide shared rooms based on biological sex rather than gender and do not recognize the spousal rights of same-sex partners. Funerals and cremations dead-name and misgender older trans adults – an erasure of identity in death and memory.
The Queer Body in Popular Culture
Most representation of LGBTQIA+ adults in popular culture is of young twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings. India is no exception to this trope. Our cinematic representations of queer identity and love are Sanjay Suri in My Brother Nikhil, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in Fire, Ayushmann Khurrana in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Sonam Kapoor-Ahuja in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, to cite a few. The focus is on the young queer body and storytelling revolves around the triumphant coming of age of the young Indian queer adult.
Older queer representation is conspicuously absent in narratives. The few older queer narratives we do have such as Rishi Kapoor in Student of the Year or Vinay Pathak in Made in Heaven portrays older gay men as unattractive, sad and lonely, suffering the pangs on unrequited love and living out in the closet. Older LGBTQIA+ adults are conditioned to see themselves as either invisible or tragi-comic figures, even within queer sub-culture – ageism rendering them a double or even triple minority.
SAGE – Services, and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Trans Elders, based in the USA, is a key advocacy group and part of the Diverse Elders Coalition. They have played a key role in representing older LGBTQIA+ adults in conversations in American communities and policy-making. We are still gay… by Dementia Australia is a key policy document that looked at the experiences and needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-Australians living with dementia – pioneering work.
India needs and deserves equivalents in representation and advocacy. GayBombay and Seenagers are social support movements and safe spaces for older queer men in Mumbai. We need more spaces like these all over the country.
Lgbtqia+ Representation in Research and Sociology
Gay and Gray: The Older Homosexual Man, by Raymond M. Berger, first published in 1982, was the first scholarly representation of the older gay American man and despite being limited to older, white, gay men – brought out the heartening finding that most gay men come into their own and age successfully – in sharp contrast with the popular stereotype of the lonely old gay man.
Ageing with Pride, part of the National Health, Aging, and Sexuality/Gender Study was the first federally funded study addressing ageing among LGBTQIA+ older adults throughout the United States.
Iridescent Life Course is a potent narrative of 25 years of inclusive research that addressed dispelling negative stereotypes, psychosocial adjustment to ageing, identity development, and social and community-based support in the lives of LGBTQ older adults.
In India, Anupam Joya Sharma and Malavika A. Subramanyam published a first of its kind study of psychological well-being in middle-aged and older gay men in India, 38 years after Gay and Gray was first published, and found that older gay men navigated ageing, with higher income and social class acting as a buffer for mental health. They noted that ageism and internalized homophobia had the potential to worsen mental health in older queer men.
Ageing queer research is far from perfect –tapping upper class, masculine experiences in the dominant ethnic and racial group – across the world and in India.
We need to understand and respect the experiences of older queer women and transpersons (men and women). Bisexual invisibility continues to operate in older adults. We know little of how rural or underprivileged queer people age and of their health and well-being.
The Need for India to Age With Pride
A 2016 report by the Government of India noted 104 million older adults in India. Research across the world shows that between 5 and 10 percent of older adults identify as queer across countries and continents. Extrapolating this to India, there are, at a conservative estimate, between 5.2 and 10.4 million older queer adults living at present, a number that is only going to go up as India’s elderly are set to constitute 20 percent of the population by 2050.
It isn’t enough for us to simply live longer or decriminalize homosexuality. It is high time the human rights of the sexual minorities are considered to be priorities, rather than options. We must live and age with PRIDE, in diversity, and with dignity. The socio-cultural and ethnic diversity of our country provides us a unique opportunity to do so.
(Migita M. D’cruz and Dr Debanjan Banerjee are psychiatrists at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru.)