New Delhi: Utsav, a 22-year-old student from Punjab, lost his virginity against his will.
Five years ago, when Utsav, who didn’t want to reveal his full name, was a gay teenager living in a small city, he hit it off with a 27-year-old man. One day, he called him home with the hope of having his first “adult” sexual experience.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Utsav told ThePrint. “He told me he wanted to have sex and I wasn’t really into it, but before I knew it, he just put it in.”
“I didn’t really feel assaulted,” he said. “I think I was more worried about the unprotected part of it than consent.” Laughing, he added that he was thankful he had “never been raped”.
The ones MeToo leaves behind
When the #MeToo movement knocked on India’s doors nearly two years ago, it was hailed as a revolutionary paradigm through which to understand assault — specifically the intricacies of the power dynamics between men and women that make violence and systemic abuse possible.
But what happens when assault and harassment take place outside the ambit of this gender binary? How does one understand the power dynamics at play when sexual violence takes place between members of the same gender, or rather, between two sets of fluid and unique gender and sexual identities?
Turns out, #MeToo may have left a lot to be desired for people who don’t identify as heterosexual — people for whom loving freely remains a battle, and speaking out against members of their tight-knit community, their comrades-in-arms in the struggle for recognition, may not be the easiest option.
For queer activist Vikramaditya Sahai, “there cannot be, in the frame of #MeToo, any conversation beyond the abuse that men inflict on women”.
“By framing the #MeToo conversation as the most heterosexual conversation in the world — in which women are the subservient, sad, little victims and men are these dominant, abusive, harassing people — what you have done is made it impossible for any other frame of power to be acknowledged at all,” Sahai added.
For Sahai, the movement has completely overlooked the realities of caste, class, sexuality, ability, and age.
Few would contest that grabbing or slapping a stranger’s butt is inappropriate physical contact, which qualifies as sexual harassment.
But members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community say the line gets a bit hazy in their world.
“You have to look at the queer community through its own diverse, complicated and still-developing lens,” said Aastha Singh, a college student in her 20s.
Aastha identifies as homo-flexible — gay people who choose to have sex with someone from the opposite sex.
“In the queer community, things that are not normal for straight people are very normal — like ass slapping, ass grabbing, grinding against each other when you’re dancing,” she added.
In an article for Vice India in October, gay stand-up comedian Navin Noronha wrote that “unsolicited d*** pics” are “just another field day on apps like Grindr and PlanetRomeo, where you get a penis picture in both landscape and portrait mode before a ‘hello'”.
“More than 60 to 70 per cent of the people I know have been in a situation which would have been considered sexually predatory and seen as assault or rape if they were in the hetero world,” said Shiraz, a 25-year-old Mumbai-based event organiser.
Aastha said a lot of what people knew about consent and limits “only holds true when you’re talking about #MeToo in a hetero-normative society”.
“You can’t impose the same things here,” she added.
“Look at it this way,” Utsav said, “gay men don’t have any pre-determined norms they have to follow, where [like in a hetero-normative set-up] women have to protect themselves, their virtue and their honour.”
Utsav said he had had sex with 85 men, adding that he “knows men who are touching 140”.
The free sexual expression often associated with homosexuals has kept them on the fringes of a society that prides on prudery.
In India, homosexuality was decriminalised just last year, after years under an archaic British-era law that sought the prosecution of homosexuals for “unnatural sex”.
In this light, said Shiraz, “people in the hetero world barely understand what our experiences are like.
“We’re still fighting for basic rights, so talking about assault, especially domestic violence, for instance, becomes moot for a lot of us,” he added.
“We’ve been trying to protect ourselves from heterosexual assault for the longest time, which is why all other assault takes a backseat,” said Sahai.
Stigma of being queer
A 17-year-old gay student of Amity International School, Noida, added that speaking up for #MeToo was “four times a burden on your shoulders” when the homosexual experience still evoked widespread scorn.
“If you’re a woman and a woman has assaulted you, then you have to carry the stigma of being a lesbian. For men who are molested by men, people will say ‘yeh toh ladke se izzat uttarwa ke aa gaya’,” the student added.
While a handful of #MeToo cases have made news in the queer community — the most-reported instance involved former Mr India Kawaljit Singh Anand, who accused designer Vijay Arora of sexual harassment — the momentum and scale of sharing has still been minute.
Another reason for the silence is that calling out people from an already ‘other-ed’ and oppressed community carries the “constant fear of ostracising yourself”, queer activist Divya Dureja told ThePrint.
When Vishal Paramanik, a 24-year-old corporate employee, was raped by his ex-boyfriend and a match from the dating app Grindr, he did not report the duo. “How could I, when your own people do this to you?” he told ThePrint.
Utsav also pointed out that for victims of assault within the community, internalising the pain and keeping quiet about assault had pretty much been the only option till the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality.
Until then, reporting assault in a same-sex scenario put the complainant at risk of prosecution for homosexuality.
Anjali Gopalan, the founder and executive director of NGO Naz Foundation, echoed this view.
“#MeToo didn’t take off as much because a lot of people aren’t even out to their families. They can’t go to police. Just because homosexuality was decriminalised, doesn’t mean the other obstacles have been surmounted,” she added.
Journalist and #MeToo activist Rituparna Chatterjee, who curates the Twitter handle @IndiaMeToo, admitted as much, saying vulnerable social groups had significantly less incentive to come forward and risk exposure in large numbers.
“It’s because even the women with considerable social capital who spoke up face a backlash and alienation among their own circles now,” she added.
Gopalan also sought to point out what she perceived as the movement’s failure to address offences committed by women. “#MeToo was built for experiences between a man and a woman, and between two men, but there’s no conversation about gay women at all,” she added.
In the eyes of the law
Under the current legal provisions in the Indian Penal Code on sexual assault, rape and harassment, there is none that identifies a woman as an assaulter of another adult woman.
For instance, sexual assault as defined under all sub-sections of Section 354 (A,B,C,D), pertaining to outraging a woman’s modesty, sexual harassment, assault, voyeurism and stalking, explicitly refers to the commission of an offence by a ‘man’ against a ‘woman’.
As does Section 376, which deals with rape.
“The only loophole could be Section 354A (1) (i) (ii) and (iv) of the IPC, which does not specify the gender of the victim,” said Goutham Shivshankar, an advocate in the Supreme Court.
Section 354A (1) (i) (ii) and (iv) of the IPC states that a man committing any of the following acts — (i) physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures, (ii) demands or requests sexual favours, or (iv) makes sexually coloured remarks — shall be guilty of the offence of sexual harassment, facing up to three years in prison or a fine or both.
“However, the accused still can only be a man when it comes to crimes relating to sexual assault,” Shivshankar added.
Senior advocate Anand Grover, who is a founder-member of the Lawyers Collective, an NGO which offers assistance on human rights issues, and a prominent defender of gay rights, used this very loophole to register a case in the Delhi High Court on behalf of a transgender woman whose complaint of sexual harassment was allegedly refused by police.
On 24 December 2018, he stood vindicated as the Delhi High Court affirmed that Section 345A did apply to transgender victims of sexual harassment.
“Certain parts relate to a ‘person’ and not only a woman, and so we have argued that the law applies to transgender persons also. But it has not been decided whether a man will be covered or not,” he told ThePrint.
Woman-to-woman and woman-to-man violence has not been recognised, and “that is a problem”, Grover said. “We need to amend the law.”
Some more time, please
As the testimonies lay bare, the conversation surrounding the LGBT community is still nascent, but discussions on sexual assault and harassment are already afoot.
“Although a lot later, I thought that does count as assault I guess,” said Utsav of his encounter with the 27-year-old.
For Rhythm, who identifies as a pan-sexual — attracted to people irrespective of their sex or gender identity — her community just needs time. “We need to take a lot more steps to be able to give the LGBTQ community the confidence and the courage to be able to come out of it.”
This is an updated version of the report.