Fire! Fire! It’s the Lesbians!
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
TWO OF THE WOMEN WHO INITIATED AND ORGANISED THE PROTEST AGAINST THE SHIV SENA’S ATTACKS ON FIRE WRITE ABOUT THE DEMONSTRATION THAT TOOK PLACE OUTSIDE REGAL THEATRE ON DECEMBER 7, 1998, AND THE REPERCUSSIONS... WHICH
ULTIMATELY LED TO THE FORMATION OF THE CAMPAIGN FOR LESBIAN RIGHTS.
By the morning of December 8 it had all happened. The word “lesbian” was on the front pages of every newspaper I picked up in Delhi. LESBIAN. It looked odd and our-of-place. Why was a word like that being tossed around? A word so loaded with fear, embarrassment, prejudice, a word shrouded in silence, a whisper that spoke of an identity that must be hidden from others, that frightening word that dare not cross any threshold, was on that winter morning landing at the doorstep of millions of households in many parts of the country. At my colleagues’ door. At my parents’. At their neighbours’. At my landlord’s. My neighbour was going to read it. The Mother Dairy man was going to read it. The woman in the workshop. My sister-in-law... They were all going to pick up their morning newspaper and stare at a word they had possibly not seen earlier in print, and never given much thought to, and wonder what it was doing on Page One. And Three. And in editorials. And in letters to editors. And in Special Features. Not just that day but for days and weeks and weeks after December 8.
The word “lesbian” was all over the media, and everyone had something to say about it. And they did so with what could well be called “gay abandon”: there were vituperous gems, many of them. Amongst my favourites was one by Swapan Dasgupta, a deputy editor with India Today, who rode out in full homophobic glory to attack “the militant gay movement, which has hitherto operated as website extensions of a disagreeable trend in the West”. He was outraged that anyone dared claim that lesbianism is part of Indian heritage when, in his opinion, it is actually an “IPC-defined offence” along the lines of “thievery, deceit and murder.” It is sickening that he should have seen no folly in using a western framework like the Indian Penal Code (framed by the British during the Raj) to tell us that our identities are nor Indian. Lesbians should not be seen and definitely nor heard.
As we piled printed page on page into our clippings file, we were left feeling a little bewildered. It took just one poster, one banner and a few scared but brave women in a public protest of eighty other slogans and posters and hundreds of people to generate all this public discussion and media glare. One brave act of holding up a poster that said “Indian and Lesbian” had caused such a hul-chul, such journalistic diarrhoea. Why did the mere announcement of one’s existence cause such a cacophony?
We are supposed to have been dwelling in comfortable silence for so many centuries. Silence about our existence, a conspiracy of silence. A social pact. Don’t let us know! Don’t let your family know who you are and how you live, nor many of your friends, certainly nor co-workers, nor your boss, as also neighbours, nor to mention (neither last nor least) your landlords.., never, never speak about who you are and how you live. Silence. That will protect you. It does nor matter that none of the rites-of-passage of your life will ever be acknowledged, let alone celebrated. That you must hide your love and happiness as well as your heartbreak and loneliness in wells of silence. How can this silence, which is nor self-chosen, ever be empowering? Why is it glorified and perpetuated? This silence is nor spiritual—it will nor bring you inner peace. It is nor powerful, it is the poorest of defences. It is a fundamental denial of the freedom of expression. It is to live a life filled with lies. It is a daily slaughter of the soul. It is forever a weapon in the hands of others, for the threat of broken silence hangs over the heads of our existence.
On December 7, we were breaking that social contract. Some of us were taking great personal risks in holding up those posters in the middle of a sea of candles, in the face of flashing cameras. Interestingly, some of the individuals and groups who had joined in to protest the attack on “freedom of speech and expression” and “democratic rights” were upset and vitriolic about the same freedoms being extended to a minority in a peaceful and democratic public protest. We were severely criticised both before and after: why did we have to be visible, how did we dare to use the word “lesbian”, why were we insisting Fire had anything to do with lesbianism when the filmmaker herself was denying it, why were we breaking The Silence? Why were we talking about People Like Us, who should never be seen, even by candle-light?
We heard that someone had called lesbianism ''contagious”. How I wish sexuality could truly be contagious. I would have had an entirely homosexual family by now, and need nor have worried about them finding out. Maybe even my landlord could catch it, and then I wouldn’t have to worry about being evicted.)
Some fellow feminists went to the extent of saying that we were misguided. Why did we choose to identify with a word like “lesbian” which was not even Indian, which held no relevance in a country like India. This, even as we were discussing “democratic rights”, imported into my country as recently as 50 years ago.
A couple of days after the demonstration, the Delhi Times carried an interview with the man who had planned the attack on Regal theatre, Jai Bhagwan Goel of the Shiv Sena. The interviewer asked him categorically why the film had been attacked and he replied simply: “because it portrayed lesbianism”. There it was. The word no one on “our side” dared to say. A son of the soil pronouncing the word to condemn two women and pronounce judgement on Indian culture. Obviously while importing lesbianism we also got this rabid brand of homophobia—free.
Then there was Deepa Mehra herself, asking the Prime Minister how he would feel if his poetry was torn up, and protecting herself from any association whatsoever with The Lesbians. Almost a month after the withdrawal of the film, she spoke from her heart with an interviewer, making it clear that should her daughter ever tell her she was a lesbian she would be dismayed. Fortunately for us, we had long since realised that her fight for the freedoms of Indians was limited to seeing her film back in the cinema halls — she had never been known to raise her voice earlier for any activist purpose, and with luck on her side, would nor need to do so again. Pretty early on in the campaign, we realised our protests could be hijacked by Mehta to serve her commercial interests, and so we quietly dropped her and her film from our agenda. But indeed there was poetic justice somewhere in all of this: a press statement prepared by three lesbian groups and handed our at the Regal protest was picked by a lazy journalist and mistakenly attributed to Mehta. On the front page of the Pioneer on December 8, Deepa Mehta gravely told the nation: “Lesbianism is part of Indian heritage”.
Democracy for all: Emergency for you
Preparing the press release for the protest was an exercise in tightrope walking. We were organising the protest in two days, we had very little infrastructure, even less money. We were coordinating as broadbased a group as we could get together. Clearly, there was general public outrage. The protest was waiting to happen, and when we took the initiative, everyone said “yes, of course we’ll be there”.
But what were we to say collectively to the press? Why exactly were we protesting?
Clearly, the lesbians we got in touch with were seeing it as our issue”. The film was attacked for showing a lesbian relationship. There were scores of films dealing with “loneliness and choices” (Deepa Mehta’s description of the true subject of her film) which had made it past Bal’s sneer. This one was special, it actually showed two women falling in love and having sex with each other, and finally abandoning the men in their lives for each other. No matter how poor it may be as a lesbian film, it showed lesbianism. If lesbians were not going to speak up for themselves, no one else would. Isn’t that why the most vulnerable minorities are targeted by fascists? As long as the Shiv Sena made it clear that they were attacking the film because of its explicit lesbian content, they could be assured that no one would spoil their sport. Who after all, would speak on behalf of lesbians?
So, even as organisers prepared for the demonstration and worked to mount a response in solidarity with other groups, there was conflict among us. There were protests from some about the use of the word “lesbian” in the press statement. There was pressure to speak instead of “women-women relationships”. There were problems with the word “sexuality”. We might as well have been playing protest-protest in Uncle Bal’s backyard. There was an assertion that the person on the street was not ready to hear these words. There was a presumption that if we talked about freedoms and rights, then lesbians would join in without ever questioning the utter irony of it: where are the freedoms and rights to speech and expression for sexual minorities?
Lesbians are an invisible minority, goes the argument, why discuss them? We’re fighting serious fundamental issues here, don’t drag the “L” word into all this. Actually filmmakers, especially NRIs, are numerically a smaller minority. Yet it was everyone’s concern, to come our and protest. Someone asked, postdemonstration, if a lesbian was to be attacked tomorrow and her freedom of expression denied on the basis of her sexuality, how many of those protesting fascist attacks on freedom today would come our openly in her support? How many would need to announce their heterosexuality before speaking our in defence of lesbian/gay rights? On December 8, no one felt the need to say to the press, “I am nor a filmmaker, but I feel Deepa Mehta has a right to creative expression.
We have heard several progressive groups fighting for the rights of the dispossessed, the voiceless, the minorities, calling lesbianism a “personal choice”. We have to work with these groups in the hope that they will examine the unfortunate and demeaning dismissal in those two words. It is homophobia trying to dress itself in liberal drag, and therefore, it is all the more difficult to combat. “My silences had not protected me. Yours will not protect you. —Audre Lorde
In, this hallowed land of silences where could the Indian Lesbian find a voice? The seed of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights was sown when we were mobilising for the protest:—a small, vocal, non-funded group we approached put forward a startling condition for being participating. “If this protest is about democratic rights you’ll find enough allies, but unless it is specifically about lesbianism, we will nor join”. It was startling because I was listening to two men articulating this... I thought, are there women who will speak our too?
There were. Not many, admittedly, but soon it was clear that if we brought up the issue, there were several who were going to support us. Somewhere the realisation was beginning to dawn — the moment to. speak up was at our doorstep.
“the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger... In the cause of silence, each one of us draws the face of her own fear— fear of contempt, of censure, of some judgement, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the very visibility without which we also cannot truly live.” —Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals