Brokeback Mountain ignited the much-needed conversation towards understanding and accepting those with sexual orientations that are different from the “norm”. But barriers can only be broken when personal relationships are built, says Poornima Koonath
I recall the uncomfortable feeling that cruised through me when I watched Brokeback Mountain for the first time. It was two years after we had moved from India and homosexuality was still unchartered waters for me. I knew about it but had never given it much thought. And 14 years ago, no one in India spoke about it.
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain that released to theatres in December 2005 became one of the most controversial films of the year. The mainstream audience was confronted by the vision of two straight male actors not only kissing on the big screen but indulging in the sexual act as well. For the first-time movie goers were seeing gay men as the main characters instead of the cliché sidekicks, or the AIDS victims or the dregs of the society. They saw two men fall in love that was previously seen as possible only by a man and a woman. The newspapers carried news of people leaving the theatre upset and aghast. The scenes elicited a very strong response from the audience, which is not surprising. The response this statement piece of cinematic art received was varied—some praised the team for the honest portrayal of a homosexual relationship and the homophobia that lead to the closeting of emotions, while others found it ‘disgusting’ and unsavoury.
Twelve years after the release of the film, society has come a long way in the acceptance of the people from the LGBTIQ community, but there are pockets within our community who are still marooned in ignorance and intolerance and closed to the idea. Queer is generally defined as any sexual identity that exists outside ‘normal’. But then what is ‘normal’ and who decides it? Maintaining the ‘normal’ ends up being a façade for there are several homosexual individuals who keep up a heterosexual cover, but are married, and have children. There are some who choose to come out of the closet after years of being in a heterosexual relationship. Globally, Brokeback Mountain started the much-needed conversations, which are the first step towards understanding and acceptance.
‘I would make clandestine visits to gay bars, but never publicly came out’
I always considered the Western world to be more accepting and open-minded than the Eastern culture which is quite rigid, conservative, and stoic. And wondered what it would be like to be a homosexual Indian. I caught up with two such Indians to get to know them and their take on the society’s response to homosexuality. Their responses were heart-warming and quite surprising.
While Alan is a Christian by faith, Kunal is a Hindu, but the experiences they had were no different. Alan was married and had two children and Kunal moved away from home to “further my studies, and potentially continue exploring my sexuality”. Alan says that with two overbearing parents and with little to no positive information or role models, he found coming out of the closet very difficult. He had the “usual self-esteem issues”. His only support system in 1992 was his new partner, a few friends and a well set up gay community. Alan’s ex-wife and family continue to be supportive. Kunal’s parents were very ‘Indian’ and raised him that way even though he was born in the Philippines. “When I turned 17, I left my little city to take up my college degree in Manila, where I quickly became aware of my homosexuality. I would make clandestine visits to seedy gay bars, but I never publicly came out—mainly out of fear and uncertainty about my parents’ reaction,” says Kunal.
Alan feels that being an Indian does not make being homosexual particularly different or difficult as “the challenges are the same across most societies—religion, society, family”, he comments.
Kunal’s observation is, “Many cultural norms in India are steeped in man-woman relationships (marriages, family units, etc.) which make it difficult for people to know how to behave around me.” He says that the ‘newness’ of homosexuality in everyday South Asian discourse is the key obstacle. Though during the initial years when he had decided to let his friends and family know of his sexual orientation, Kunal found things a bit awkward, today he says he is “a lot more comfortable” in his skin and does not find talking about his boyfriend and their life together ‘weird’ anymore.
Both Alan and Kunal believe that even in today’s day and age homophobia exists, which is primarily due to the lack of education and understanding. Alan vociferously interjects, “Education is the key and role models from all walks of life”; Kunal echoes his sentiments too. “Homophobia can be addressed through educational programs, open and frank discussions about homosexuality, and encouragement to join parent groups like Rainbow Families and GLAAD. Furthermore, the more the gay and lesbian community start coming out to migrant families, the more they will start to normalise homosexual behaviour,” he surmises. According to him, homophobia still exists among migrant communities, especially those from Middle Eastern and Asian backgrounds. Due to this the LGBT members of these communities have moved away from their families seeking like-minded friends and acquaintances in the inner-city suburbs.
The fear is always of the unknown
It is very difficult for people from a certain generation who have been raised with certain fixated norms and traditions to change or alter their way of thinking and will continue to view society through their coloured glasses. The fear is always of the ‘unknown’ and so is the case with reactions of these certain pockets of the society to members of the LGBTIQ community. The fear factor results in discrimination and marginalisation. Kunal hits the mark when he states, “The only way to eradicate this discrimination is by addressing the cause of this fear. The more we start coming out to our friends and families, the more they will find out how ‘normal’ homosexuality is. The presence of LGBT influencers, particularly in the field of business, entertainment, and technology, can also help shape the thinking of the mainstream.”
The issue of gay marriage is still a hot button topic in politics. Alan feels, “It’s important to change legislation as this helps to legitimise who we are. It takes time for things to have seep into the society. These barriers break, most times through building personal relationships.”
Some employers can be biased too according to Kunal. It is unfortunate that, “many industries continue to stigmatise homosexuality (though often not overtly)”. “Young people therefore feel they’ll be at a disadvantage if they come out—particularly when it comes to career progression, remuneration and social inclusion,” says Kunal. In a free society, no one should be made to feel isolated or little. The definition of free is to be able to live one’s life the way one feels fit but at the same time continue to be a positive, contributing member.
Isolation can lead to depression and anxiety. Studies show gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are three times more likely to experience depression compared to the broader population. Discrimination and feeling of inadequacy also leads to the extended use of recreational drugs and practice of unsafe sex. It is the lack of connection that makes life meaningless.
Conservative and religiously inclined communities still have a long way to go when accepting the reality of the LGBTI members in their families and inner circles is concerned. “It will take time for barriers and discrimination to break down. Meanwhile there are many very sad stories being told and untold every day,” Alan observes. However, in his experience, “a lot has to do with building one’s self-worth and development. When this is made the focus, life looks and feels better”.
Today’s general Australian populace openly support and have more acceptance for people with homosexual orientation. But the tolerance is often limited and does not extend to the plight and the contribution of the LGBTIQ population. Though there has been increasing interest in same-sex couples within Australian society in recent years, there is still no Australian legislation to allow same-sex marriage or any legal acknowledgement of same-sex marriages performed overseas. The theme of this year’s Mardi Gras is “Creating Equality”. Rainbow flags and banners are used by the LGBTIQ community to represent diversity, hope, and social action. As equal members of the human race let us all work together, hand in hand—let there be no difference between queer and straight!
Trikone, a social support group for the LGBTIQ community
Alan, along with some of his friends formed Trikone in 2007, when he realised there did not seem to be a safe community within the queer community for people of South Asian heritage. He also wanted to meet and mingle with culturally likeminded people.
Trikone Australasia (www.trikone.org.au) is a Sydney-based community organisation that provides social support and a safe, nurturing environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people of South Asian origin living in Australia. They regularly organise events, host meet-ups and plan social outings to encourage networking within the group, as well as showcase South Asian talent to help nurture pride and confidence.
Along with combating racism and discrimination, even with the queer community and to raise their visibility, Trikone serves to encourage the group to express themselves through art, dance, theatre and social events. Their next event is Sunderella which is being staged through the month of February at the PACT Centre for Emerging Artists in Erskineville. (www.sunderella.com.au)