Glad to be gay
Rumina Sethi

Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West
Ruth Vanita. Penguin Books. New Delhi. Pages 370. Rs. 295.

Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the WestSame-sex marriages and sexual preference have been a contested terrain because the thought is appalling to many.

In America's gay capital, San Francisco, thousands of same-sex marriages are given licenses while President George Bush, on the contrary, seeks to safeguard "the most fundamental institution of civilisation" by banning such unions. Among countries, only Netherlands, Canada, Spain, Belgium and the state of Massachusetts in the USA have made such marriages legal.

Evan Gerstmann in his book, Same-Sex Marriage and the Constitution, argues that if marriage is a right anyone can exercise, it should be legitimate for same-sex couples to marry as well. Conservatives would disagree because, in their opinion, gay marriages would destroy the fabric of society. Gays, in turn, would argue that heterosexual marriages have fared no better judging by the increased number of divorces and issues of infidelity.

The conservatives would then say that marriages are all about having children which gays are unable to produce biologically. As Stephen Chapman says humourously: "Allowing gay marriage, I have been persuaded, will destroy the family, weaken Western civilization, increase the trade deficit with Japan, endanger the family farm and promote tooth decay. The impeccable logic of conservative opponents is simply too powerful to deny."

Central to Ruth Vanita's new book is the question: Why should the state's refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriages imply that the union is not a marriage? Does a union need the state's sanction to exist?

Arguing from the standpoint of love rather than legality, Vanita attempts to trace the origins of same-sex marriage in the Indian and Euro-American past. It is a little surprising that the author should seek scriptural sanction but the arguments she uses are valid.

In modern societies, we witness extreme homophobia which involves the murders of gay couples in the West or public flogging in the Middle East. While India does not have any known history of same-sex persecution, it has a law enshrined in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code forbidding sex "against the order of nature." This law has been used to victimise and blackmail gays such that it violates, in the author's words "constitutional rights to life, liberty and discrimination." Whereas the Government of India insists that Section 377 prevents child-abuse, it is openly acknowledged that discrimination against gay relationships, often termed "Western", is well within its purview.

Ruth Vanita interrogates the power of democracy which can give legal sanction to marriages between a white and a black but falls short of permitting gay unions.

Unfortunately, marriage has evolved from "an arrangement by mutual consent between two individuals or families, to a sacrament controlled by religious organisations, to a contract controlled by the state." This provokes the question why homosexuals need to follow the laws of conventional matrimony or want to address each other as 'husband' and ‘wife’, which is the lot of every monogamous straight-sex couple, when homosexuality is an alternative to conformity by default?

Ruth Vanita pleads for an acknowledgement of love among gay couples particularly because same-sex marriages are quite similar to cross-sex marriages. Partners share financial resources and become each others’ caregivers in precisely the same way.

A definite advantage over heterosexual marriage is the removal of gender inequality, although power hierarchies are found even here. Yet same-sex marriages, as in same-sex friendships which also depend upon mutual consent, are based on a large extent on equality and the "highest type of friendship and love."

In fact, Hinduism has more than a thousand sacred texts that differentiate desirable from undesirable relationships but never on the basis of gender. This is quite an eye-opener in a society in which the Shiv Sena, RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal opposed the portrayal of lesbian relationships in Fire.

The book thus raises searching questions and challenging issues relating to commitment, compatibility and social sanction. It may be mentioned that there is a whole new genre of lesbian/gay studies in literary criticism today which addresses the shortfalls of both feminist criticism that fails to include women of different sexual orientation and homophobic mainstream criticism that is indifferent to same-sex eroticism.