While surfing the lifestyle magazines lying on the living room table, most 15-year-olds are fascinated by the curvaceous hot models on the pages, but unlike others, Jijo Kuriakose was attracted to the tall-dark-handsome Mills and Boon-type male models flaunting well-toned muscles and chiselled features.
Initially it was a bit strange for him to accept this attraction to men, but later, with right guidance and awareness, Jijo recognised himself as gay and for the past few years, he carries his preference with confidence.
“Orkut became a phenomenon when I was in my teens. So initially I made a fake account and found plenty of like-minded people through this medium. Then came Facebook and the social networking revolution. These sites became such a vast forum for discussion on such issues that now at least in the virtual world the matter is no longer taboo. More people are coming out of the closet and voicing their rights,” the Kochi boy says.
Supporting the fact are the rising numbers of Malayali-based closed groups on Facebook that have as members hundreds of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. “I am aware of a total of four such Facebook groups. Unlike secret groups, anyone can see such a group exists but can’t see the posts and comments of the group. The rest are secret groups. In these groups, serious discussions on LGBT rights, the articles and blogs about the LGBT related issues are discussed mostly,” says a senior member. ‘Queer Keralam’ is one such closed group on Facebook with 91 members already logged in.
The group describes itself as ‘an experimental group of Malayalee LGBTQ individuals and allies who’ve joined hands to create a safe space for queer folk. Most of our members have either come to terms with their sexuality or are in the process of journeying towards self-acceptance and love. We hope this group serves as a friendly social platform to network and talk about queer issues.’
“Yes it is true that social networking sites have played key role to boost up the confidence levels and finding out like-minded people across the globe. But the problem is many times they just remain as virtual relationships. The Kerala society has to go a long way in terms of social acceptance and support. Majority of people still think that gays or lesbians mean either they are sex workers or transgenders with gays displaying effeminate characters,” he adds.
However Nishad C A, an open gay from Kannur and a social activist working for MSM project says, “Through online networks getting partners has become much easier and hence they are safe and secure platforms, the individuals maintain their sexual orientation in the virtual space only. In public they don’t reveal their orientation and lead a dual life. Once one gay or lesbian is exposed before the public, nobody is bothered what will happen after they are exposed. There are various cases in Kerala where after revealing their sexual orientation in public, the individual either reaches at the verge of commiting suicide or fledding to other states or countries where there are people and organisations to help them out and support them.” Nishad also points out the fact that there are thousands out there living in the interiors of the state who don’t know what to do after realising their orientation. “These people either lead a stressful life thinking that they are the only ones like this or else get married under family pressure. Even doctors don’t know when these kind of cases come to them. For instance last year an engineering student in Kerala had the courage to disclose that he is gay to his family but instead of supporting him, the family took the boy to a doctor. They asked the doctor to somehow cure the boy and doctor in turn gave the boy shock treatment. This itself shows the ignorance of medical practitioners and families in our state,” he adds.
“Another problem that exists in Kerala is the lack of organisations working for the support of LGBT. Last month, there was a case of two 21-year-old girls fleeing to Bangalore after they disclosed their liking for each other to their respective families. They were afraid of social ostracism and harassment from family members. They resorted to ‘Sangama’ as their final abode - a human rights organisation working for individuals oppressed due to their sexual preferences. The question we should ask here is why these girls fled to Bangalore and sought help of an organisation outside the state?,” says Jijo.
But Shyam C S, counsellor in Voice (a community-based organistation in Thrissur)and an open gay who is living with his partner in Kerala says, “One reason why queer people from the state are taking abode with outside organisations are that in Kerala visible communities are less. Another issue is family stigma.”
Shyam who officially exchanged garland with his partner in a talk show of a Malayalam channel in 2009, says, “In an LGBT individual’s life the toughest phase is his/her school life. Most of the times these people become the butt of all jokes among other children. So as a solution for this it is mandatory that we should give awareness classes at school level itself where the students should be taught and made aware of people existing in society with different sexual orientation. But most of the time the awareness programmes that exist now only cover HIV prevention issues and the like.”
Some of the activities that have been seen in Kerala are Queer Pride Keralam 2013, social gatherings like fashion shows and such. “This year on July 2 we conducted the fourth Queer Pride Keralam 2013 in Thrissur. Hundreds of LGBT people along with supporters for the cause participated. By conducting more and more events like this, we want to spread more awareness among people,” says Sharath Cheloor, organiser of the Pride March.
Recently, the United Nations too launched a global public education campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality called Free and Equal on July 26.
It will raise awareness of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination, and promote greater respect for the rights of LGBT people everywhere by engaging millions of people around the world who will help to promote the fair treatment of LGBT people and generate support for measures to protect their rights.