Siddharth Dube’s memoir gives a boost to the battle undertaken by gays and sex workers and reveals much about India’s LGBT movement and its fight against AIDS
BY SUCHETA DASGUPTA
When this writer was 12, she came home from school one day with a copy of the magazine, Sportsworld, since discontinued, which carried news of her favorite tennis player Martina Navratilova having a lesbian partner. Queried as to what was the meaning of the strange word, her mom said: “Hush! Never utter it again.”
Sometimes, even parents contradict themselves. People change. And so, it wasn’t surprising that after filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh passed away, mom was heard saying how his struggles stemming from his alternate sexuality inspired and informed his work. That was in 2013, 28 years after the Navratilova episode.
On November 28, 2015, finance minister Arun Jaitley called upon the Supreme Court to revisit its decision to uphold Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Though his remark was made in a personal capacity, it marked a radical shift in attitude on the subject by the ruling party whose supporters have been propounding yoga as a “cure” for homosexuality.
It would be interesting indeed to trace this trajectory of change and document the forces, people and processes that brought it about. In No One Else, journalist, activist and commentator Siddharth Dube takes on this important task.
His is a commissioned memoir, an intimate account of growing up as a homosexual in India of the 1970s, about the emotional conflict, shame and anxieties as well as the abuse and assault heaped on him at first by his peers. But it’s equally a history of the gay, lesbian, transgender and sex workers’ rights movement in India, its setbacks and victories, its stake-holders and its heroes and villains, who, significantly enough, included both straight and gay people. It is also an insider report on the global fight against HIV, where poor policy, conservative politics and pecuniary imperatives continue to sabotage it to this day. It took Dube seven years to write this hardback.
Dube stands for gender fluidity and identifies as a “feminine man”. No right-minded person can have any quarrel with that. However, his idea of feminine and masculine is old-fashioned and may not be universally accepted. For instance, a radical feminist may identify as a feminine woman and be regarded as one by those who share her ethos even if she is considered masculine by her detractors. That said, Dube provides first-hand information about the Indian male psyche and explains how in our society misogyny and homophobia go hand in hand.
Precocious yet “girly” as a child, Siddharth recounts being mocked at La Martineire’s (Kolkata) and facing sexual and physical abuse at Doon School where “the atmosphere was boisterous and dark” and groups of boys preyed on the vulnerable and weak. At once homophobic and homosocial, the campus was ruled by a conspiracy of silence which protected the abusers.
Siddharth went to St Stephen’s College and then travelled to the US where he first accessed research that put to rest his self-doubts. It was in the US that he came out of the closet just when the frightening “gay plague”—AIDS—was burgeoning. Not surprisingly, the AIDS pandemic became his abiding concern.
In 1994, while employed with World Bank, Siddharth risked his job to publish a health policy newsletter, authored by Priscilla Alexander and an unnamed sex worker. As the first step to arresting the spread of HIV, the newsletter argued for legalization of voluntary sex work (which, they believed, should be part of the entertainment industry) as opposed to sex trafficking. Thus, he played a pioneering role in opening this debate.
However, the often-somewhat-reticent Siddharth is not one to hog the limelight. With characteristic modesty, he, therefore, chronicles all the heroes and martyrs of the human civilization’s latest battle for equality and human rights. Foremost among them is his maverick friend Siddhartha Gautam. Inseparable, the duo went around calling themselves Tiddarth and Tiddhartha in an allusion to Thomson and Thompson, two of Tintin’s most popular characters. It was Siddhartha’s testament, Less Than Gay, which inspired the first PIL in Delhi High Court against Section 377.
Siddharth salutes former home minister Indrajit Gupta for being the only Indian politician to have openly backed decriminalizing prostitution. At the same time, he is unsparing in his criticism of then UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot and senior American official Mark Dybul as well as feminist Gloria Steinem for stonewalling the cause back then and opposing it again in more recent times.
The book has interesting nuggets of information. For example, did you know that Brazil is one of the few countries that offers pension and other work benefits to sex workers? That Trikone and Bombay Dost were India’s first gay magazines brought out from Mumbai? That Kolkata’s famed maisons de tolérance of Sonagachi were once ruled by Agrewali bais? That over 90 percent of Indians work in low-paid, informal jobs? That the first autobiography of an Indian sex worker was written in 2005—by Nalini Jameela in Malayalam?
One of the most enjoyable parts of Siddharth’s autobiography is devoted to cruising. The average Indian is pansexual, he informs, and virtually every young male is up for sex with other men. Astonishingly, men pick each other up everywhere and at every hour, he reports, doing so during any routine interaction in the day, in shops, while walking down a street or waiting at the bus stop. He shares the secret lingo of flirtation and hidden venues for encounters—shop corners and alleys magically shielded from crowds. Somehow, this writer is left with the feeling that to mainstream this lifestyle is to rob it of its meaning.
The growing consensus for legalization of homosexuality aside, media-driven LGBT craze has ensured that merely being queer or a transgender is a passport to quick celebrity. Popular MSM (men who have sex with men) fanfiction today is threatening to wipe out classic literature’s once-perennial appeal. Forget Harry Potter, neither Peter Pan nor Jean Valjean, not even the world’s greatest detective Sherlock Holmes, have been spared in the creative endeavors of their worshipful fanboys and fangirls who actually prefer to see them in their gay avatars.
Hence, at a stage when everyone and their uncle is falling over each other to prove their liberal credos by taking part in this rather mindless frenzy, the very timing of this book makes certain that it is no Harry Kessler-esque groundbreaker. What it is, however, is a valuable document that will push forward the fight and provide the final impetus so that authorities change their minds on according dignity and freedom to India’s sexual outlaws.