Sappho comes out of the closet

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By In a radical change from previous behaviour, lesbians are coming out into the open with their sexuality, says Reena Martins
  • Published 3.12.06

Hello ladies! I am a very young hearted 50-year-old married woman just looking for a woman who is sweet and kind and would like to share a little of herself with me… who can take complete control at first… who won’t mind teaching me as we go… this can be a beautiful experience for me if given the chance… in my heart I have always felt, that only a woman is capable of giving intense pleasure to another woman. A relationship is desired… of course with no strings attached.”

On a Sunday morning, at a coffee shop in Mumbai, the pretty, soft-spoken woman who posted this advertisement on the Internet agrees to spill the beans on her sexual orientation. Persis — as we will call her — is one of the bolder, and older, faces of lesbianism in India. Trying to step out of the closet — but with husband in tow — she talks of her desire to let her stirrings for a woman blossom, embracing a yearning that she has cherished since her school days.

Persis is among the many women who are now openly talking about having sex with other women. Age is no bar, and neither is marital status, as more and more women take pride in their sexual orientation. “Women are discovering themselves and coming out with their sexuality — unlike two or three years ago,” says Malobika, co-founder of Sappho, a lesbian group in Calcutta. Malobika knows what she is talking about, for last month something unheard of happened at Sappho. Nine young lesbians — students and working women — joined a monthly support group meeting.

In Mumbai too, women like Maria, a media professional and a lesbian in her late twenties, will tell you that it has become much easier for women desiring to live their sexuality — even if only a little — out of the closet. Even the turnout at lesbian parties, as Caroline, another young lesbian in Mumbai says, has leapfrogged in the last couple of years. “Today there would be between 80-100 women at such gatherings,” she says. Two or three years ago, a get-together of the kind would have attracted just eight or 10 women.

And while many women asserting their sexuality are economically independent — several holding lucrative jobs at call centres — as Malobika says, an increasing number of women from the middle and lower middle classes are not worried about wearing their sexuality on their sleeve. Take ‘Sanju baba’, a lesbian lodged in the Yeravada jail in Pune. Nicknamed after her screen idol, Sanjay Dutt, she has female prisoners swooning all over her.

Of course, the Internet has also made life easier for the close-knit group. Meetings no longer have to be held in anonymous rooms or small restaurants. With dating sites and e-groups, they now have a platform to air their views, chat, joke, flirt and, occasionally, even moan the loss of a lady love to a man and marriage.

Among women professing a same-sex relationship are some who are married. Sushmita and Radhika, a couple in Calcutta, have succeeded in keeping their relationship alive and undercover — largely because Sushmita’s husband, Deepankar, is posted outside Calcutta. Unknown to her husband and in-laws, she owns a flat, which allows her to nurture her relationship with her lover. The pressure shows up when Deepankar is home on long breaks, for that’s when Sushmita is forced to play the dutiful wife.

There are some, though, like Persis’s husband, Viren, who support their wives’ sexual orientation. Viren, while claiming to be very happy, will allow her to have sex with a woman if he is there to watch them — because, he claims, he cares for her safety. “It’s okay as long as it doesn’t disturb our family life — as long as I get my meals on time and my extended family doesn’t get to know about it,” he says.

To an outsider, the couple professes undying love and trust. And yet, Persis repeatedly stresses the warmth and “unconditional love” that she experiences in a woman’s arms. And the sex with a woman is “incomparable,” she says. “Only a woman can know my erogenous zones,” she says, smiling at a sheepish Viren, who, recently, witnessed one such ecstatic encounter between Persis and a German tourist in Goa.

But despite the fact that many more women have come out in the open in recent years, loving or living together is still fraught with difficulties. Suicides are on the rise, especially in West Bengal. Malobika points out that the last couple of years have witnessed four reported cases of lesbians ending their lives in the state. The latest was in October this year.

Helplines, which have played a vital role in preventing potential suicides, have also exposed the role of the family — mostly parents — in driving women to breaking point. The helpline run by Humjinsi, a lesbian rights group in Mumbai, hears men calling in to ask if they can cure sisters or nieces of their lesbian tendencies. “Lesbianism is equated with sex,” moans Susheela, who is with Humjinsi.

For Arundhati, a Calcutta-based lesbian in her mid twenties, her relatives’ attitude translated into a nightmarish reality. She was packed off to her maternal uncle’s house in Assam when her parents got to know about her sexual orientation. The uncle tried to rape her, but her parents refused to believe her when she told them and threw her out of the house. They called up her employers, told them that she was a lesbian, and she lost a good job. Now, through Sappho’s intervention, she manages to earn a living — earning about Rs 3,000 a month and staying in a slum colony.

The problem, however, is not just family-related. For many lesbians, the first monumental step is the realisation — and acceptance — that they are sexually attracted to other women. “Many lesbians are uncomfortable using the term lesbian — which they find negative,” says Maya, who works with Sangini, a lesbian support group in Delhi.

But there are also rare happy endings. Chandrima, a 32-year-old lesbian in Calcutta, was put through unspeakable torment by her parents and asked to leave home. But she finally regained their love and acceptance a few months ago. “I’ve returned from hell,” she says. Others like Susheela have been luckier. Four years after she told her parents that she was a lesbian, she found their support when she was having problems with her girlfriend. “That’s when they realised how serious I was about her,” she says.

And then there is Maria. When word got around in school that she was a lesbian, she was made to sit apart from the rest of the class. Her father, however, was more understanding, even though he read her a lecture on how she had chosen a difficult path. “But it was the only path I wanted to tread,” says Maria.

Facts of love

• Even the turnout at lesbian parties has leapfrogged in the last couple of years

• With dating sites and e-groups, they now have a platform to air their views, chat, joke, flirt and, occasionally, even moan the loss of a lady love to a man and marriage

• But suicides are on the rise, especially in West Bengal