Forced Into Marriage by Social Pressures
Author: Gowthaman Ranganathan
Recently, a doctor in Delhi committed suicide when she found out that her husband was gay. Her suicide note indicates that she also faced mental harassment from her husband. In late 2014, a dentist in Bangalore, on finding out that her husband was having sexual relationships with other men, filed a case under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Both these incidents highlight the issues surrounding homosexual men in marriages with straight women.
I am a lawyer who assists women in matrimonial and domestic violence cases in different forums. I have also been associated with campaigns for the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) persons. Due to my work in these spheres, these incidents evoke mixed responses. On the one hand, I strongly feel for the woman, who is in a marriage devoid of sexual intimacy coupled with cruelty. On the other hand, however, I also empathise with the man who had to hide an aspect of his sexuality because most people not only look down on it, but also actively condemn it. It is tempting to look at the situation as a conflict between the rights of a woman inside a marriage and the rights of a gay man. However, such an evaluation could lead to a conclusion that grants greater victimhood to one party over another, which is simplistic and ignores the nuances and complexities of such a situation.
Women take the blame
In these cases, both man and woman were victims of a culture where people are expected to be married, bear children, acquire property, and contribute to the growth of the family lineage.
For the woman, being married to a homosexual man puts her under great emotional distress, more so in a culture where women are habitually blamed and are also conditioned to take on the blame. If there is no sexual intimacy , they blame themselves; if there are no children, they again blame themselves. All this results in very low self-esteem and acts as a trigger for emotional and mental health issues.
It is worsened if there is physical and mental cruelty inflicted by the husband or his family. While there are laws that protect women from such situations, it often takes a long time for women to recognise, acknowledge, and come to terms with the violence and cruelty before they can seek legal remedy. In most cases, by the time they seek legal recourse, much of the damage is already done in the form of mental and physical cruelty. Men, homosexual or otherwise, are also under great pressure to get married. It is rarely seen as connected to one’s sexuality or sexual orientation, but only as an institution that has social importance with little personal significance. For instance, when a homosexual man comes out, his parents are likely to insist that he get married and work out “arrangements” outside the marriage.
Men also face the threat of being disowned and disinherited by their families if they do not comply with their wishes. Another fear articulated by some gay men is that the law is against them, with the Supreme Court of India reaffirming the constitutionality of Section 377, which criminalises certain sexual acts.
However, the judgement of the apex court also states that the section only criminalises certain sexual acts and not particular people, identities or orientations. Thus, no one can be charged under Section 377 for being gay.
Tremendous progress was made after the 2009 judgement of the Delhi High Court that had held Section 377 in its current form as bad law. After this judgement, numerous support spaces, organisations, magazines and events for queer persons were established and continue to exist and function despite the Supreme Court’s 2013 judgement. All that was done after 2009 has not been undone; and homosexual persons, their families, and spouses should be encouraged to access these spaces.
Better law still needed
Having said that, the fear of persecution using Section 377 continues, and all efforts must be taken to amend the law suitably to exclude consenting adults. Thus, it may be argued that a gay man and a heterosexual woman in a marriage are both victims of a society that privileges heterosexuality and reinforces heterosexual marriage as the norm. However, it must be noted that a cisgendered, gay man has certain privileges that neither heterosexual nor lesbian women are likely to have. Despite being in a marriage, he is more likely to be economically independent and have enough physical independence as well to continue to have relationships outside of the marriage. On the other hand, a woman’s autonomy is severely compromised by marriage, and if she is in a bad marriage, it leaves her doubly disadvantaged. The odds are stacked further against lesbian women coerced into marriage with straight men.
In order to combat the problems that arise out of such relationships, it is necessary to first address and question marriage as it is perceived today. The contours of relationships within marriages or otherwise are set a priori outside of the lives, interests and habits of the individuals concerned. The ideals of how a marriage ought to be are prescribed by sociocultural norms dictated by heteronormativity and patriarchy, thus leaving no scope for individuals to set their own terms for the relationship. This situation is aggravated by the institution of arranged marriages, which provides little or no space for conversations between the man and woman. Gender roles are predetermined and the reasons for the marriage dictated beforehand. These set rules undoubtedly favour the man, thus putting him in a place of power and privilege within the marriage relationship, and adversely affecting the woman.
The issue of forced marriages of homosexual persons are akin to forced marriages of any kind. Thus, it becomes vital to relook at marriages per se and emphasise the ideals of transparency, communication and honesty from the start.
First published in The Hindu.