This article originally appeared on VICE India.
This story is part of a wider editorial series. Coming Out and Falling In Love is about the queering of our relationships with others, and the self. This month, we look at Asian attitudes to sex and porn, dating in the digital era, experiences of LGBTQ communities, unconventional relationships and most importantly, self-love. Read similar stories here.
On July 5, 2018, Nikesh Usha Pushkaran and Sonu MS, both from Kerala, went to the Guruvayur Temple in Thrissur in their home state. Wearing the traditional mundu, they walked inside the temple premises that are considered an auspicious place for weddings, and are open to couples from different backgrounds. Weddings sanctified here are believed to last forever. The two men halted in the parking lot, held hands, and, with extreme discretion, exchanged rings and “sanctified” their union before anyone could spot them. And just as they had come, they went back home, very quietly.
The repressive Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which made homosexual sex “against the order of nature”, was still the law of the land back then (it was read down in September 2018). “It was a very secret event,” Pushkaran, 35, tells VICE. “I wasn’t even ‘legal’ as a person till homosexuality was decriminalised. I felt like a criminal back then. Plus I didn’t know other gay couples who had got married. We were going to be the first in Kerala.” It was no surprise, then, that their wedding went viral as local and national media rushed to interview Kerala’s “first” openly gay couple to get married. Two years on, Pushkaran, 35, and Sonu, 31, are leading yet another battle: To legalise their wedding. And this time, they are not very quiet.
The queer right to marriage—with complementing rights to inheritance, maintenance, banking, insurance, adoption and pension, among others—is a battle that has been gaining steam in the LGBTQ movement right after Section 377 was read down on September 9, 2018. Queer couples were already getting married according to their religious customs to sanctify their relationships in the presence of their families and friends. But a post-377 world allowed many to do it openly, with extravagance and pomp that was denied to them earlier. But marriage rights are not just about that. As Pushkaran and Sonu battle it out at the Kerala High Court with their petition to get their marriage—along with all queer marriages—registered, the couple tells VICE that their struggle is more about equality in all aspects of queer life in India.
Like most LGBTQ people navigating love and relationships in India, the duo started their journey on a dating app (Planet Romeo), where they were both looking for a life partner. “Because there are no matrimonial apps for queer people,” says Pushkaran, who is a share trader and runs a restaurant in Kakkanad in the Ernakulam district of Kerala—also where the couple lives. They first met in Kochi in May 2018 and fell in love “at first sight”. They met regularly but family acceptance was hard. “We had to make them comfortable with the idea of us together, so we started visiting each other’s homes together, just to normalise the relationship to them. In fact, we didn’t even tell them about our marriage initially. We told them after the wedding,” says Pushkaran.
Their religious wedding was an inspiration to many in the community, despite the hate that queer people often get from faceless trolls. But the biggest change was the massive pressure staying in the closet. “I was in depression for almost three years, and the law being what it was back then didn’t help either,” says Pushkaran. “I still feel mental pressure now and then. When we came out to the media, there was a lot of pressure. We faced death threats on social media and were called ‘Satan’s children’ too. Friends would warn us and tell us to be careful. A lot has changed now though.”
Though the reading down of Section 377 was a landmark moment in the Indian queer history, there’s still a long way to go. “The reading down of Section 377 only decriminalised sex,” says Pushkaran. “But there was nothing about the legal rights such as banking and marriage. I can’t even add Sonu as a nominee in insurance schemes. I still have to tick ‘Single’ in all official forms.”
The writ petition in the Kerala High Court, hence, challenges the Special Marriage Act, a 1954 law that only permits heterosexual couples to get married. “A homosexual couple like that of the Petitioners is denied equal access to the institution of marriage,” reads the petition, which essentially argues that non-recognition of their marriage violates the principles of equality, individual dignity and personal autonomy, as prescribed by the Constitution.
Legalising queer unions has been argued as the next “logical and ethical” step in order to guarantee fundamental rights to queer people. Today, many reports have come out of couples across the country waiting to register their marriages under the law, and fighting the socially conservative and parochial mindsets that have often let to not just humiliation but also threats and even violence.
In 2018, a lesbian couple forced to go through corrective rape cures by their family, died by suicide and left behind a note saying, “We are leaving this world to live with each other. The world did not allow us to stay together”. In another case, another queer couple from Uttar Pradesh sought police protection from their own families. In small towns especially, gay liberation is the stuff of dreams, where lack of social acceptance can lead to anything from not getting a job and apartment to facing sexual and other forms of violence.
“Our petition is going to affect LGBTQ people around the world, couple or not. This is what will give them confidence, and a driving force in life,” says Pushkaran, who is hopeful that the court will listen and give justice. “We don’t just want freedom to have sex. We want other rights too as a homosexual couple. Only then will the reading down of Section 377 be truly relevant.”
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