A memoir of love in the time of intolerance

A candid personal memoir traces the history of homosexuality from the 1980s to today, offering a rare insight into the psyche of gay individuals and their homophobic opponents

A memoir of love in the time of intolerance

Geetanjali Krishna
Author: Siddharth Dube
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 369
Price: Rs 599

In this poignant memoir, author and activist Siddharth Dube traces the tumultuous history of homosexuality through the growing spread of AIDS during the homophobic 1980s to the present, while chronicling his personal journey from a repressed teen to an ardent activist and proponent of the rights of sexual minorities. In many ways, this is an important work that must be read by people of all sexual orientations for its rare insights into the psyche of gay individuals. It is especially significant today when, in spite of the widespread outcry against it, the Supreme Court continues to stand by Article 377 that criminalises homosexuality.

Dube writes that it was around the age of 11 that he was first attracted to another man. Reading about his early years, the overall sense one gets is of fear and loneliness. He recalls shattering cases of sexual abuse in his alma mater, The Doon School. His experiences were complicated by his shamed realisation that he was indeed a “girly boy”.

Writing about this, perhaps in retrospect, Dube shares interesting psychological insights. Homophobes are often also misogynists, he avers. Also, there is a difference in homophobic attitudes towards the effeminate “givers” (the ones who allow penetration or give oral sex) and the more macho “takers” of gay sex. Whether amongst the schoolboys at Doon School or in the rarified echelons of his father’s club, the “takers” are often treated, and indeed behave, as if they are part of the brotherhood. At the same time, violent homophobia is often expressed towards those known to play the feminine role in gay relationships.

Dube also makes a thought-provoking case that homophobes are likely to also be sexual predators, writing that the merciless bullying he encountered in boarding school had deep sexual undertones. While the individuals in consensual gay relationships rarely voice homophobic attitudes, the most merciless bullies in his school were also sexually the most aggressive.  

Consequently, Dube emerged from school a confused and lonely individual. There were no openly gay men or women at that time to validate his identity, and even the more sexually “liberated” amongst his circle (notably his father and his friends who thought nothing of divorces, affairs and striptease shows) reviled the closeted gays in their midst. This was sadly the case even when the author was an undergraduate at Tufts University in the US in 1982. It was the time when the AIDS epidemic was silently spreading across the country and, having gained the epithet of Gay Plague, had led to heightened homophobia.

The AIDS epidemic, however, spurred new research and articles on homosexuality and just the regular mention of the subject had a profoundly affirmative impact on the author. His own sexual liberation (an aspect that he is guilty of over-sharing) occurred in the same era, mostly after he returned to India. The gratuitous details of his sexual encounters — from the long showers to the threesomes — seem to take away from the extreme import of his memoir.

Seemingly drunk on the sense of freedom he experienced at this time, Dube makes a startling statement that this reviewer has no way of verifying: “...virtually every youngish Indian male, barring those with Westernised backgrounds like us — burdened with a Victorian era paranoia about homosexuality — was up for sex with other men.” With the attitude of having been there and done them all, he writes that same sex love has always been more accepted in the traditional Indian setting than it has amongst people like him, Macaulay’s Children, victims of the British education system.

Meanwhile, having found himself in a motherland that refused to accept him as he was, Dube describes how he gravitated towards the cause of sex workers, as sexually oppressed and socially reviled as gays. In India, AIDS cut swathes through their numbers as well, exposing them to further social disapprobation. The problem of AIDS, he very relevantly concludes, has as much to do with human rights as it does with the disease itself.

The memoir is rich in experience, much of it painful, of friends dying way too early, of dreams forever unfulfilled and, most of all, a sense of crippling loneliness and isolation. However, Dube is also a son of privilege and this somehow takes away from his story, which often dwells on how hard life has undoubtedly been for him.

He writes about being thrown into a Delhi jail, facing charges of homosexuality — and being extricated by a word from his influential father to a top-ranking police official in the capital. The author attended the best schools and universities worked at places like the World Bank and seemed as much at ease in his South Delhi apartment as he did in New York. Even when AIDS had led to a rise in homophobia in the US, Dube was safely ensconced as a post-graduate student at the University of Minnesota, a liberal institution where America’s first gay student group began as far back as 1969. The reader is left wondering about the thousands of less privileged gay individuals — jailed and brutalised under Article 377, shunned by their families when they contracted HIV, reviled and rejected by society for their sexual preferences.

In the final reckoning, though, this courageous memoir could have been written by no one else — for Dube, the product of the privilege into which he was born, is probably one of the few who had the cushion to survive what he went through, and live to tell the tale.

A memoir of love in the time of intolerance

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First Published: Dec 05 2015 | 12:18 AM IST

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