A Piece of Advice
Queer Couples Share How to Live Openly and Safely in India
From building a solid support system to picking one’s battles, living together might be a multi-pronged battle for queer couples in India but it can be done.
The idea of a live-in relationship presents many opportunities — it can equip us with the tools to navigate living with someone who’s not entirely like us, cultivate empathy and not be stuck up about little things, share expenses that can ease the financial burden, divide labour that can help reduce individual stress and workload and increase intimacy.
For queer couples, particularly in conservative countries like India, living together comes with its own sets of constraints. The battle to recognise same-sex marriage has only just begun. Couples who are openly living together, especially those in small towns, could face violence and discrimination. The workarounds could compromise a queer couple’s dignity. Some pretend to be brothers and sisters or just roommates with nothing romantic. You cannot hold hands, and cannot afford to kiss in public by mistake. In an article for VICE, queer writer Navin Noronha writes how he decided to “drop the act” of pretending to be roommates, after years of being harassed and bullied by “nosy aunties” and homophobic landlords.
For this story, three queer couples living together in India told us how they navigate a country that still has a long way to go when it comes to acknowledging queerness, let alone accepting it; how they chip away at all the prejudices bit by bit, and how they approach it all with a realism that comes all too naturally to queer folks.
1. Educate people about the decriminalisation of homosexuality
Winnie Chopra and Gurleen Arora, who have been living together for years, said that it’s impossible for them to pretend to be sisters. “For the simple reason that we are comfortable PDA-ing in public and expressing our love openly, so it makes no sense lying. We make it clear that we’re together before renting an apartment,” said 35-year-old Gurleen, who runs a queer community The Gay Gaze with her partner in Mumbai.
Both acknowledge that living in mega cities like Mumbai, particularly in its slightly affluent suburbs, comes with its own sets of privileges. Your landlord could be “educated” in the conventional sense of the word, speak fluent English and yet be homophobic.
“If you sense homophobia, the onus is on you to educate your landlord or apartment owner about the fact that the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality four years ago,” said 42-year-old Winnie. “When you bring in the law and politely assert your rights, it definitely makes a lot of difference because they know you can’t be taken for granted.”
2. Ensure a healthy relationship dynamic
The way a couple navigates external issues is directly proportional to how at ease they feel with each other. Often, putting up a united front in the face of adversity can be easier said than done. There could be inherent issues in the relationship itself that might prevent a couple from ever coming up with a cogent action response when faced with any kind of hostility or hate.
Agniva, a 31-year-old human resources manager has been living together with his 26-year-old partner Priyanjul Johari for the past two years, in the city of Pune, thanks to the pandemic. The essence of their relationship is based on having a healthy dynamic at home.
“Living together as a couple is a big commitment for each other, so if you’re not sustaining as a couple, all the homophobia from the outside world will get multiplied,” said Priyanjul, who works as a software engineer. “So, it’s important to be sure of one’s relationship dynamic and sense of self before moving in together.”
3. Build a strong support system in case of emergencies
All three couples agreed that coming out to one’s parents needs to be cushioned with financial independence, regardless of how liberal or conservative they are. Even the most seemingly liberal parents can turn out to be unaccepting. So having a sense of financial independence equips a queer person or a couple with the means to face the world. They must have the financial and emotional support needed to tide through it all.
“You have to find safety in your own little bubble and this bubble must be of allies and queer friends because there is strength in numbers when there are enough people together, so it’s more of finding safety than safety happening to us,” said Akshay Bajaj, who works in the hospitality industry and has been living in Goa with his 26-year-old partner Deepanshu Arora, who works as a software engineer. “This support system becomes your family pretty quickly but I still do feel awkward if I’m dressing up a little fem when I step outside.”
4. Ensure elderly people visit you
In India, Gurleen said, one earns a stamp of safety and stability if elderly people visit you. This is perhaps the reason why many landlords in India want to know if you’re still connected to your parents, queer or not.
“It helps if people are visiting you and particularly if it’s elderly people,” she said. “This gives the people in your society the confidence that you are being looked over and they cannot take you for a ride.”
She clarified that one cannot go out of their way to do this or to prove a point. Gurleen and Winnie are in their 30s and 40s and yet they have been asked by certain landlords in the past to “verify” whether they are indeed who they say they are.
5. Choose your battles
Akshay and Deepanshu said that coming out is a choice and it must be carefully navigated. As far as their Goa home is concerned, they don’t go out of their way to announce to the world that they are a couple. However, if someone asks them, they don’t lie, either.
Bajaj said that the idea is to tread a “path of least resistance” and to know that you’re not friends with your landlords. Even in their own case, while they feel their landlord is not necessarily homophobic, they haven’t told him explicitly that they are a couple. Even Agniva and Priyanjul said that they share information on their relationship on a “need-to-know” basis.
“The rule we follow is to establish a decent, cordial relationship with my neighbours or landlords so that even if they find out I’m living with my partner, it will not be as harsh because they know we’re good humans,” said Priyanjul. “And yet we must know that no live-in relationship is a bed of roses, the goal is to always know that you’re living with your partner who will reveal many layers about yourself.”
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