What would you do if you were forced to live your life on someone else’s terms?
That is a question millions of youth across the globe face as they battle stereotypes and cookie-cutter identities.
For Naveen Bhat, who identifies as non-binary (and uses the pronoun “them”), the experience turned into a nightmare. In 2015, Naveen’s mother took them to Agra, India for a two-week vacation. During the second week, she told them that they were going to stay in Agra indefinitely to “fix” Naveen’s queerness.
Naveen took a brave and unprecedented step to combat homophobia: they took their parents to court. And won. Escaping Agra is an award-winning student film documenting Naveen’s experiences, created by Pallavi Somusetty.
In India, a land of a billion-plus people and a zillion-plus cultures, having your identity is not a concept that people seriously consider. What is identity? Is it what the world thinks of you? Your parents? Boss, maybe? Girlfriend/boyfriend? Social media? The government, even?
For a typical Indian woman like me (maybe I am not such a great example because my husband “allowed” me to study abroad all by myself!), female identity is typecast in the roles of: daughter, sister, girlfriend, wife, mother and grandmother – only in that order. I was asked by a Canadian classmate if I was married, after I told him that I have a child. I just shrugged and said we Indians have no idea what having a child sans marriage is like. He was shocked.
For a person to come out and declare themselves as lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transgender/ queer (LGBTQ) is illegal in India. Chapter XVI, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code dating back to 1860, introduced during the British rule of India, criminalises sexual activities “against the order of nature,” which arguably includes non-heterosexual sexual activities.
For Naveen, the “imprisonment” was more shocking because it was perpetrated by their own mother.
“I remember the exact moment I realized that I wasn’t going back. I was packing my bags to leave in a few days and my mother looked at me and said, ‘Why are you packing your bags? We’re not going anywhere.’ I thought she was joking at first, but I quickly understood that she wasn’t. I was frustrated, angry, and in complete shock. I was mostly numb. There were many times when my mother mocked me for being completely dependent on her in terms of money, food, shelter, and transportation. I realized that if I stayed for a couple more months, I would have killed myself.”
Naveen on the idea of coming out:
“I am non-binary and bi. I am not attracted to masculinity. I am attracted to people who are gender neutral or femme. I know many other people can relate to this, but there really isn’t any singular ‘coming out’ moment; it’s more of a continuous process. I came out to myself as bi when I was 14 because I was not sure if I was attracted to guys. I came out to my friend group in high school shortly after. The definition of what it means to be bi is super binary in the way that it is discussed in our media. I thought that I had to love men and women to be bi.”
Naveen on conforming to gender:
“In the beginning of my first year at college, I started to question my own gender. After months of having uncomfortable conversations with myself, trying to separate gender identity and gender expression, it became increasingly apparent that I am not a woman. I came out to my partner and college friends a few months later, and discovered that I’m attracted to more than just woman. After seeing the world outside of the binary, I realized that being bi doesn’t have to mean an attraction to men and woman, it can also mean an attraction to people within, and outside of, the gender spectrum.”
As much as coming out is celebrated in western society, most LGBTQ Indians may not even understand the concept. They assume their “queerness” to be a problem because of society’s disapproval and go on to marry in accordance with their parents’ choices, leading multiple complicated lives.
Any kind of sexuality and gender that hovers between the black and white gender spectrum is unforgiveable. Disapproving parents take it upon themselves to kill children who come out as gay or enter a homosexual union with another person.
For Naveen, there were multiple moments where they dropped hints so their parents would not be shocked when they came out to them in the future.
“They gave me a long talk about how disgusting queerness is, and that they should be pitied. My mother found out about my gender and romantic/sexual orientation by confiscating my phone and going through all my messages, pictures, etc. She forcibly found that information. I never directly told her anything.”
As more and more Indians get global education and travel abroad, the exposure allows them to open their minds and understand the huge spectrum that sexuality and gender represent within the entire umbrella. The Internet is now making it okay for Indian society to grasp the concept of being in a “grey” sexual area.
In Naveen’s case, the Internet was both a boon and a bane when they were trapped in Agra.
“My mother made my grandfather change the Internet password regularly and would refuse to give it to me. I managed to steal the passwords off her laptop and I would wake up at 4am to quietly leave the room and turn on the router so that I could access the internet via my phone. I was in contact with my partner, who then facilitated contact with various organizations that helped me escape. I used social media and email to communicate with people, but the internet was patchy and unreliable. I managed to use the one hour a day internet in the computer labs at the university my mother forced me to enroll in.”
The transgender community carries a huge stigma associated with it, dating back to the ninth century. People from the LGBTQ have no rights and assume a hidden identity, primarily to stay away from the police. Going to court is not an option given the “unlawfulness” of being gay.
“The first time I went to court, it was to ask the judge for protection because my parents used their monetary influence to bribe police into crossing state lines, where they illegally tracked phones and threatened to raid houses in groups of 40 to 60. We needed to make sure that I, along with everyone helping me, would not be subject to police brutality. It was in the first court session that the judge made an order for my parents to be present during the second session. In the second court session, the judge essentially ruled in my favor, and made my parents give me my identification documents and a plane ticket to go back to the US. It was a landmark case through which the justice system treated a trans person (me) like an autonomous human being with rights.”
While the ordeal may now somewhat be over for Naveen, there has been no contact with family for more than a year now.
“On October 5, 2015, the judge told my mother to buy me a plane ticket. She booked tickets for the entire family to go back at once, but the judge made her change the ticket so that I could go back alone.”
Naveen is now pursuing interests and passions, “instead of being forced into a medical career by my parents.” They study film and theater, and want to create media that has more diverse representation in it.
“I’m on a journey to experience life on my own terms, without being in constant paranoia and fear of not pleasing my parents. I now strive to accomplish things to make myself proud, which is the closest thing to freedom I have ever experienced.”
Be sure to read my interview with director Pallavi Somusetty in the December issue of LINK and check out www.EscapingAgra.com for details about future screenings and more on this incredible film.
Tanushree is a former journalist with 13 years of experience, currently studying broadcast and online journalism. Tanu already holds a degree in mass media and communications from Indraprastha College for Women in Delhi University. She’s worked with Reuters, Businessworld Magazine, and Indian Express Newspaper.