TOI: Gay couples ‘marry’ with parents’ approval, hawan and priests

10 May 2009
The Times of India
Source

Gay couples ‘marry’ with parents’ approval, hawan and priests
10 May 2009, Mansi Choksi, TNN

MUMBAI: Last week, Durban-based sales advisor Joe Singh and his partner Wesley Nolan solemnised their relationship at a ceremony where a Hindu priest officiated. In the Singh living room, Wesley tied a necklace with a Ganesha pendant around Joe’s neck. The couple, now honeymooning in Mauritius, chose the Ganesha instead of garlands because both of them are “staunch Hindus” and wanted the Elephant God to “ward off evil and remove obstacles from their path”.

The grooms had sent out shimmering wedding invitations weeks in advance, had hand-embroidered shervanis shipped all the way from India, and took their vows before a hawan or ceremonial fire. They spent around 18 months preparing for the day and Joe’s mother
Rita Govender said the larger family had been extraordinarily supportive of the plan.

A year ago, a Mumbai-based IT professional married his white boyfriend of five years in a boisterous ceremony in Seattle. They too had the shervanis and hawan. Around 450 people attended, many of them uncles and aunts from Mumbai. The boy’s parents initially had serious reservations about making their son’s sexuality public. “But by the end of it, his mother was in mother-in-law mode,” laughs one of the guests.

These warm, happy stories may sound unbelievable given the stream of stories of social hostility against gay people, but the fact is that same-sex marriage ceremonies have been performed in Indian households, rich and poor, and in cities and small towns alike. While the hawan nuptials may not have legal standing, the ritual is remarkable in a country where homosexuality is still considered a criminal act punishable by up to ten years’ in the clink. Ironically, the police cannot bust a same-sex marriage because a ceremony cannot prove homosexuality as defined by Section 377.

A Mumbai activist from Gay Bombay confirms that there are reports of marriages every week, whether it is a lesbian couple in Punjab or Kerala or gay men in Gujarat or Delhi. Ashok Row Kavi, who pioneered the opening of the closet in India, says he knows several couples who have tied the knot. “There’s one big plus-point about Hindu priests,” says Kavi with a straight face. “They’ll forget about everything if you show them a few bucks.”

Same-sex marriage ceremonies are not an entirely new phenomenon, although they’ve largely stayed under the radar. Sixteen years ago, when Aditya Advani told his parents he was gay, his mum first hugged him and then suggested that he put in a matrimonial ad in a leading Indian newspaper, for a suitable boy. Two years later, in 1993, he brought Michael Tarr home to meet the family. It was on this visit that Aditya complained about having to attend yet another family wedding. “I don’t know these people, why do I have to go to the wedding? They would never come for mine,” he griped. To which, his mother, a lawyer who, in Aditya’s words, “tends to shake the premise of things”, said half-jokingly, “Why not? Let’s have a ceremony for Michael and you.” And so there was one.

In the drawing room of the Advanis’ Sundernagar home in Delhi, Aditya Advani and Michael Torr exchanged garlands and made the pheras around a cluster of lamps in the presence of two bronze idols of Lord Hari Hara, a deity that represents the union of Shiva and Vishnu. The family’s spiritual mentor, Swami Bodhananda, presided over the simple but radical ceremony. The hall was strung with marigolds, coconuts were cracked open and like good Hindu grooms, Aditya and Michael showed up in sparkling white kurtas. “I don’t think there were pagdis, we just forgot about it. The ceremony was so spontaneous that there wasn’t any time to plan,” says Aditya’s mum Kanta, who raised a toast and recited her favourite couplet in the presence of 40 family members and friends. The couple, says Kanta, was ecstatic. “We were all so happy in their happiness, but in all fairness, I left out friends and relatives who I thought would harbour negative feelings about it.”

Michael now introduces himself as ‘Aditya’s half’, calls Aditya’s parents ‘mamma’ and ‘pappa’, their parents visit each other and when the couple comes home for an annual visit, Aditya’s parents make sure they have a gift for Michael. They’ve been together for 16 years, and both readily admit that parental approval has helped hugely in nurturing the bond. “It added an extra meaning and we felt solidified,” says Aditya, a landscape architect who lives in San Jose.

Indeed, for most young gay people, nothing is more important than to have their parents present on this most important day of their lives. While very few parents are as liberal as Aditya’s, there are cases when even conservative mothers have come around. As happened in the case of an Indian lesbian living in the US, who came out to her traditional Gujarati family. After the tears and tantrums came a grudging acceptance. “Finally, her mother told her that if she had to marry a woman, she should at least make sure she was a Gujarati girl. ‘And make sure you send her to me so I can teach her to cook the way our family does’, her mother said. She was also worried by one more question: whose house will the baraat leave from?” laughs an activist who knows the girl.

For San Jose residents Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani too, exchanging vows in Arvind’s brother house in Toronto was the most memorable day of their lives. Arvind, a board member of the California Native Plant Society and Ashok, editor of India Currents magazine, met when they were in their early 30s. “We became roommates and then lovers,” says Arvind.

Arvind and Ashok were married in a traditional Indian ceremony complete with dhotis and agni. “Ashok and I are very sentimental people, we thought it was a great idea,” he says. It was Arvind’s mother, who had once adamantly rejected his sexuality, who came up with the idea. “When my family realised that what I had with Ashok was not ‘timepass’, they accepted us in their own way. He is very special to my family.”

The grooms had sent out shimmering wedding invitations weeks in advance, had hand-embroidered shervanis shipped all the way from India, and took their vows before a hawan or ceremonial fire. They spent around 18 months preparing for the day and Joe’s mother Rita Govender said the larger family had been extraordinarily supportive of the plan.
Activists say that the same-sex marriage movement has emerged independent of the other issues in the gay rights movement. Most gay activists in India weren’t really pushing for marriage because they believed that homophobia and HIV were more pressing battles. Ashok Row Kavi is one of the more vociferous opponents of marriage, which he calls an “oppressive heterosexual institution”. Yet, say activists, it’s a need that can’t be wished away. “It’s the number one question we get now from guys coming into the gay community: how can I find a man to marry?” says a Gay Bombay activist.

Most of the same-sex couples who have had big ceremonies live outside India in more open-minded climes like California. One of the few exceptions is the Goa-based celebrity couple of designer Wendell Rodricks and his French partner Jerome Marrel. Last year they completed 25 years together. In 2003, Wendell and Jerome signed the PACS, a French civil ceremony which though not technically a wedding gives same-sex couples rights like any other couple. “It gave our relationship dignity in the eyes of the French law,” says Rodricks. Now, they stand in immigration lines together and name each other as partner on visa forms. “My mother, cousins and close friends were all there to join in the celebration,” says Rodricks. “There were no vows or rings or anything. After the document was signed we had a party like any family party.”

Aditya and Michael were extremely lucky that their family priest, Swami Bodhananda, agreed to preside. “He thought about it for a few days, and then said he understood me and that we could have a ceremony in the presence of Lord Hari Hara,” says Aditya. Other gay couples have been less fortunate. “One couple had to eventually be married by a recorded tape which chanted the mantras,” says a Mumbai-based software engineer. The Mumbai IT professional in Seattle had to get a white Isckon priest because no other priest was ready to officiate. In Joe Singh’s case too, the Durban priest who presided over the ceremony invited anger from many Hindus in South Africa. Arvind hopes the new generation of gays will get its blessings more easily.

(No names have been changed)

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