Of members of the LGBTIQ+ community, those who identify as bisexual often go overlooked. On Celebrate Bisexuality Day, an observance to celebrate bisexuality, members of the bisexual community, and the history of bisexuality, Health Issues India explores bisexuality in India and aims to shine a light on the difficulties those who identify as bisexual face.
In our reporting on LGBTIQ+ issues in the past, Health Issues India has identified a range of issues. These include the medical stigmatisation of the community (a topic my colleague Nicholas Parry expounded about at length in an interview with Dr Sameera Mahamud Jahagirdar) to the difficulties in raising awareness – a problem that activists have sought to address with campaigns aiming for youth engagement.
It is key to note that India has made important strides in improving LGBTIQ+ equality. In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised same-sex relations under penalty of up to life imprisonment. In one example of the conversation surrounding the community moving in a more progressive direction, WeWork earlier this year became the first company in India to afford health benefits to same-sex couples.
Yet progress still needs to be made. Such was the message of veteran journalist and activist Ashok Row Kavi in my interview with him earlier this year. Fundamentally, the LGBTIQ+ community continues to face considerable discrimination and stigma. The COVID-19 pandemic, as Mr Row Kavi told me, has only worsened the situation. The fear of members of this community is palpable.
Those who identify as bisexual often assume an obscure position in the discourse surrounding LTBTIQ+ issues. This is wrong. Celebrate Bisexuality Day – known by a number of other names such as Bisexual Pride Day, Bi Visibility Day, CBD, Bisexual Pride and Bi Visibility Day, and Bisexuality+ Day – is an important step in raising awareness.
“Bisexuality is an under-researched area in human sexuality. It is also seen as a somewhat grey area in our understanding of sexuality and encompasses sexual orientation, identity and behavior. Even though some studies have been conducted over the years following Kinsey’s influential era, they have been unable to clarify many of the aspects of bisexuality and bisexual behavior. Research in bisexual sexual behavior received attention after the HIV epidemic became evident and role of bisexual men as a potential ‘bridging group’ between the genders was considered for possible interventions to reduce HIV transmission.
“Defining and conceptualizing bisexuality is not straight-forward. There is a distinction between bisexual identity and behavior. Bisexual behavior may be more common than people identifying themselves as ‘bisexual’. A wide range of sexual identities may accompany bisexual behavior. Sexual identities are also linked to gender identities, situational, cultural and environmental factors (men in prison etc). There is usually an asymmetry of practice, with sexual activities with one gender predominating with possible temporal variations. The variations in level of erotic desire and identity are less well-known and certain ‘fluidity’ is likely. An individual may see himself as heterosexual but their fantasy or behavior may be homosexual depending upon circumstances.”
In India, that study noted “the epidemiological data on prevalence of homosexuality and bisexuality in India are lacking.” In the decade since, little seems to have changed. Yet there is increased visibility of the bisexual community – thanks in large part to those with the courage to come forward with their story.
In a GQ India article titled “Confessions of a bisexual man from Delhi” published last year, a man described his experiences being “a minority within a minority…unconventional doesn’t even begin to define my life.” He outlines how “at first, I was in complete shock,” following on from realising his sexual identity during his college years. “How could I have found a guy attractive? I was dating a girl at that time, and this sudden interest in another man turned my entire world upside down.
“Besides being worried about someone finding out, I was also scared in case I was turning gay. Please note that this was in 2003 and back then, I didn’t know anything about bisexuality – like most people, I only knew and understood being straight or gay.” His plight transformed into the reality that “I had to suddenly face the reality that I wasn’t ‘normal’ anymore – I could be a part of the LGBTQ+ community and that sent shivers down my spine. Add to that, I wasn’t even just gay. Being bisexual meant that I was a minority within a minority. How would I deal with that?”
Prashansa Gurung, writing in Vice, also last year spoke of her experiences, in an article titled “The Anxiety of Coming Out as Bisexual in India.” In the article, she opens with the question “Who am I?” Gurung goes on to outline “I grew up in a fairly religious Catholic household. And given the views on homosexuality in the Bible, I have had my share of alienation owing to my ‘non-straightness’.
“I remember being fourteen and asking the nun who taught us Catechism whether members of the then-popular ‘lesbian’ band called t.A.T.u would get into heaven, given that they make music and music makes people happy. I was told categorically that all their good would pale because of their one quality: being homosexuals. Even though I knew that there was something wrong with this narrative, I couldn’t fight the system then.”
Gurung goes on to explain how she realised her attraction to both sexes
“I went to an all-girls’ convent school, so for the longest time, I thought I was attracted to girls just because of the absence of boys around me. Now I know how problematic this thought was—homosexuality isn’t the rejection of the other, it’s just the preference for one. But I wasn’t comfortable with the label of a ‘lesbian’ either—I had a boyfriend at the time. It was only when I moved to Delhi in 2007 to study in a co-ed college when I realised I was still getting attracted to girls. It was also then that I got access to the internet, and discovered the word “bisexual” exists. And I was like, “Ya that’s me!””
To be bisexual in India or, indeed, anywhere is virtually guaranteed to be an experience of confusion. We are taught that many aspects of our sexual orientation and gender identity are binary when, in actual fact, a spectrum exists. Awareness-raising is key – and that is why Celebrate Bisexuality Day is an important event.
COVID-19 has changed the ways in which we can hold awareness-raising events, but has not changed the basic truth: all people deserve respect. All people deserved to be heard. The experiences of those who identify as bisexual – and the courage of those in India willing to speak up.