Sunil Gupta discusses his photo-book Queer and tells Shana Maria Verghis how gay issues in India and US differ, the latest developments on Section 377 and that it is still hard to find a place to hang out with his tribe in Delhi
On July 2, 2009, a provision in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalised sexual acts of adults in private, was struck down. The verdict was that it violated the Right to Equality, Protection of Life and Liberty. Photographer Sunil Gupta, who also works with the queer collective Nigah, explained that, “We recently went to the Supreme Court again, because many petitions were filed against the judgment by religious and extremist groups. But now there is a recess for the summer break.”
In collaboration with Vadhera Art Gallery, Gupta brought out collections of various photo-documentaries he shot over the years in a book called Queer. This provides glimpses into gay communities in India, US and Europe, among whom he has lived and worked.
Gupta had moved to US to study in the 60s, when the country was in flux of the Civil Rights Movements, feminism and Gay Pride marches. A mood he said he feels in India now, where he returned to settle in 2005. He told us, “It is like I’m reliving my youth.”
But it never has been a walkover for LGBT’s of the world. Least of all in US, despite Barack Obama’s support of the Matthew Shepherd Act, adopted as an amendment in 2009. Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old, who in 1998, was tortured, tied to a fence and left to die, after he told two men, who offered him a lift, that he was gay. Later in... in on his way to the red-carpet Oscar function, where he was awarded for his role as US’ first openly gay politician in Milk, Sean Penn had faced wrath of homophobic protestors.
Gupta, who found a space and the freedom to be himself in America, added that regardless of this, “I think Americans are more prejudiced against homosexuals than Indians. It’s probably the Bible-belt mentality which emphasises morality and breaking rules laid down in scriptures like the Quran or the Bible, that cause one to sin. Followed by the guilt. India has fewer issues with morality. Here, the matter is about disclosure. You can do what you want in private life. But it is not done to come out in public. And the Gay movement is all about coming out. Because, unless you don’t, nothing can be discussed and people can take advantage and commit crimes and offences.” He continued, “So to be gay in Delhi, is still to remain in the closet. Because people see you on the street and know about your nature. But it is a bit too much to open up about it. I constantly get people saying, ‘Why mention it? Do it privately.’”
In that sense, the Gay Movement has taken frontline action in bring private issues to public domain with more forthrightness. This connects it, broadly speaking, to arenas like transparency in corporate establishments, or for that matter, the ongoing corruption problem.
During the interview-narrative in his book, Gupta expresses some reservations about the LGBT issue “ever being resolved.” But some years ago, he would not have imagined showing photos on queers at a public show in the Capital. Although even that had its share of obstacles. “There’s a discrepancy between the legal and ground realities,” he said. “So it will take a while to catch up.”
He went on, “I’ve mostly used people I know in my photos. Not paid models. And several were only okay if I showed at a particular place, in certain ways. Not where families could access them. So I had to talk it over with each one. But this is only the case in India.” By and large, he added that, “People still do not publicise a place in Delhi where gay people can hang out.” People know Pegs and Pints is one such place for instance, but Gupta said, “You will not see the address advertised in that way. It leaves you few options.”
His most recent work in progress is a series shot in Paris, which features an Indian man with his French lover. The Indian seems totally isolated from his location. Called Sun City, the photographs include nude shots of men at a gay spa called Sun City, whose interior design and door are Indian in origin, with an exotica twist. This makes things ironic, as one would not encounter such a place in India today. The photos are for a large show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris that will go on display on May 26.
Other photos in Queer are of gay couples at a famous hangout for LGBTs called Christopher Street in US. Gay clubs in UK. Personal shots of himself, after he learnt he was HIV positive and undergoing medication. He is still taking treatment with combination drugs.
Gupta commented in the book that gay casual sex leads to wider relationships in long term. That ‘romance’ was an unrealisable goal, “often destroyed by constraints of marriage.” He explained his views on this, by saying, “The origin of the gay movement was against, among other things, politics of family-based property ownership, which needed marriage to keep it going.” He continued, “Most marry to enlarge property, not love. This leads to businesses. Tatas, Reliance are family owned. So you get right-wing capitalism.”
Gupta added, “Gays raised other questions? Why not live together without being married. Or why can’t more than two people live together.” But even gays seem hung on marriage. “In US,” he thinks, “It’s the Bible-belt influence. Because marriage is supposed to lend sanctity. Funny thing is, in England, gays can have a civil arrangement but straight couples aren’t allowed this.”
What about putting oneself in a box by limiting oneself to a gay identity? “People have a range of identities,” he agreed, “In Delhi it’s all about kinship and clan. So clans gather on the wedding circuit. In my age group, we looked for separate groups. Metrosexual bars are competitive and aggressive. A gay bar was friendly. Less chance of getting shot.” As for the US issue with men holding hands, he thinks, “It’s because cultures differ on the range of physical contact. It’s less so in Europe, as in a place like Greece. Conversely, it’s easier for a guy there to get naked in a gym. I stripped in a Delhi gym and was given the ‘what-are-you-doing?’ look.”