Think of all the gay men you know globally – in media, in movies, in books, in “celebrity” circles, among your friends, in online forums and groups. Now think of all the lesbians you can think of …
See the problem? For every visible, out and proud, and instant-recall lesbian you can think of (and yes that includes Ellen DeGeneres), there are likely to be a dozen gay men you can recall.
Now transpose the geographical location to India, and the scenario becomes almost surreal! One could easily believe that the lesbians in India exist in a roughly 1:100 ratio to gay men. Now let’s think about it for a moment. Is this possibly a representative of any kind of reality?
Given that science has almost agreed that being of a different gender or sexual orientation than the world wants you to be, is an inherent quality, seems not. Although debate continues to rage over whether it is genetic, hormonal, acquired or something else, estimated percentages for how much of the human population is LGBT range from 5 to 11%. In his 1940s research, Alfred Kinsey estimated, from research data, that 10% of the human population is non heterosexual. Many successive research projects seem to support his estimate.
The math then becomes pretty simple - 10% of the population is not straight, then assuming a population of 1.3 billion in India, there are roughly 130 million (13 crore) LGBT Indians. And assuming naturally occurring ratios, there should be roughly as many women as there are men. So there should be 5 odd crore LB women, at least.
The question, of course, is – where are they? And this is not a new state of affairs either. I remember when I was at the university, when I first met some lesbian and bisexual women, how much of an accident it was. I had spent the previous 20 odd years of my life assuming there just wasn’t anyone else in India, much as I intellectually rationalized that there must be. Either that, or I figured, I would never meet any because of how invisible they were. Blessed be the reporter for a local magazine, who while interviewing me on a totally unrelated topic asked if I wanted to meet this lesbian couple she knew, and started off my path of community organizing, activism, and more.
The next two decades – while my circles of friends, acquaintances, and allies of all genders and sexual orientations expanded – I kept wondering where the dykes were. It is easier to find others now, with support groups, social media, and younger people being more comfortable acknowledging their orientations, at least in some circles. And yet, the disparity in visible numbers, remains. And not just here, in 2012, a BBC report criticized the 'invisibility' of lesbians and bisexuals on television. It found that lesbian women are “relatively invisible compared to the level of coverage of gay men”, however stereotypical and narrow that coverage might be.
At community events, meetings, hangouts, discussions, workshops, parties, it is a glaring imbalance. There are hardly ever any cis-women, and many of the ones present are allies. In the news, the only time lesbians seem to garner any kind of mention is when they try to or succeed in killing themselves. In any other way, they may as well not exist. Even in LGBT organizing or rights based activism worldwide, they are conspicuous by the smallness of their numbers. Many cities in the west, where Pride Marches have become a regular and much celebrated visibility event, are opting for separate DYKE and Transgender Marches as a part of pride week celebrations to give women a way to feel visible. Similarly, if you flip through any of the “queer” magazines that you find and check out the advertisements, most feature and target only gay men because – like everyone else -- the writers and advertisers either don’t see lesbians as a large enough market, or they assume that, like straight women through history, lesbians will tolerate being left out of advertising and still engage with their products.
Where does this invisibility come from? We all know by now that lesbians do exist, but where are all the lesbian bars? Where are the hundreds of short films for lesbians? Why is only porn the overwhelming majority of Google search results if you type in lesbian? We are becoming more and more aware of the fact that great fashion and art have come from gay men; however lesbians seem not to have made a similar contribution to global culture. Where are the lesbian designers, artists and comics? Why is camp humour a thing, but not dyke humour?
It is possible that worldwide, one of the forces that keep lesbians invisible even within safe LGBT community spaces – but definitely in the larger and public spaces – could be simple, all pervasive, patriarchy and the resulting conditioning. We are just programmed to privilege men and their issues over women and theirs. We are just that much more comfortable with men being vocal, assertive, demanding. Whether it is leftist spaces, or activist spaces, or even in some feminist spaces, women have repeatedly experienced being sidelined, silenced, or simply overlooked.
Add to that the repressive and taboo filled attitude our society has to female pleasure, sexuality, independence, identity, and the waters get murkier. In a land where women are never supposed to want or enjoy sex, where they are only supposed to exist as total asexual beings until married and then be sexual only with – and as far as – their husband demands, where is the question of acknowledging that women may not just want intimacy, but might want it with each other, outside of the hetero-normative, socially imposed framework of a “marriage” with a “man”.
Then, there is the layer of constraints and restrictions. In the national scenario, women still face enormously more restrictions on their movements, expression, freedoms, (yes, even in many upper middle class or upper class educated homes). They are also enormously more vulnerable. Simply walking down the street is an exercise in survival, where every action is scrutinized and controlled and punished the moment it crosses “lakshman-rekha”, where violence is a 24/7 issue, where most women have less than no choice in selecting their life-partners, where marital rape is not just “non-criminal” but actually considered a pillar of the Indian family, where just getting an FIR registered for domestic violence or rape is horribly difficult, where judges tell women to “adjust” with abusive husbands and in laws, or marry their rapists. This is the daily reality of women even without making the almost impossible decision to be an out and visible lesbian. Even if she does manage to self identify, what are her choices to live her own life or to find others of her kind?
In public lives, too, women have fewer choices. Whether it is in media, or the arts, or business, or careers, it is difficult enough to be a woman. A large part of a woman’s success in these things, or even the mere presence, depends on tacitly toe-ing the line laid down by society and in appealing to the male gaze. Even Hillary Clinton is examined more for her clothes and whether she is smiling or not, than for her politics. In India, social and cultural mores make it worse. Even gay men find it extremely difficult to be out in public lives in many spheres… let alone women.
Until we can create a truly gender equality based, equal opportunity, rights, and respect based society where everyone is really free to be themselves and gets a platform for expressing their inner selves, Lesbians will – I fear – continue to be these almost mythical creatures that everyone has heard of and only a few have ever met.