In Chennai, a young boy is currently serving his term in prison for being gay. Earlier kept under house arrest by a man who lived right across the street, the boy, who was tortured and raped for two long years, successfully ran away and ended up at a police station. Thinking that the police would be his escape from a life he did not deserve, he ended up behind bars due to Indian Penal Code’s Section 377. Meanwhile in Delhi, parents of a 16-year-old found out about his sexuality and his father asked him to “go fuck prostitutes” so that he could ‘cure’ himself.
“When I shifted back to India, I shifted back to the real life and suddenly realised how sheltered I was from so many things,” explains Shubham Mehrotra. Realising the truth about her home country — the stories that lay within the folds of our ignored and invisible communities, Mehrotra decided to start a photo-series that would not only empower the LGBTQ community, but also kickstart a much-needed discussion on the politics of sexuality, identity and gender.
The lack of positive representation of the community in the media drove Shubham to start this project. She believed that a lot of mainstream newspapers and magazines in India did not use their power to influence the masses in a positive way, they were an exact representation of the majority, which further pushed the LGBTQ community into the dark.
“In India, people associate the homosexual community with how difficult their struggles are and how depressing it can be to be gay over here. But 50 Shades of Gay chooses not to only speak about that; it celebrates sexuality and educates people about what more there is to sexuality than just the black-and-white knowledge we have,” explains Anwesh Sahoo, Mr. Gay World India 2016, who was part of the photo-series.
Started in February 2016, 50 Shades Of Gay began as a visual narrative where Mehrotra would walk around Mumbai and approach people from the LGBTQ community, photographing them and documenting their personal stories. In response to Section 377, Shubham also started this series keeping in mind that in a country as vast as India, minority communities are often prone to being stereotyped. Having said that, as India is a heteronormative nation, she wanted to integrate this majority with the minority.
She explains further, “I focused on opening a dialogue on how the LGBTQ grew up in this country as it was densely filled with a homophobic population. We discussed their relationship with friends and family. I also realised that the community was homophobic themselves because due to existing social stigma, they faced trouble in accepting and understanding themselves. For example, I also came across many cases where men who were married to women had boyfriends by their sides.” Shubham has also extensively covered the hijra or the transgender community in India, opting to plunge into the depths of what it takes to be a hijra in our country, the stories air out the explicit lives of transgender sex-workers and the abuse they have been exposed to. The importance of these details was crucial in order to establish the much-needed visibility they crave.
Shubham recalls, “I recently visited the red-light district in Mumbai and I could not believe what I had just witnessed. From dildos to used condoms, the hijras have been living in the worst conditions across corners of the city. 70 per cent of the inhabitants of the brothel were HIV positive and there is tremendous amount of sexual abuse they face daily. I even interviewed one of them who says that she gets raped at least once a week. We are currently living completely secluded from such communities and it is a pity no one knows about it. And it is even worse that the government barely cares, therefore there is no policy action.”
The series has not only been eye-opening for its audience but its impact has been overwhelming for its founder as well. She and her newly formed team has collected about eighty stories from the cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Odisha, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Chennai and Mysuru. Since this photo-series is based on social media, they have been receiving requests from people who do not only wish to be featured but also just want a space to talk about their struggles and lives. What started as a platform to spread awareness about the community, one photograph at a time, has now become a sacred space to reach out to each other. Featured as part of the series, Jason D’souza says, “The series is also helping people who are closeted and scared by letting them know that there are openly gay people who are leading very happy and successful lives. So it is reaching out to the homosexual community at the same time as the heterosexuals.”
With this kind of response, Shubham explains that she has ambitious plans for the future. “We have opened ourselves into a space where anyone can contact us to speak or went about their problems. We have started doing legal work for the community. We have an expert counsellor with us from the US and a legal expert working with us from the UK as well. We have started welfare work for the community altogether and we are also planning on opening counselling for Indian parents where they can connect with us and other parents of the community too. We also want to extensively address the topic of sex education because we do not speak about it, we will never end up speaking about topics pertaining to sexuality.”
(50 Shades Of Gay is currently running an online petition against Section 377 of the IPC, which can be signed and shared over here.)