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Licensed to live

June 27, 2008 01:31 IST

The 'love that dare not speak its name' has found a voice, and legitimacy. Sandip Roy on the sexual revolution, circa 2008.

When I left India for America, my aunts fretted about who I might end up marrying. 'I hope you'll at least marry another Bengali,' an aunt told me; 'too many of our boys end up marrying American women.'

Over the years, that relaxed to 'I hope she's a Hindu, even if she's not Bengali.' Then it became 'At least another Indian,' until finally we reached 'I hope you'll get married to someone before we all die.'

She probably didn't mean another man.

But now it could happen. Same-sex marriage has become a reality in California, where I live now. First, a Republican-dominated Supreme Court said there were no reasons gays and lesbians couldn't get married. Now, there comes a new Field poll that says that, for the first time ever, a majority of Californians think same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

When I came to the US, such ideas would have been just pipe dreams. I remember an activist friend in India helping to produce a survey of the situation of lesbians and gays in a booklet produced by a Delhi-based group called ABVA (AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan).

One of its demands was recognising same sex relationships. I remember telling my friend, 'You might as well be asking for the moon.' Now same sex marriage is a reality in California, and the Supreme Court in India is hearing a challenge to the antiquated sodomy law in India.

But there's one problem. I'm left wondering how immigrants are going to come out, from here on in. Countries like India really don't have a word for 'gay'. There are epithets and some rather technical made-up terms. Coming out in India is usually about marriage. This is the default coming out line: 'Mom, Dad, I don't think I am going to get married.'

Now the California Supreme Court has yanked that line away.

Perhaps it's time. After all, the Oxford English Dictionary has apparently had to recalibrate its definition of marriage to allow same-sex marriage. The Field poll shows that Californians support the right of same-sex couples to marry by a margin of 51 to 42 percent.

In a state where one in four Californians is foreign-born, that seems to be an astonishing change. When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom started issuing same-sex wedding licenses in 2004, some of the first protests came from Chinese churchgoers. After all, immigrant families are supposed to be socially conservative.

But that might be part of the reason why the tide is finally shifting on gay marriage. (Of course a younger, more socially liberal state helps.)

For my immigrant friends, being gay in California is not much of an issue. Being unmarried in their 30s and 40s is the real issue, the conversation-stopper at Indian potlucks.

My friend said that when a heterosexual but unmarried Chinese friend of his told his parents that at least he wasn't gay, the parents retorted 'We'd rather you were gay with kids.'

Immigrant families just understand marriage, even same-sex marriage, more easily than singlehood. Singleness means you never grew up. It's the biggest failing of parenthood – the incompleteness of the unmarried child. It's what every mother dreads – walking into some wedding and being asked that question 'So how come your son is STILL not married?' In America, it's not hard to remain unmarried. Your private life is your business. But every time you go to visit India, people look at you with a mixture of pity, concern, and befuddlement.

What's wrong with you? Why aren't you settled?

It leads to acts of desperation. I've seen the ads for marriages of convenience -- 29 year old professional Indian gay, 5'9", good job, looking for Indian lesbian facing similar family pressures. There was even a website devoted to Assisting Matrimonial Arrangements for Lesbians and Gays from India, complete with a 'gaylerry' of posted ads.

In 1993 my friend Aditya Advani went to India with his boyfriend Michael Tarr, and complained to his mother that no one would ever come to his wedding. She promptly organised a ceremony in New Delhi. The family priest presided over it, even citing relevant verses from Hindu scripture. 'Openly gay and married in my parents' drawing room at the age of thirty,' marvelled Aditya. 'Right on schedule, as a good Indian boy should be!'

I recently watched their wedding video at their home in Berkeley while their cats purred on the couch. It still felt like a fairy tale, a lump-in-the-throat act of domestic revolution.

In 2004, when San Francisco started issuing the same-sex wedding licenses, Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani rose at 5:30 am to drive from their home in San Jose to San Francisco to stand in line to get married.

The couple were already married in a sense. Arvind's mother, who had once adamantly rejected her son's sexuality, presided over a Hindu ceremony for the two, complete with pheras around the fire and dhotis, after they had been together for more than a decade. They are registered as domestic partners in Palo Alto and the state of California. The registration licenses hang on the wall, where other couples might have pictures of their children.

Arvind and Ashok couldn't get married in 2004. Despite getting up so early, they were behind 300 other couples in line. They finally got an appointment, but by then the Supreme Court had halted the marriages.

At that time Arvind was philosophical. He knew it was going to be a long fight. 'We are just fighting to simplify our lives,' says Arvind. 'I don't want a Palo Alto date, a state of California date, a Hindu ceremony date. I just want one date, one wedding anniversary like everyone else.'

Now Arvind and Ashok can get their one date after all. On June 17, California counties will start issuing marriage licenses to couples like them. Aditya Advani says he's thinking of finally getting married to Michael -– a wedding that the law will recognize, not just his mother.

But the next generation of gays and lesbians will have to come up with some other coming-out line. And the revolution will have to find some new frontier.

Imagine the ad in India Abroad -- Hindu very well-established Los Angeles family invites professional match for daughter, 25, 5'3", slim, wheatish complexion, US born, Senior Executive in Fortune 500 company. Loves music and dance. Prospective brides encouraged to reply in confidence with complete biodata and returnable photo. Must be professional, under 30, caste no bar.

It might just be time for the gay arranged marriage.  

Sandip Roy is host of New America Media's radio show UpFront in San Francisco. A version of this story appeared originally on NewAmericaMedia.org.

Sandip Roy