Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 16, 2014, at 10:00 p.m. ET
BANGALORE, India — In a sweep that lasted through the first night of India's biggest celebration, Diwali, police in November arrested 13 people for homosexuality in the town of Hassan, about a three hours' drive from India's tech hub of Bangalore. At the police station, some of those arrested say they were asked if they were really men, whether they liked getting fucked in the ass, and if they had pimped out their wives to get them pregnant. At least two were stripped, beaten, and threatened with having a nightstick shoved up their rectum.
The next day, their names were splashed across the pages of local newspapers under lurid headlines. Some lost their jobs.
At first, the arrests appeared to be an example of police lawlessness, and LGBT activists from Bangalore rushed in to investigate. The cops had charged the men under Section 377, a colonial-era law criminalizing "sex against the order of nature," including same-sex intercourse. But the law was unenforceable at the time of their arrest — at least in cases of consensual intercourse — because it had been suspended under a 2009 ruling of the Delhi High Court as an unconstitutional violation of LGBT people's rights.
Now the situation is different. Just over a month after the arrests, India's Supreme Court reinstated Section 377. To activists, that cast the raids in a whole new light. Many LGBT people had decided to come out in the four and a half years since the law was suspended, believing the threat of arrest or prosecution was over. Now, as the men in Hassan wait for formal charges to be presented to the court, there is increasing concern that their situation could be a sign of how easily LGBT people's lives could be destroyed now that the law is back on the books.
This is the story of the police sweep, based on interviews with four of the 13 people arrested that night, as well as a fifth person whose accusations prompted the raids. The accuser and three of the accused spoke with BuzzFeed by phone with the help of an interpreter translating from Kannada or Hindi. The fourth accused man answered questions by email in English.
BuzzFeed also reviewed police documents provided by LGBT activists and translated from Kannada. Several calls to the cell phone of the police officer who oversaw the raids, Superintendent Ravi Channannavar, went unanswered, and he did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
Nov. 3 was the first night of Diwali, the most important festival in the Hindu calendar, and most Indians were lighting candles, setting off fireworks, and exchanging gifts. Late that night, a 21-year-old college student identified in court papers as "Puttaraju, son of Thippeswamy," walked into the Hassan police station to make a complaint.
According to police records, Puttaraju alleged that three employees of a government-funded HIV program called the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement had forced him into sex work more than two years before, in August 2011. He asked police to arrest them, plus two men he said the HIV workers had forced him to service. He also named a sixth person who he said "forcefully had unnatural sex with me against my will" without the involvement of the HIV workers.
The police appear to have taken his statement twice, producing a handwritten First Information Report (FIR), which is time-stamped 10 p.m., and a second, typed version, which he signed at 12:10 a.m. on Nov. 4. The police recorded that he had waited so long to come forward because he "was not sure and was under tremendous pressure and fear," but now had "gathered strength to complain against all of them."
The accusations came as a shock to the HIV workers, some of whom said they were "quite close" with Puttaraju. He had been a client at the Youth Movement, and they'd helped him get tested and access anti-retroviral therapy when he was found to be HIV positive. They had given him some money for food since he was constantly short of cash.
In an interview, Puttaraju said he finally came forward in part because he was angry that those he accused had not done enough to help him pay for his tuition and medication. "I used to ask for support with my education and health status, [but] nobody has helped me so far," he said. He also suggested that he was also doing the sex work he claimed he'd been forced into in order to cover his bills. "I could have stopped all this, but I needed money," Puttaraju said.
The night of Diwali, the police filed two other complaints. One said they had caught three men "indulging in unnatural sex" and "inviting people to have unnatural sex with them in public" in the town's Maharaja Park between 9 and 10 p.m., at the same time that Puttaraju was making his complaint. The second said police had caught five others "indulging in similar activities" on the grounds of a local high school during the same time period.
Puttaraju's problematic complaint, and the simultaneous arrests of the other men, has raised a host of questions among LGBT activists, who believe it was a premeditated scheme by police to target the town's LGBT community. At least one of the men allegedly busted while having public sex was actually dragged out of his home five hours later, witnesses to his arrest said. And it is unclear whether the police actually caught anyone having public sex.
Within 20 minutes of Puttaraju signing his complaint, four police officers were at the door of Dr. H.K. Palaksha, a well-known local pediatrician and head of a foundation for orphans and the poor, with whom Puttaraju said he had been forced to have sex. The officers told him nothing of the complaint, but said there was an abandoned baby at the police station whom they wanted him to examine and transfer to his shelter.
The minute he walked into the police station, it was clear there was no baby. Officers seized Palaksha's cell phone and put him under arrest, never explaining why. It was only when he read the news in the days that followed that he learned Puttaraju had accused him of having "forced [him] to indulge in unnatural sex."
That same night, police arrived around 3 a.m. at the homes of two of the HIV workers to whom Puttaraju accused of pimping him out. Officers told the HIV workers there were HIV-positive people at the police station in need of counseling.
Before returning to the police station, the police stopped to pick up a 25-year-old, who asked to be identified by the alias Prajwal because he has been subject to harassment since his arrest. Prajwal is one of the men the police claimed to have arrested having sex at the high school five hours earlier. After Prajwal answered the door, he and the two HIV workers said, police grabbed him by the back of the neck and shoved him into the police van as his mother implored them to explain why they were taking her son in the middle of the night.
The four men interviewed by BuzzFeed — Prajwal, two of the HIV workers, and Dr. Palaksha — said they all endured abuse by police, and activists who investigated the incident reported that the rest of those arrested in the raids received similar treatment.
At the police station, according to the accounts of Prajwal and the two HIV workers, officers stripped off Prajwal's pants while speculating whether he truly had a penis. "Let's test if you are a man or a woman," the police said. "Let's see if you have [a dick] or not. Oh! You seem to have it!"
Then they started prodding his penis with their nightsticks, trying to force him to get an erection. They beat him when he tried to pull up his pants, and mocked him when his penis stayed soft, declaring, "He isn't a man at all." He started weeping, pleading with them to tell him what he had done wrong, as they interrogated him about his sex life.
"How do you have sex, do you take it through your backside?" they taunted. "How long can you hold on when I take it [up the ass]? Do you take it in the mouth as well? We should take you to the streets and stone you to death — how many like you are there? Tell me their names!"
One of the HIV educators, who asked to be identified by his first name, Faisal, said officers stripped off his pants and threatened to rape him with a nightstick — known in India as a lathi — as they struck him on his head and hands. One of the officers said he would "make sure the lathi is shoved up your ass."
The group arrested that night was taken to jail in the early morning, after being charged under Section 377 and then being paraded in front of local TV and newspaper journalists. Dr. Palaksha was able to secure bail after one day, but the 12 others were held for around 10 days, during which they slept in shifts to protect each other from constant threats of violence and sexual assault from other prisoners, who they say were encouraged by guards.
They learned about the charges from the reports that flooded local media in the days that followed. "Police busted homosexuals network," blared Kannada Prabha, a local newspaper. "Support for homosexuality … Homosexual sex in public places, sexual violence on innocents," wrote the Vijayavani newspaper. "Student got HIV due to his engagement in homosexual activities," said Prajavani, another local paper.
When LGBT activists obtained the police reports, several things struck them as odd.
First, the timing: Puttaraju made his complaint more than two years after the alleged events began. Activists found the speed of the police response even stranger — it is out of character for Indian police to take immediate action and they often dismiss accusations of sexual violence. "He reports it late in the night, and immediately the police swing into action? [That] doesn't happen in India," said Shubha Chacko of the Bangalore LGBT organization Aneka.
There are also discrepancies between Puttaraju's two police statements. In the first, handwritten FIR, he said he was blackmailed into sex work under the threat of being outed: "The above people threatened me, that if I don't listen to what they say they will tell my life history to everyone in college, to my parents and to the people around the room where I stayed."
But the second, typed version included a more serious charge of coercion. "They threatened to kill me if I don't listen to them," he said. Puttaraju also frequently mentioned being paid for the sex work in the second FIR, but never mentioned money changing hands in the first.
The differences in Puttaraju's complaints raise "doubt about whether it is an authentic complaint," the LGBT activists wrote in their report on the arrests; perhaps it was a sign that he was being coached — or used — by the police, the activists suggested.
The police reports regarding the men allegedly caught having sex in public have even more glaring problems: First, the activists documented that at least some of those charged — like Prajwal — were not arrested from the places the police claim. And the description of their behavior doesn't fit a charge under 377; the FIRs never allege penetration even though the law specifically criminalizes "carnal knowledge."
"The collusive fashion in which the [charges] were registered suggests that the sole objective behind these rapid [police] actions was to target the sexual minority community," the activists wrote.
Puttaraju, they suggested, was simply being used: "The tactic of coercing sexual minority persons to file a complaint against their own community members has been used before by the police."
But Puttaraju doesn't see himself as the police's pawn. He said he had thought carefully about lodging the complaint and met with police well before formally filing it. "Before I went to the police station, I met the superintendent of police and told him everything. I showed him the cruising areas and everything."
He said he finally decided to complain because he believed the HIV workers had made public that he was HIV positive. He said they had also turned down his requests for help with his tuition, as had Dr. Palaksha, whom he claimed "forced him to indulge in unnatural sex" one year before the complaint.
"Nobody helped me then, nobody is helping me now," Puttaraju said. "They made use of me [but] they never gave me money."
Those accused confirm that Puttaraju had asked for cash, but deny drawing him into sex work. The two HIV counselors said they had frequently given him sums equal to about $5. Dr. Palaksha said he only met Puttaraju once, when Youth Movement workers brought him to his clinic about a year ago for treatment of a respiratory infection, and didn't hear from again until about a month before the arrests when he called asking for his foundations' help with his school bills. The doctor said he would have to apply in the spring.
Dr. Palaksha said that, "apart from this story, I do not know" why Puttaraju might have named him in his complaint. He denied that he had paid Puttaraju for sex or had engaged in any inappropriate contact.
"I am a married man with two children," he said, adding that he lives a pious life in which he does not even "consume alcohol [or] non-vegetarian food."
Even before 2009, when Section 377 was fully in force, people were rarely convicted under it; fewer than 200 people had been convicted under it in the more than 150 years it had been in force. But focusing on convictions understates its effect, said Arvind Narrain, a lawyer who worked on the 377 case the Supreme Court ruled on in December and helped investigate the Hassan arrests. Police have used the provision as a pretense for harassing LGBT people and those who work with the community.
In 2001, employees of two HIV organizations were detained for 47 days in the northeastern city of Lucknow for running a "sex racket." The filings in the Supreme Court litigation document several cases in which the police used 377 as pretense for horrific abuse, including a 2004 instance in which a hijra — a trans woman — was tortured at a police station after officers "rescued" her from a gang rape.
Narrain said he has "no doubt" that the cases against the men swept up in the Hassan raids will ultimately fail. "But in the meantime your life is destroyed."
The media sensation around the case ensured that the men's ordeal didn't end when they were released from jail in mid-November. Dr. Palaksha said he was harassed at his clinic by reporters who threaten to invent new charges against him if he doesn't pay them, a plot in which he alleged the police were colluding. His wife has stuck by his side, but his patients are deserting him, he said, and he is having difficulty sustaining his foundation.
"I believe in God," he said. "He will definitely help me — I do not want to shut down my NGO."
The others arrested that night — who don't have Dr. Palaksha's relative wealth or education — are in an even more precarious situation. The Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement has not given the HIV counselors back their jobs since the arrests, and the counselors say they are having hard time finding other work. They say law enforcement officials are using the threat of charges to demand bribes. And the delicate balance they've maintained between fulfilling the family obligation to marry and finding ways to have relationships with men has collapsed.
One of the HIV workers, who asked not to be named, said his mother was forced to sell their cattle — a major source of income — to bail him out of jail, and that she had to leave her job because she was being relentlessly harassed about his arrest. He said he has attempted suicide because he doesn't know how he's going to support his mother, his wife, and his month-old baby.
He also quietly had a boyfriend for 15 years. But since the arrest, his partner won't even answer his calls: "Now is when I need him, and he is not around."
Police abuse has been a problem for LGBT people even without 377. For example, a gay couple was recently granted asylum in the United States after fleeing India in 2011 following sexual assault by police in the northeastern city of Chandigarh, and there have been many reports over the past four decades of police forcibly separating lesbian couples at the request of their parents even though women cannot technically be charged under 377.
And while 377 has spurred some LGBT people to be more politically engaged — pride marches have been held in parts of the country since the ruling that never had them before — LGBT people throughout the country have told BuzzFeed of people going back into the closet, corporate LGBT support groups being shut down, and increased petty crime targeting communities of trans women. The reports could not be verified, but their widespread circulation reflects the fear that the gains made while out from under the shadow of 377 could suddenly evaporate.
Even some people who are already out and politically active have shrunk from fighting for their rights because of the fear engendered by the return of the law. On Feb. 11, the Mumbai Mirror published the story of a 23-year-old man who was pulled over by police at 2:30 a.m. in the northwestern city of Ahmedabad. He said the officers attempted to rape him and then forced him to perform oral sex. He told the newspaper that the cops said they recognized him from a local gay pride parade held just before the Supreme Court ruling.
"Had homosexuality been legal, I would have had the courage to file a complaint" against the officers, he said. But he did not want to take the risk of further abuse, especially since they appear to have the court's permission to persecute LGBT people.
"My attackers were cops. How can I expect any justice from them?" he said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on January 23, 2014, at 6:32 a.m. ET
Millions of gay Indians suddenly became criminals when the Indian Supreme Court restored the country's sodomy law in December. But the ruling actually helped set one couple free.
When the ruling was issued, two men from northwest India had spent more than six months in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in El Paso, Texas, waiting for a judge to decide on their petition for asylum. It was a bitter ending to their yearlong journey across more than 10 countries to reach the United States. They had left India after death threats from their family and being targeted for police abuse because of their sexual orientation, though at the time the law criminalizing same-sex relationships was suspended by a lower court ruling. And when they finally reached the country that they expected to protect their rights, they wound up in a facility that felt exactly like prison.
The whole experience had felt cruelly backward to the couple, so it was perhaps fitting that the U.S. released them from detention only when they formally became criminals at home.
A U.S. judge granted the pair asylum on Dec. 20 based on their experience of police abuse and threats from their families to kill them if they returned. But even now they don't feel that much safer than when they left India, which is why they only agreed to speak to BuzzFeed under names they chose for themselves, Manoj and Maninder, rather than their real names.
A cousin in a small city in the midwest paid their airfare to join him, but he kicked them out of his house once they'd worked off the cost of tickets at the restaurant where he works. They were then taken in by the owner of another Indian restaurant, where they now work full days without pay in exchange for shelter. They told the owner they are brothers; if he finds out the truth, they are certain he will kick them out. They could only speak by phone late in the evening, fearing discovery if their boss was around.
They also worried that speaking to the press could lead the U.S. government to retaliate by arresting or deporting them, though their lawyers have assured them this isn't possible. Their abuse in India and harassment while in detention makes it hard for them to believe their ordeal is over. Only Manoj speaks enough English to give a full interview; Maninder was too frightened to give an interview in Hindi.
Manoj and Maninder both group up in Sirsa, a small city about a four-hour drive to the northwest of Delhi. Manoj, who is now 28, is the son of a construction contractor, but as a boy he was drawn to dance and trained to be a choreographer, though his family disapproved. That's how he met Maninder, now 25, who also trained as a dancer.
Manoj knew from a young age that he was gay, but when his parents picked a bride for him at 16, he married her without argument. Two years earlier, he'd watched as his uncle — who was just a couple years older than him — was beaten so seriously that he wound up in the hospital after he tried to run away to escape an arranged marriage.
Manoj still had time to steel himself to consummate the marriage; under local custom, his wife didn't come to live with his family until a few years after they married. But he couldn't follow through when she finally came to live with him after he turned 19. His family said he was shaming them by not producing a child. His wife confided to her sister that they were not having sex; she believed he was instead running around with the girls who passed through his dance classes.
"I don't want to agree [to have sex with her] because I don't have any feeling [for her]," he said in idiosyncratic English. "I'm trying but I can't."
Word spread throughout his community and his family became violent. They "tortured" him, Manoj said, hitting and kicking him, and sometimes neighbors would assault him as well.
Yet in a sense he felt he was getting off easy, he said. Had they known he was gay, he said, "they would kill me at once."
While enduring the trouble at home, Manoj stayed away from Maninder, though they both knew they had feelings for each other. It was simply too dangerous for them to meet somewhere their families could find out.
Then, in 2010, when Manoj was around 25 and Maninder about 22, they found a chance to get away from Sirsa. Their escape came thanks to a reality television show called Dance Premier League, in which teams from across India compete under the tutelage of a celebrity choreographer. Manoj was going to audition in Jaipur, a city a six-hour drive to the south, and he persuaded Maninder to give it a shot as well.
Maninder didn't make the cut, but Manoj did, keeping them in Jaipur for around 10 days. But the prospect of being on television was far less important than the chance to be alone together in a hotel room.
Their time away was so wonderful that the return home was unbearable, Manoj said. "Oh my god, we are feeling … we cannot stay without each other," Manoj said. Back in Sirsa, "we cannot [even] talk openly, we cannot leave [the house], we cannot meet."
So after four months, Manoj came up with a plan to get them out of Sirsa for good. He would rent them an apartment in Chandigarh, a city four hours to the northwest, where they knew no one. To justify the move to their families, they both enrolled in a degree program in animation at a local university.
The freedom they found in Chandigarh was amazing at first; Manoj said they were not apart "even for one minute" while they lived there. They told everyone they were brothers, but their affection for each other was too obvious — their neighbors saw through their cover after a couple of months.
"We both [showed] a lot of love for each other," Manoj said. "People are thinking, Why are they always together like husband and wife?"
When they were discovered, Manoj said, they were "beaten many times," so "we are trying to change address many times in Chandigarh; first, two, three months in this address, then after three months other address." They also took many trips to other parts of India — Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh — to try to enjoy some time in a place where they were not known, but "everywhere is discrimination," Manoj said.
But they made do moving from place to place until 2011, when they endured an attack so bad that they lost hope.
Manoj said it was too painful to go into much detail about the incident, but he shared the outlines of what happened. A mob turned on them and held them until police came, who took them to a remote part of town where they "did sexual abuse." When it was over, an officer put a gun to their heads and threatened to execute them if they told anyone what happened.
"We thought we have only just one chance: only suicide," Manoj said. Such a step would not be uncommon; for the past several decades, stories have frequently appeared in Indian newspapers of same-sex couples committing double suicide.
But Manoj's best friend gave them another idea. "He told us suicide is not the last option. He gave us suggestion [to go to] the United States … because the United States has very good protection for homosexuals," Manoj said.
The friend, a businessman, even offered to help pay for their escape. He didn't have enough money to get them directly to the United States, but he could get them away from the reach of Indian police and their families, who they also feared could learn of their relationship at any moment.
"You have to leave India," his friend instructed. "If you will stay here, your family [will] know … you're a homosexual. For sure they will kill you, or the community will kill you, [or] the government will kill you. … You have to leave from here."
So they first went to Cyprus, because they could easily obtain student visas by enrolling in a business administration program in the city of Larnaca on the island's southern coast. The eight months or so that bought them would give them time to pull together the funds and work on getting U.S. visas. But they couldn't find any work. By the time their visas ran out, they still hadn't secured permission to come to the U.S.
They thought about returning to India, but when they spoke with their families on the phone, they threatened to kill them if they returned now that it was known they were gay. Without a U.S. visa, they worked out a long-shot plan with their friend's help: They bought a ticket to Ecuador (via connections in Dubai, Brazil, and Colombia) because the country required no visa. Then the friend would make arrangements for them to be smuggled to the United States.
They spent almost a month in the city of Guayaquil, near Ecuador's Pacific coast, a period in which they were almost totally isolated. Back in Cyprus, Manoj had combed Facebook to find gay English speakers in the city who might help them, and he made a friend who helped them secure a hotel room and get there from the airport. But they didn't see him after he dropped them off and they could hardly communicate with anyone they met.
They survived on potato chips for a few days until they found an Indian restaurant, Manoj said, because even the process of ordering a meal was more than they could manage.
They waited there while their friend negotiated with smugglers over the cost of their transport to the U.S., Manoj said. He didn't have enough money to pay for them to get all the way. Eventually, they worked out that the couple could fly to Nicaragua and go over land from there.
A smuggler met them at the Managua airport and deposited them in a house with others waiting for a ride north. They waited a week until word came from the smugglers' associates in Mexico that they could start making the trip. Manoj and Maninder were packed into the back of a truck. It looked just big enough to hold four or five people, but they crammed in about 20.
They were trapped in there for 30 hours, during which they did not eat or drink; the migrants passed around a plastic bottle when they needed to urinate. They thought they were on the verge of suffocating many times before the doors opened in Guatemala.
They were stashed along with three others at a house in Guatemala while they waited for the next stage of the trip. As the days wore on, they didn't know if anyone was even coming for them — the smugglers threatened to kill them when they tried to ask when they were leaving. They couldn't contact their friend because their phone had been stolen, along with the rest of the possessions taken by the smugglers or other migrants: their laptop, their socks — even their underwear.
And to make things worse, they felt they were to blame for their troubles, Manoj said. "We are just feeling guilty: 'Why we are homosexual, why we always have these kind of problems?' We are asking God, 'Why did you make us like that?'"
After 10 or 15 days — Manoj had lost track — a truck finally pulled up and took them to the bus station. They drove 40 hours across Honduras and El Salvador and into Mexico, where they waited two hours before being loaded onto a truck to Mexico City along with three men from El Salvador. They waited there for another 20 days or so, before they were piled onto a bus to Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso.
When they arrived in Juarez, a woman climbed onto the bus and took them to another house, where they waited for five days waiting for instructions on how to cross the border. Then, Manoj said, she told them they would enter the United States by "going through the jungle and river."
But the couple said they didn't want to sneak across the border. They would walk right up to the border agents and ask for asylum.
"We already broke a lot of rules [to get to the border]," Manoj recalled. "Now we don't want to break rules, we go by bridge… Because we're going to stay in the United States, we do not want to do anything illegal."
As they walked across the bridge on June 8, 2013, a year after they had left India, they thought their ordeal was almost over. All the promises they'd heard about the United States' protections for LGBT people led them to believe they would be quickly ushered to safety.
Instead, it was just the beginning of another ordeal, which recalled their bad memories of dealings with the Indian police. When they told border agents they were seeking asylum because of their relationship, they said they were publicly mocked and outed to other detainees.
"They are using bad comment with each other," Manoj said, remarks like, "You are homosexuals — who's the husband and who's the wife?"
"We didn't expect that. We were thinking, [the U.S. will be] amazing," Manoj said. "But when we got in, oh my god … they [had] this fucking response."
They were separated for their asylum interviews and then taken to a detention center. Though Manoj said they had initially been promised they would be quickly reunited, several days passed before he knew whether Maninder was even in the same facility. For all Manoj knew, Maninder could have been sent back to India.
Finally, a sympathetic guard told him that Maninder was in another unit in the same facility, but said he couldn't be transferred so they could be together. Eleven days passed before they could arrange a meeting — they were allowed worship hours on Sunday, and a guard agreed to pass on the message that Maninder should meet Manoj at the chapel.
They began crying when they finally saw each other— but they didn't dare embrace. They were housed with other Indians, who they feared would attack them if it became known that they were a couple.
"We cannot hug each other because they will have very bad thinking," Manoj said. "I [was] saying to everybody, 'He's my brother.'"
They kept up this pretense as best they could; at first, just a handful of guards knew the truth of their relationship. But word eventually spread through the guards, Manoj said, and some started outing them to other detainees as a form of harassment.
In one incident, Manoj and Maninder were preparing documentation for their asylum case in the facility's library when the guard on duty told other prisoners they were a couple and instructed them to follow the pair to ensure they didn't have sex. For the next two months, Manoj said, he was followed so obsessively that one of the men stood behind him when he went to the urinal.
LGBT detainees frequently report harassment, say immigrant-rights advocates. And several have alleged far more brutal treatment than Manoj and Maninder. In 2011, the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center filed a mass civil rights complaint on behalf of 13 LGBT detainees whose experience, the organization said, demonstrated that the Department of Homeland Security "is incapable of ensuring safe and non-punitive conditions for sexual minorities." These included allegations of sexual assault by guards and extended punitive periods in the equivalent of solitary confinement under the guise of protecting LGBT detainees from violence.
Manoj and Maninder were never assaulted, though Manoj described at least one three-day period in isolation, locked in "a small room like hell." He firmly believes homophobia motivated their being kept detention in the first place — "This is sure," he said. They were denied parole even after lawyers with Immigration Equality — a group that provides legal assistance to LGBT immigrants — appealed to Washington for their release. (The attorney working on the case, Clement Lee, declined to speculate on the reasons parole was denied, but said that they met all the requirements for parole yet were turned down on four separate occasions.)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said she could not comment on Manoj and Maninder's experience without knowing their real names. However, she said, much of the treatment they described would be "contrary to ICE policy … [and] counterproductive to the good order and discipline of operating an ICE detention facility." Allegations of harassment and abuse are investigated, and "appropriate action" is taken when corroborated, she said, adding that the agency has had an initiative to improve oversight of detention conditions since August 2009.
Maninder's case came before an immigration judge on Dec. 20, 2013, nine days after the Indian Supreme Court upheld the country's sodomy law. The judgment reversed a sweeping ruling defending LGBT rights by a lower court, shocking LGBT advocates in India and provoking outrage worldwide. They may have had a shot at asylum even without the ruling, but it certainly bolstered their case. They had to demonstrate they could not have found safety in another part of India — cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, or Delhi, hubs of LGBT organizing — to escape persecution.
At the hearing, the judge combined Manoj's case with Maninder's and granted them asylum. They were released the same day and boarded a plane to Wisconsin.
Now, after their 18-month ordeal, their life isn't so much different than it was in India — enmeshed in a small Indian community in the Midwest, the two men are still pretending to be brothers, fearing they will end up homeless or worse if their community finds out the truth.
"We are feeling like homosexuality is a crime everywhere," he told me. "Why [did] we come into the United States? There is not any protection here."
Though he sees the U.S. as a small step up from India, he now doubts there is anywhere in the world they would feel truly safe.
"We have wish to stay in the sky, not here. Not on Earth," he said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 26, 2013, at 8:54 a.m. ET
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Muern Sarun's parents had turned down several offers of marriage when they asked a motorbike mechanic named Rous Savy to take their daughter's hand.
Rous had taken a liking to Muern after she parked in front of his house in Cambodia's Kandal Province on her way to weave scarves on a friend's loom. Rous began visiting so often that the neighbors began to gossip: "Who would marry [Muern] if there is a man that goes to her house so often?" Rous quickly got the necessary permissions from the police and village chief, who granted the marriage certificate after Rous was able to reassure them that he would be able to support a family. Rous' mother helped organize the wedding, which included blessings from four Buddhist monks.
This would be a fairly typical story about a Cambodian marriage, except that Rous Savy was not born male. He had long dressed like a man and referred to himself in male terms, but he was what is known in Cambodia as a "tom." Gender and sexual orientation categories in Cambodia — as in much of Asia — don't neatly line up with the terms used in the West. Some toms would probably identify as butch lesbians in the West, while others, like Rous, speak about always feeling "like a man" and would probably be considered trans men.
The wedding caused a sensation in Muern's village as gossip rapidly spread about her groom's gender. Muern recalls "4,000 or 5,000 people" came to witness the curious event. Muern had shelled out to hire a special band for the day, but the gawkers showed little interest in the expensive entertainment. Instead, many of the guests were occupied by placing bets on whether Rous was really a man or a woman. Muern remembers many people approaching her to ask: "You are so adorable! Why would you marry someone of the same sex?"
Muern, who was 17 when she married, looks regal in photos from the wedding. Her black hair, swept high on her head, is crowned with a tiara, and her cheeks and lips are painted a rosy red. She wears a beige skirt and a lacy wrap with golden bangles around her wrists, upper arm, and neck. Rous wears a blue double-breasted suit, which hangs loosely on his wiry frame. Though he was a decade older than his bride at the time, in the photos he looks like he could be her kid brother.
What makes their wedding even more remarkable is that it took place in 1993. Same-sex marriage was just beginning to become thinkable in the West; it was only in 2001 that the Netherlands would become the first country to grant same-sex marriages. Cambodia was not particularly advanced, to say the least, on human rights at the time. The country was just emerging from a period as a protectorate of the United Nations, which took control after the country had weathered three catastrophic years under the Khmer Rouge followed by a decade of occupation by Vietnam. The constitution adopted that year expressly banned same-sex marriage, and the country's LGBT movement remains in its infancy to this day.
Muern and Rous were not activists taking a stand with the backing of an organized movement, as so many same-sex couples who sought to marry in the West have been. They were simply a couple who wanted to be together, and they used the only avenue available to them: marriage. They got lucky that their families and local leaders sanctioned the relationship (despite national policy) — family rejection, forced heterosexual marriage, and gruesome violence threaten LGBT people in Cambodia as much as they do in many other countries.
The couple is not entirely unique. The same weekend I met Rous and Muern, I met Peng Sanh and Un Sreyphai, a couple that has been together for 34 years. They fell in love while doing forced labor on a commune set up by the Khmer Rouge. Their commune chief refused to register them as spouses after the Khmer Rouge fell, but did agree to register them as siblings on official documents, thus giving them the right to live together. Hout Kem Hong and Thuch Sreytouch also bribed their commune chief $20 — a hefty sum in one of the world's poorest countries — to register as siblings, and the chief has recently promised to re-register them as spouses after Cambodia's election is settled. (The outcome of the July 28 vote is still in dispute.) Their family book also includes the four children they have raised. Three are Thuch's nephews, the last Hout conceived by having sex with a man so the couple could have a biological child.
These couples owe much of their success in getting some level of official recognition to Cambodia's rampant corruption and lawlessness — local officials can do more or less what they want regardless of national policy. But the past few decades have seen stories of same-sex couples — especially lesbian couples — attempting to formalize their relationships across Asia, from India to Indonesia. In many cases, these couples risk arrest and violence. Many cases end in tragic stories of suicide by couples who have no way to escape being separated.
These stories show that despite the fact that all the countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, with the notable exception of South Africa, are in Europe and the Americas, the West did not invent same-sex marriage. Nor is it a "cherry on the sundae" of LGBT rights, as same-sex marriage has sometimes been described — an important prize, but one that is only worth pursuing after sodomy laws are struck down and other more basic rights are won. Many gay, lesbian, and trans people in Asia live in areas that lack organizations centered on fighting for their rights. Many don't have the money or ability to run off to the city. In much of the world, marriage is an inevitable part of life, something expected and often organized by families. And there are often no imaginable ways for people to support themselves without a family unit. Taking the risk of marrying the spouse of one's choice is the most obvious way to resist being forced to marry someone else.
The modern history of same-sex marriage in Asia goes back several decades. Since at least the 1980s, there have been reports of couples performing marriage rites in secret or even holding large public weddings. Often these stories made headlines because they ended tragically — couples were arrested, kidnapped, and forcefully separated by their families, or even driven to commit suicide.
One of the best-known cases came in 1987 in India's Madhya Pradesh, which made headlines across India. Two police constables named Leela Namdeo and Urmila Srivastava exchanged vows at a Hindu temple in the city of Sagar in a ceremony conducted by a Brahman. The two women took turns placing garlands around each other's necks, a Hindu ritual equivalent to exchanging rings. They went to a photo studio to have pictures taken of the garland exchange, something that would have legal as well as sentimental value; marriages in India do not require government registration, so such photographs are often used as proof in cases where marriages are disputed.
The story of Namdeo and Srivastava might have stopped there if a jealous co-worker hadn't stolen their wedding photo and given it to their police commander. The two women were imprisoned — theoretically for violating the country's sodomy law, though the law only criminalizes sex between men — kept without food for 48 hours, and then fired and forcibly removed to Srivastava's village, supposedly because they were a bad example for other women on the police force. The harassment had been so severe that, within a few months, the couple began disavowing they had ever got married in the first place. They started telling people they were friends who were playing around when they decided to have the wedding photograph taken.
The marriage of Namdeo and Srivastava is just one of dozens of same-sex marriages attempted in India over the past four decades and documented by academic Ruth Vanita in her book, Love's Rites. Many others ended far more tragically.
In 2000, Bindu and Rajni, two twentysomething women from the south Indian state of Kerala, tied their bodies together with a dupatta, a women's scarf, emulating another Hindu wedding custom. They had tried, and failed, to elope a few days earlier. They then threw themselves down a granite quarry.
Similar cases continue to unfold around the region, often in places where the LGBT community is most embattled. At least 11 couples have tried to marry in Indonesia in the past three years, according to Andhanary Institute, a Jakarta-based queer women's organization.
This includes a 2011 case from Central Java, in which a 26-year-old trans man known as Rega wound up in jail after the family of his bride "discovered" he was born a woman on the day of his wedding. His 17-year-old bride, identified in news reports as Siti, claimed she had no idea that her groom was biologically female even though they had had sex repeatedly while they were dating. Rega was charged with fraud and having sex with a minor, and was forced to hold up the sex toys he used to "trick" Siti during the trial. He wound up serving 18 months in prison.
The first Asian nation to legalize civil unions could be Vietnam. The government in Hanoi has already endorsed civil union legislation, which is expected to be voted on by the National Assembly in the spring.
Thailand's parliament is also working on a civil union proposal, though activists involved in the effort say shortcomings in the proposals and disagreements between activists over strategy may derail the legislation. The proposal would only allow same-sex unions, meaning intersex or transgender individuals might still have difficulty marrying. It also doesn't provide adoption rights, and has a higher age of consent than that applied to heterosexual couples seeking to wed. Some activists are still hoping the law will come to a vote to force debate, but others oppose it outright.
Marriage equality could be a point of intersection between Western and Asian activists. And yet the topic of marriage makes Western LGBT activists working internationally uncomfortable: Many frequently warn that marriage is a volatile issue and pushing it abroad can backfire. Their caution is largely borne of the experience where reports or mere rumors of same-sex weddings can provoke anti-gay legislation or lynchings of people suspected of being gay.
There is no doubt this threat exists in many countries, especially in Africa. The most blatant evidence of this at the moment may be the "Anti-Same-Sex Marriage" bill, which has passed the Nigerian legislature and is awaiting the signature of President Goodluck Jonathan. In reality, it would increase penalties for same-sex relationships of any kind and even criminalize advocating LGBT rights and public displays of affection.
But the rhetoric of many LGBT rights activists often suggests that marriage is a concern to a narrow portion of the world, while the rest of the world pays for that desire.
After the U.S. Supreme Court decided to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, Jessica Stern, the executive director of the New York–based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said the move made them "rejoice." She then quickly tempered her enthusiasm:
In countries where discrimination against LGBT people is high, the decisions are likely to be used dangerously against LGBT individuals, organizations and human rights defenders…Over the last decade, allegations of "gay marriage agendas" and/or "gay weddings" have been used to crack down on social gatherings attended by LGBT people and to crack down on free speech, assembly, and access to life-saving information on HIV/AIDS.
Alistair Stewart, assistant director of the London-based Kaleidoscope Trust, was more blunt. "Gay Marriage and Other Wins for LGBT People Here Are Making Life Worse for Gays and Lesbians in Developing Countries," he titled his Huffington Post July column.
Inside the countries where same-sex couples have tried to marry, these concerns also exist — particularly in countries like Malaysia, where Islamists have considerable sway, adding to fears that raising the issue could do more harm than good.
Yet other concerns exist: in countries as varied as India, Thailand and Singapore, many lesbians and feminists argue that marriage shouldn't be a goal because it is associated with practices like forced marriages, child marriage, and domestic violence.
"I don't believe in marriage as an institution, especially marriage as it is in India," Sumathi Murthy, a queer feminist activist in Bangalore who helped found the organization LesBIT, said in a recent interview. "There are lots of other issues: Even now lesbians are committing suicide, trans people are facing severe violence, and discrimination is going on with a very heavy hand."
Yet throughout much of Asia, it appears that women and trans men who most frequently try to access the institution. There are a handful of cases involving gay men or trans women, such as a 2011 Indonesian case in which a trans woman known as Icha was jailed after her husband claimed she had lied to him about being a woman and tricked him into marriage, presumably because he was afraid their relationship would be discovered. And in Taiwan, a marriage case involving two men was headed to the country's top court until they abruptly dropped their lawsuit last winter.
But most of the cases — at least those that make headlines and come to the attention of activists — seem to involve women and trans men. This may be because men in many of these countries have far greater freedom to manage, or avoid, family pressure to marry. Men often have the option of leaving home, living on their own, or marrying a woman and having sexual relationships outside their marriage. Women's life choices are frequently far more constrained, especially if they are poor, uneducated, and live in rural areas: Many jobs are off-limits to them, their sexual behavior is closely monitored by friends, and their physical safety is constantly at risk.
Men "have the luxury of going to a completely different city and being themselves — their family will never know," said Sunil Babu Pant, founder of Nepal's Blue Diamond Society, one of Asia's most successful LGBT organizations. "But for girls, living at home, you must give explanation. Only when they get desperate and they leave [to marry another woman], then it becomes a case."
Pramada Menon, who helped found the New Delhi–based feminist human rights organization Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action, said that most of the lesbian couples who have tried to marry in India show "marriage per se … is the only visible way in which [most] people can actually live together and that is the only understood framework," though she is also no big fan of the institution.
Six weeks after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, I was in Phnom Penh and met Hout Kem Hong and Thuch Sreytouch, two women who had been together for 26 years and had adopted three kids, but had only decided to have a wedding ceremony in 2011.
I thought perhaps they had heard about marriage equality victories abroad and decided they could have a ceremony too. But when I asked, they answered just like Muern and Rous had: They said they didn't know same-sex marriage was legal anywhere — they hadn't even heard about the Supreme Court ruling a few weeks earlier or the marriage equality laws passing in Britain and France.
Their decision to marry was much more simple. "We celebrated [a wedding ceremony] because we wanted to live with each other by following Cambodian tradition," Hout said.
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on Mar 22, 2013
WASHINGTON — Days before moving furniture into their new house in D.C.'s LeDroit Park neighborhood, Fabrice Houdart and Roy Daiany were still arguing about where to put the master bedroom.
Roy was leaning toward the large front room on the second floor, which had a view of the newly refurbished Howard Theater on the other side of Florida Avenue. Fabrice wanted to turn the third floor into a master suite. This would give them a little space from the nursery on the second floor. In just a few months, they would be fathers.
"I'm planning to raise the children the French way," Fabrice joked. "They can come visit for a while and then come back downstairs with the nanny." Plus, the room on the third floor was closer to what Fabrice had dubbed the RuPaul's Drag Race room. It was the only spot Roy would be allowed to watch the program or another favorite, Mob Wives.
They didn't have a whole lot of time to get the house ready. They were surprised to learn five months earlier that their surrogate mother was pregnant. They hadn't expected the process to work on the first try. It often takes many tries to get an embryo to implant, and their egg donor had given them a disappointingly small number of eggs to work with. But the surrogate was not only pregnant — she was carrying twins. One is Fabrice's biological child; the other is Roy's. They are due in May.
The process of getting pregnant was miraculously easy compared with the legal nightmare that preceded it. It required consulting lawyers on three continents and spending twice what they had expected on the process. There are many more hurdles for a same-sex couple trying to build a family than just getting their union recognized, they found.
Fabrice, who is French, grew up in an upper-crust Parisian family and now works in the World Bank's Washington headquarters. His fair features make him look much younger than his 34 years. On the day they gave me a tour of their house, he was wearing a white waffle shirt and a pair of Diesel jeans with a six-inch rip in the crotch. He'd locked himself out of the house that morning and ripped his pants trying to get back in by jumping over the 8-foot-high wooden fence separating their backyard from the funeral home next door.
Roy is a 32-year-old American who grew up in New York and Tel Aviv. He is dark and stubbly and was dressed that afternoon every bit like the hipster Google employee he is: blue hoodie, plaid shirt, Converse sneakers. He liked the idea of having the master bedroom just on the other side of the nursery's door. "I want to be near my babies," he said.
Decorating the rest of the house caused less debate. A friend suggested they paint the nursery a light green rather than blue — they didn't want to oppress their sons if they turned out to be transgender. (The color would also accent the tile work around the fireplace.) Fabrice wanted to paint the front door black and strip the banisters down to their original wood; Roy didn't care — his domain was the granite-countered kitchen.
For those gay couples who want to be biological parents, they must navigate a shifting patchwork of laws governing surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization, technology that is banned or denied to same-sex couples in many places. France is one of these countries, with a law so strict that it will not grant citizenship to the children of French citizens born in countries where surrogacy is legal. Fabrice and Roy had planned to work with a foreign surrogate because the process abroad costs a fraction of what it does in the U.S. But there was a risk they would never be able to get the child out of the country of its birth if Fabrice was the biological father.
They ultimately found the resources to have the child in Pennsylvania. But their struggle reflects that once same-sex marriage is a reality, much harder questions will remain about what equality really means for same-sex couples. Does biological parenthood remain a right for same-sex couples even thought their biology makes that impossible? Will restrictions on certain types of assisted reproduction one day be regarded as fundamental barriers to full equality for gays and lesbians the way same-sex marriage has become?
Roy had long dreamed of being a father. When he was coming out at age 17, he believed he would probably have to give up on getting married. But he never thought he would have to sacrifice having a family.
"For me, really having a family and being a father was always and absolute, I always wanted it, I knew it was going to be part of my life — I never wanted to give up on that dream because I was gay," Roy told me in a boutique coffee shop across the street from the couple's new house. And though he has a lot of respect for those who adopt, he always wanted biological children. "I always dreamed of having biological children of mine and my partner's," he said.
But marriage still seemed a little weird to him.
"I never thought about myself getting married because I'm a gay man. One of the things that I gave up on is marriage," he said. The test of a mate was not whether he could imagine one day exchanging rings with him — it was whether "you can picture your life in 20 years with you and him, sitting in the living room, reading the newspaper while the kids run around."
Before Fabrice started dating Roy, he didn't think either fatherhood or marriage was in his future. When he came out to his parents at 24, he recalls his father saying, "Well, it's very easy to be gay when you are young, but when you are old … you age alone." Much of his family remains chilly toward his relationship to Roy; his grandfather recently marched in the protests against France's impending legalization of same-sex marriage and then posted pictures of it on Facebook.
When I met Fabrice one afternoon in the atrium of the World Bank's glass-and-metal headquarters by the White House, he told me he'd believed that a long-term relationship "was not something that was in the cards." He had a hard time imagining a future, even after he started dating Roy in 2008.
"I have been a very unhappy gay man for years, and I thought my life would be over at 30," Fabrice said. His struggle with these doubts delayed their plans to start a family. But by New Year's Eve of 2012, the couple felt ready to move ahead. "He was feeling better and healthier, and [it seemed like] he felt like he was in the best place of his life," Roy remembers.
Roy ultimately did ask Fabrice to marry him. He surprised him on his birthday with a ring with three interlocking gold bands modeled on the one French poet Jean Cocteau gave to his lover.
"That's the only day that I really started to really relax," Fabrice said; he could count on a future with Roy. And having children on the way has gone further in erasing the shame he felt about being gay. "I'm so proud," he said.
Fabrice and Roy have had to postpone their wedding — they'd picked out a date in May before they learned that was when their twins would be born. By the time they finally tie the knot, same-sex marriage could be fully legal in both the United States and France.
But many of the roadblocks to parenthood that they've encountered will remain even if their marriage is given the force of law.
Assisted reproduction pushes many of the same buttons as abortion in some countries. While in-vitro fertilization is legal in most countries, several, like France and Italy, only allow married, heterosexual couples to access the procedure. Gay male couples who need a surrogate to carry a biological child face even greater restrictions. Countries like China and Germany ban surrogacy outright, and several more make it illegal to pay a woman for carrying a child.
The landscape isn't simple for those who want to work with a surrogate in the United States, either. Fabrice and Roy could technically have faced jail time if they had hired a surrogate in their hometown. The District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction where contracting a surrogate is a criminal offense, but such contracts are banned or unenforceable in several others. They also couldn't have worked with a surrogate in Virginia. Like many other states, including Texas and Utah, Virginia only allows surrogacy for married heterosexual couples.
"Surrogacy in general, it's very state-by-state, country-by-country," said Meryl Rosenberg, of ART Parenting, a Maryland attorney who specializes in surrogacy arrangements. "You have to be really, really careful."
Fabrice and Roy went into the process assuming that they would work with an Indian surrogate. It costs less than half what surrogacy costs in the United States, and they knew other couples had gone this route. But they decided India was too risky after consulting with their lawyers. If the child was Fabrice's, France would not grant the child citizenship and Roy wouldn't be able to get the child U.S. citizenship either, because the U.S. government wouldn't recognize him as a parent. There was a possibility that India might also refuse to recognize the child as an Indian citizen too, which could mean an even more serious legal headache.
"I had to really ask if there was a really a big risk [that] my kids [could] not have any nationality or be stuck in India in an orphanage until I find a way to get them out of there," Fabrice said.
Being unable to use an Indian surrogate may have been a blessing in disguise. India recently enacted rules barring same-sex couples from going there to have a child. But unless they were willing to only use Roy's sperm — and they wanted chance to decide who would be the father — having the child anywhere outside the country was going to be risky. Fabrice could still technically face problems getting his child French citizenship if the child is born in the U.S., which is important the child ever wanted to live in Europe or study at a French university. But Fabrice's lawyer expects the French government will ultimately defer to the U.S. government's recognition of his paternity.
Couples who live in countries where surrogacy is illegal are not so lucky. In February, a couple from Israel got worldwide attention when they put a video online asking for contributions to help them continue finding a way to have a child around Israel's bans on surrogacy and adoption. They had spent $120,000 in their seven years of trying to become fathers without success.
Despite their difficulties, Fabrice and Roy have been incredibly fortunate. Not only were they able to come up with the more than $100,000 to hire a U.S. surrogate, but, they joke, they're getting two kids for the price of one. They had the money to buy a house when they realized the second child meant their apartment would be too small. And child care will be considerably easier and cheaper because Fabrice's visa status gives him the right to hire a live-in nanny from abroad.
They are also fortunate to work for employers that will give them generous paternity leave. The World Bank even has a specific policy for surrogate parents granting them 70 days of leave, the same amount of time given to parents of newborn biological children.
However, Fabrice is still frustrated where he perceives unequal treatment. World Bank employees who give birth to more than one child are entitled to an additional 20 days of leave, and he is fighting to access that benefit. Bank spokesman David Theis said this is a separate medical benefit for mothers who give birth to twins and its application has nothing to do with sexual orientation; a lesbian mother would be able to access it and a straight couple having children by surrogate would not.
But Fabrice says it's discriminatory to create a benefit that a gay couple can't access. Plus, they've had plenty of unique difficulties in having their twins, and the Bank should take that into account.
"My point of view is that it's very hard to create your own family as a gay man, and you're already starting from a pretty low point," he said. "The reaction of my parents, the reaction of society … and plus the emotional journey of surrogacy, which is a difficult one."
Although there isn't a lot of data on how common families like Fabrice and Roy's are, they seem to be growing in number. A recent study by UCLA's Williams Institute found that 27.4% of all lesbian couples and 10.6% of gay male couples are currently raising children. The percentage is even higher among couples who consider themselves married: 34.5% of lesbians and 27.9% of gays. International surrogacy is also a booming trend: A recent survey of five surrogacy agencies reported a 1,000% increase in international arrangements in just the past four years.
Fabrice doesn't expect the dispute over the additional leave to be resolved until after the kids are born. Right now they're mainly just scrambling to get the house ready. Any improvements they want to make to the house have to be done before their children arrive, and they have to do the work themselves.
After the cost of the surrogacy and the house, Roy said, "We don't have any money left to pay someone to do it. When we were making the down payment, we held the couch upside down and shook the change out — we were paying the down payment with change."
Fabrice has claimed a room at the back of the house, just off Roy's kitchen, for his library. He's planning to use it to enjoy an indulgence he had given up to save for the kids: his newspaper subscription.
While the kids run around, he said, "I'm going to take a subscription to The Washington Post and sit in here reading."
J. Lester Feder is a BuzzFeed contributor and a 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.