A New Helpline for Indian Lesbians Is a Breakthrough for a Marginalized Group

Deepali Gaur Singh

Despite the annual show of presence in different parts of India during gay pride parades, lesbians continue to remain one of the more closeted groups amongst the LGBT community.

Almost a decade ago, the film ‘Fire’ provoked a violent reaction from more conservative sectors of Indian society, society., Some claimed that the depiction of a relationship between the two female protagonists was against Indian culture. Quite ironically, what is believed to be the film’s inspiration, -"Lihaaf" (the quilt), is about a little girl who witnesses a lesbian love affair. It was written in  1941, and even banned by the state government at that time. The author, Ismat Chugtai, was tried for obscenity, a charge she challenged and was eventually dismissed.

The legal persecution of homosexuals in India has its roots in the nation’s colonization under the British Empire. A majority of the world’s anti-gay laws  trace back to an 1860 law, which British colonizers used. This law continues in India today. While section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalizes homosexuality, it says that only homosexual males can be penalized, leaving lesbians outside its purview. 

This is what defines lesbians in the country, a group that is believed to not exist. Despite the annual show of presence and numbers in different parts of the country during the gay pride parade, lesbians continue to remain one of the more closeted groups amongst the LGBT community.  

Criminalization of homosexuals makes them vulnerable to arrests with a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, which makes the penalties for gay sex far steeper than for crimes such as murder or rape. LGBT people often suffer repetitive harassment in the form of extortion, discrimination, ridicule, physical and sexual assault by government agencies, depression and despair arising from a life of duplicity – people forced to lead surreptitious lives by lying to their families and the spouses they have been forced to marry. Suicide is often the only avenue out of this cycle of violence. The irony is that there have been too few cases against lesbians since the implementation of the act, allowing many conservatives to use these statistics to ‘prove’ that female homosexuality is alien to Indian culture.

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Section 377 does not specifically talk about same-sex marriages, allowing gay and lesbian couples the space to exploit this loophole. Yet, it is a situation fraught with uncertainties since it also allows law enforcers to interpret the law as they want by leaving such marriages and couples at the mercy of any and every law enforcer’s whim.

More recently, another film – that otherwise would hardly have made a dent commercially – ran into trouble with conservatives in 2004 because of its flagrant "lesbian content." Ironically, it also faced the ire of lesbian groups in India because of the portrayal of the lesbian protagonist as a psychopath.

This has been the case with a lot of commercial films dealing with the topic, when the lesbian is almost always  against a social or family dysfunction which appears to become the driving point of her sexual orientation, thus feeding into the logic of alternative sexuality being a dysfunctional sexuality.

It is because of representations like this that are even more dangerous because they reinforce the traditional family as the right place of the Indian woman. And anyone seen as challenging this venerated institution then becomes the target of punitive action by self-proclaimed upholders of "culture" from within the community, or even the state.

The condition of the LGBT community has to be understood with the knowledge of women’s role in Indian society, where public spaces are not only gendered but also heterosexist. In a sexually-repressive society, even women in heterosexual relationships understand sexuality mostly through violence. Caste and class distinctions ensure that heterosexual couples endure brutality and death for transgressing these barriers so the plight of the lesbian can only be imagined because violence against lesbians is inextricably linked to violence against women. Women rarely have avenues for redress, making the case for lesbians even more poignant.

Since the state protects women against domestic violence and marital rape, the widespread prevalence of these forms of violence and its tacit, societal acceptance are reflected in the small number of reported cases. But since lesbians challenge the very basis of this patriarchal order by completely excluding men from it, they are denied even this state protection against domestic violence and marital rape. They are often forced into heterosexual marriages by their own families as "a remedy" to their "sexual malfunction." There have been innumerable instances of lesbian couples forcefully separated by families and the community, and forced into heterosexual marriages. In other instances, they are legally persecuted like the case of a widowed mother of an 8-year-old boy from the eastern state of Bihar, who was charged with the abduction of her 19-year-old female partner. Many of the cases documented are of couples from small-town backgrounds and belong to the lower-middle class, having little or no exposure to the ‘western culture’ or urban queer rights discourse, which challenges the ‘alien culture’ discourse.

Patriarchy, in denying any sexual agency to women, ensures that they endure violence both as women and as lesbians since they are unable to play the primary stereotypical roles assigned to them – the good wife and caring mother. What makes homosexuality even more difficult is invisibility not just in the social domain, but also from political groups.
"Fire," failed to become a common forum for diverse rights organizations.

Lesbian rights groups that were attempting to bring the discourse into the realm of homophobia were, in fact, chastised by other rights groups for ‘derailing the larger debate of artistic freedom and democratic rights.’ Thus, the issue of sexuality in the discourses on class and caste are very often seen as trivializing these more serious issues, a reflection of the seriousness, or lack of it, with which lesbian issues are viewed so what one witnesses is a total social rejection despite the obvious prevalence. It translates into a lack of support systems for these groups, and restrictions and controls on women’s mobility allow them little access to the organizations. Even grass-root organizations are often clueless about sexuality issues and are unable to provide any support to these women.

This is what makes the first dedicated lesbian helpline in Chennai a truly path-breaking initiative.The fact that there are enough people in need of such a forum was evident, and even before the helpline was incepted in early February, the phones had already started ringing. Currently, most of the counselors are gay men, but the success of the venture is expected to draw more lesbians to volunteer. The call centre offers counseling services relying on qualified volunteers and GLBT advocacy groups as well as groups already engaged in offering psychotherapeutic services to lesbians have welcomed the move by joining hands with the helpline service. The challenges right now are enrolling enough qualified people to attend and document the calls, and finding a space for these groups of sexual minorities within mainstream society, where their daily existence is not circumscribed by the furtive lifestyle, continues to be an obstacle.

Commentary Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

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The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

The Prison Overcrowding Problems on ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Reflect a Real-Life Crisis

Victoria Law

In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn't limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.

“I’ve been in Litchfield for a while now,” says Piper Chapman (actress Taylor Schilling) in the latest season of Orange Is the New Black, “and I’ve started to feel unsafe lately.”

Season four of OITNB has taken on prison overcrowding. Viewers may recall that, in the last season, the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary was taken over by a corporation, transforming it from an already underfunded state prison to a private facility whose sole purpose is the bottom line. That means each woman inside Litchfield has become a commodity—and the more commodities locked inside, the more profit the corporation receives.

In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn’t limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.

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In the latest season of OITNB, viewers see some of the potential consequences of prison overcrowding: It is accompanied by increased threats of violence and abuse, as people, packed like sardines, step on each other, jostle each other, and can’t get away from each other. Supplies, such as soap, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper, are never in abundance in a prison setting; they become even more scarce as the number of people clamoring for them soar. Even food, which prisons are required to provide in the form of regular meals, becomes in short supply.

A scarcity of resources isn’t the only problem in Litchfield. Again and again, we see long lines for the bathrooms and showers. When the prison installs “porta potties” in the yard, there are long lines for those as well. “Too many people in here, everybody getting on each other’s nerves,” remarks Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), another of the show’s long-term characters. Conflicts emerge as women struggle to navigate daily living in a narrow room with multiple other women. Some of these may seem small, like the nightly snoring of a new bunkmate keeping another one awake all night. But these seemingly inconsequential issues lead to larger ones, such as sleep deprivation. In the show, women resort to comic measures; but these conflicts, especially in a closed and cramped environment, can quickly erupt into violence.

This is the case in Litchfield as well. Conflicts quickly turn into threats or actual attacks. While prison socializing has always been racially segregated, some of it now becomes racialized and racist. Some of the new white women, noting that they are in the minority among the large numbers of Latina and Black women being shuttled in, are unwittingly pushed by Piper to form a white power group. They hurl racist epithets at the women of color and, when they spot a lone Dominican woman on the stairs, move together to attack her.

Prison staff perpetuate the violence, using their authority to do so. They begin their own version of “stop and frisk” in the prison’s hallways, targeting the growing Latina population. While the body searches in and of themselves are humiliating, the (male) guards also take advantage of the additional security measure to grope and further abuse the women. They even force women into fighting, which they then bet on—a nod to the actual allegations of guard-instigated gladiator fights in California’s prisons and the San Francisco County Jail.

Although not everything in OITNB is realistic, the problems the show portrays in this respect reflect the frequent results of overcrowding—and some of its causes. As OITNB notes repeatedly throughout the season, private prisons receive money per person, so it’s in the company’s interest to lock up as many people as possible.

In 2014, for example, private prison contractor GEO Group contracted with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to open and operate a women’s prison north of Bakersfield, California. Under the terms of the contract, California pays GEO Group $94.50 per person per day for the first 260 women sent to that prison. The contract also includes an opportunity for the company to expand its prison by another 260 beds—although, if it does that, the state only pays $86.95 per person per day. But even at that lower rate, doubling the occupancy increases the private prison’s overall four-year revenue from roughly $38 million to $66 million. (As of June 8, 2016, that prison held 223 people.)

But prison overcrowding isn’t limited to private prisons. In some states, the “tough on crime” laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s are still leading to crammed public prisons today.

California, for instance, is one of the most egregious examples of such legislation leading to prison overcrowding. Years of extreme overcrowding ultimately led to Brown v. Plata, a class-action lawsuit charging that the state’s severely crowded prisons prevented it from providing adequate medical and mental health care, thus violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered California to decrease its state prison population from 180 to 137.5 percent capacity.

To do so, the CDCR took several actions: It began shipping thousands of men to private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. In addition, it converted Valley State Prison for Women, one of its three women’s prisons, into a men’s prison, and transferred the approximately 1,000 women there from Valley State Prison for Women to two other prisons—the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and the California Institution for Women (CIW). It also opened the 523-bed Folsom Women’s Facility in January 2013.

Despite these efforts, overcrowding continues to plague California’s prisons. As of June 8, CCWF was at 143.6 percent capacity; while CIW was at 129 percent capacity.

Even before the influx of women from Valley State Prison, though, the numbers of people packed into CIW had led to reports of violence from inside. In 2012, Jane, who has been incarcerated at CIW for several years, wrote in a letter that was later reprinted in Tenacious, “When eight women of widely disparate ages, social backgrounds, ethnicities and interests share a 246-square foot cell, there are bound to be conflicts, and there is little tolerance for any behaviors that are different.” She recounted a woman named Anna who spoke little English and was mentally ill.

“Little Anna has spent the last several weeks being alternately beaten up by her cellmates, who don’t understand her behaviors, or drugged into a drooling stupor in the Specialty Care Unit,” Jane wrote. According to Jane, housing staff ignored the violence. When Anna tried to complain to a higher-ranking staff member, Jane said that correctional officers, “angry at her inability to follow directions, threw her to the floor, cuffed her hands behind her back and twisted her arms until she screamed in pain.”

Two years later, after women from Valley State Prison were moved to CIW, Jane wrote in a second letter published in Tenacious, “What this overcrowding has created in terms of living conditions is continued horrendous health care and failed mental health care.”

The situation seems to have persisted. As noted earlier, women have also reported a pervading sense of hopelessness, exacerbated in part by the inability to access mental health care. CIW has a suicide rate that reportedly is eight times the national rate for women behind bars. In 2015, it had two suicides and 35 attempts. As of June 16, 2016, there have been two successful suicides and nine attempts. “A lot of us are only hanging on by hope alone. In a hopeless place, most don’t make it,” one woman told Rewire one month before her friend’s suicide this past April.

In many men’s prisons, overcrowding is even more severe. Valley State Prison, now a men’s prison, is currently at 172 percent capacity. The vast majority of the state’s other male prisons operate at over 100 percent capacity.

But it’s not just California that suffers from prison overcrowding. Oklahoma, which has especially harsh sentencing laws—particularly for drug offenses—has the country’s highest rate of incarceration for women. And the number of those behind bars continues to rise: In 2014, the state imprisoned 2,979 women, a 9.3 percent increase from the 2,702 women imprisoned the year before.

Mary Fish has been incarcerated at Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center (MBCC) for the past 15 years. She told Rewire that prison administrators recently added 40 more beds to each unit, increasing its capacity from 1,055 to 1,291. (As of June 13, 1,250 women were incarcerated at MBCC.) This has led to competition, even for state-guaranteed items like cafeteria food (especially fresh fruit, which is infrequent in many prisons). “This overcrowding is all about who can get up there and bull dog [sic] their way to the front of the line,” she wrote in a letter to Rewire. She said that two days earlier, the prison’s cafeteria was serving bananas with lunch. But, even though each woman only received one banana, by the time she reached the window, all of the bananas were gone.

“It really gives new meaning to overcrowded,” Fish reflected. “Bodies rubbing in passing, kind of space-less, boundary-less environment. I’ve never had so much human contact in the 15 years I’ve been incarcerated.”

The state’s medium-security women’s prison, the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center (capacity 988) currently holds 1,010 women. “There are huge overcrowded dorms crammed with bunk beds and steel lockers,” wrote “Gillian” in a letter to Rewire, later printed in Tenacious, shortly after being transferred from MBCC to Eddie Warrior. “The population is young, transient and the majority are disrespectful. They have no clue how to live successfully in a crowded communal environment. The dorms are filthy, loud and chaotic for the most part. There is no peace.”

The situations in Oklahoma and California are only two examples of how state prison overcrowding affects those locked up inside. Institutions in other states, including Alabama, North Dakota, and Nebraska, have also long been overcrowded.

On OITNB, the private corporation in charge plans to bring even more women to Litchfield to increase revenue. But in real life, as state budgets grow leaner and prison justice advocates continue to press for change, local legislators are beginning to rethink their incarceration policies. In California, a recently proposed ballot measure would change parole requirements and allow for early release for those with nonviolent convictions if they enroll in prison education programs or earn good behavior credits. If the ballot garners at least 585,407 voter signatures, it will be added to the state’s November ballot.

In Oklahoma, meanwhile, where the state now spends $500 million a year on incarceration, former Republican house speaker and leader of the coalition Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Kris Steele is pushing for two ballot measures—one that allows reclassifying offenses like drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors, and another that sets up a new fund that would redirect the money spent on incarceration for low-level offenses back to community programs focused on rehabilitation and treating the root causes of crime.

Still, these changes have been slow in coming. In the meantime, individuals continue to be sent to prison, even if it means more bunk beds and less space to move (not to mention the devastation caused by breaking up families). “Last week, Oklahoma County brought a whole big RV-looking bus to deliver a bunch of women here to [Assessment and Reception],” Fish, at MBCC, noted in a May 2016 letter to Rewire.

The following week, she told Rewire, “They keep crowding us. There’s no room to even walk on the sidewalks.” Fish regularly reads the local newspapers in the hopes of learning about pending legislation to ease overcrowding and allow for early release. Though the senate recently passed four bills that may reduce the number of people being sent to prison, she feels that the new laws won’t help those currently trapped inside. “It’s getting pretty awful, and it looks like no bills passed to help us so there’s NO END IN SIGHT.”