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MUMBAI, India — When openly gay actor and model Sushant Divgikar marched into India’s answer to the Big Brother house last month, he was reaching for more than a few minutes in the limelight.
"I can sensitize the people about my community by being the face of LGBT community in ‘Bigg Boss’,” the 24-year-old told interviewers before the show kicked off, using the term often used to refer to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals. “Everybody should accept themselves for who they are.”
Mr. Gay India 2014’s words and prominence come at an important time for India’s gay community. While Divgikar came of age in the wake of a 2009 Delhi High Court decision reversing a colonial-era law banning homosexual acts, the country has recently become decidedly more hostile to gays and lesbians.
In some circles, that ruling made being openly gay or lesbian no longer taboo. Gay pride parades were held throughout India, including in Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and New Delhi. Gay and lesbian bars and cafes sprouted up in cities around the country.
But the Delhi Supreme Court reinstated the colonial law in December, threatening fragile gains made by the LGBT community. Many who had felt comfortable openly admitting who they were became terrified.
“People came out after the high court verdict in 2009 because they thought everything was OK,” activist Anuja Parikh told NBC News. “Now that the Supreme Court has taken a massive backwards step, the people who came out of the closet are suddenly afraid because they can’t go back in.”
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The court's decision rattled Upasana Naithani, who lives with her partner Sonal Giani and works at an ad agency in Mumbai.
“I remember that for a month I was very scared,” the 27-year-old said. "I remember being very scared that somebody might recognize us."
The conservative Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) landslide victory in May elections, as well as comments made by some of its top officials, only compound many of these fears.
"Every gay person has to live a double life"
"Gay sex is not natural and we cannot support something which is unnatural,” Ranjnath Singh, who was president of the BJP and is now a cabinet minister, told journalists after the December ruling.
These enduring attitudes inevitably hurt the isolated the most.
When Amit Bachchan, 35, realized he was gay he had no one to talk to in his conservative village. He also struggled under intense pressure from family to consummate a marriage with a girl he had been betrothed to since childhood in Bihar state.
Life became a bit easier after Bachchan moved to Mumbai and started work in a market, but being true to himself remained difficult.
Basics like finding a place to live are a constant challenge because landlords depend on police to personally “verify” tenants after gathering information from the potential renter’s neighbors. Police often try to extract bribes from gays and lesbians in exchange for remaining silent, activists say.
Bachchan says he’s fallen victim to such police extortion and harassment three times.
“Every gay person has to live a double life,” he said. “So they are a man when they are outside and they are gay in private.”
A police spokesman in Mumbai categorically denied that police victimized anybody, and added that the community was never persecuted.
“No-one has been harassed,” said Krishna Prakash, Additional Commissioner of Police in South Mumbai.
Nevertheless, gays and lesbians worry they will be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes or worse. On Sept. 25, a transgender woman was killed after being pushed off a moving train in Bangalore.
And while gay men are harassed, lesbians face a specific kind and harsher type of discrimination, said Giani, Naithani’s partner and an LGBT rights activist.
“Women’s sexuality is generally very taboo,” she said. “I remember being harassed in my workplace because it came out that I was bisexual.”
Much of India remains deeply traditional, with women facing intense pressure to marry and have children. Few have the option of living their lives alone and outside the family home. These pressures, plus the fact that women generally do not feel they can be open about their sexuality, marginalize many lesbians and female bisexuals in India, activists say.
To make matters worse, the recent Supreme Court decision outlawing homosexual acts but not criminalizing gays and lesbians themselves, is widely misunderstood, Giani said.
“It’s not illegal to say you are lesbian or gay,” said Giani. “But how do you get a layman to understand that?”
So many gay men and lesbians worry that they are falling behind when it comes to fighting for equal rights after the gains that followed the 2009 ruling.
The struggle for same-sex marriage and adoption has been put on hold. And because gay relationships are not recognized in Indian law, couples are denied the basic rights heterosexual couples have.
“The law will change and maybe we won’t be criminals after that,” said Thomas Joseph, 29, who has been with his partner Nitin Karani, a gay rights activist, for more than five years. “But as for equal rights?”
Karani answered softly: “We’ll still be second-class citizens.”