Gay men find refuge on the Net
By David Tusing for
YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
(CNN) -- The Internet is revolutionizing the lives of gay men in India.
In the absence of gay bars or public spaces, this form of communication has become an integral part of the lives of many of the country's gay men, estimated to number over 55 million.
Spurned by society and criminalized by the law, thousands of gay men in this burgeoning economy are going online to meet other people, voice their opinions or simply be themselves.
Twenty-year-old Manish Goyal spends an average of six to seven hours online a day.
Manish, who met his boyfriend online, says but for the Internet, he would have never found anyone.
Like many people his age, Manish lives with his family.
"There is no way my family is going to accept my sexuality. Where would I have gone to meet people like me," he asks.
His contemporaries agree.
"As the only son, I haven't had the heart to come out to my parents. In India, the son's responsibility as the upholder of family's legacy is of great significance," advertising executive Ajesh Nair says.
He met his boyfriend on an online dating site and says he keeps away from the so-called cruising areas.
Ajesh has even taken his boyfriend home to meet his parents, but "just as a regular friend," he clarifies.
It might seem that gay men in India use the Internet for similar purposes as their counterparts around the world.
But for many, it's much more than that.
"I am just a professional to other people. But when I'm online, I can be myself. I can express my thoughts and feelings freely, something I cannot do under normal circumstances," Ajesh says.
"The Internet becomes the perfect place to be if you're lonely or just want to talk to someone."
Anish Kumar (name changed on request) is 35 and works with an NGO in Bangalore, India's IT capital.
Despite repeated requests by his parents to get married and settle down, he has not told them about his sexuality.
"It's a much bigger price to pay to come out and I'm just not ready yet," he says.
Anish spends his spare time online where he "socializes" and organizes parties exclusively for gay men.
These parties are held at well-known clubs in the city and are often huge successes.
A Queer Party will have at least 100 people in attendance, a decent number, considering that many gay men still prefer the anonymity of an online identity.
These private parties are also organized on a regular basis in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, made possible by establishing contacts through online chat rooms and social clubs.
Debate still rages
But even as the Internet becomes an important catalyst for sexual liberation in conservative India, the debate on homosexuality rages on.
Priyali Sur, who works as a producer in a news organization, does not believe that homosexuality even exists.
"I just think gay men are lost about their sexuality or they just want to experiment," she says.
Priyali found out about online gay communities when a colleague worked on a story on homosexuality.
"I don't understand why sex is given so much precedence when they (gay men) harp about falling in love with someone of the same sex," she adds.
But according to Shruti Upadhyay, a PR professional, it is high time people in India stopped being hypocritical.
"Homosexuality existed since the Vedas and Kamasutras, so why is it such a big deal," she asks.
When asked about online gay communities, she says she is not surprised.
"There is so much homo porn online."
While the virtual gay community flourishes, experts and activists have warned that growing dependency on the Internet might delay the process of actually coming out in public.
Cases of HIV/AIDS are also on the rise in India.
Organizations that work specifically with sexual minorities agree that most gay men are too afraid to come for counseling or attend a meeting.
According to well-known gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi, activism is therefore hampered, since most gay men prefer the safety and cover of the Internet.
His organization, the Humsafar Trust, distributes free condoms and offers counseling, either via phone or in person.
But many gay men are optimistic that homosexuality will soon emerge from the confines of the Internet closet and out into the open.
"People are beginning to talk about it, movies have started to portray gay characters and it is slowly becoming a less taboo subject," Ajesh says.
He plans to come out to his parents "when the time is right."
Manish says it is wishful thinking, but when it comes to the inevitable issue of marriage, he hopes his parents do not force him to marry a woman.
"I want to live as I choose and the society should accept me as I am," he says.
But for now, that society does not exist.
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