It all started with my mother. In fact, I didn’t come up with the idea, intriguing and subversive as it may appear in hindsight. It was she, Padma Iyer, the good Tamil homemaker, all along. She wanted to see me undergo the “natural progression” of finding a life partner. She thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all if I found a male spouse since I am openly gay and have been doing activism for equal rights for years now.
She wanted to place a matrimonial advertisement on Shaadi.com, the usual suspect in India’s quest for heteronormative salvation through marital union. I told her it wouldn’t work. Shaadi.com is good for doctor/engineer-type straight men and women. Also it didn't have a section where I could state that I was a groom looking for a groom. Why would they put up an ad for a gay man in his pursuit for a male partner?
Instead, I suggested Tinder and Grindr, the regular online hangouts that LGBT people often use to meet fellow gays and bisexuals. Because the specifications there are not very rigid. However, my mother had a different opinion. Tinder and Grindr are okay for "hook-ups, not marriage", she declared. She wasn’t wrong, of course. We decided to go for the old-fashioned newspaper advert, and thus began the odyssey of placing my "GROOM WANTED" ad in the classified section of India’s premier English-language national dailies.
We browsed through the usual ad contents of brides seeking prospective grooms and vice-versa. Everywhere, there was the ubiquitous emphasis on gotra, and other caste markers. Everyone wanted customised pieces of human engineering in cut-to-order sizes and varieties. It was easier for us. I just needed a man to be my prospective partner. With few important specifications, of course: courtesy the particular brand of politics and activism that I’m vehemently associated with. I needed my partner to be gay or bisexual. He had to be an animal-lover and a vegetarian. My strong sentiments on and advocacy of animal rights were the reasons. Not my caste origin. As long as he did not eat chicken and loved my cats, I was fine. Hence, we inserted the “Caste No Bar” clause.
However, my mother said she only wanted to have conversations with her son-in-law on the issues that were close to her heart. She said it helped if the person came from a familiar background. Also she wanted the advert to be either typical or a tease.
In the end, this is how it looked:
|The 'GROOM WANTED' ad published in Mid-Day, dated May 19, 2015.|
Then we approached the newspapers. We started with DNA. Through releasemyad.com, we placed the ad on Friday, May 15, for publication on Saturday, May 16. However, in a matter of hours, the status changed from “order approved” to “issue refund.” When I called them up to ask what was wrong, DNA said there were legal issues with the content.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Section 377 of Indian Penal Code criminalises sex against the order of nature, and all nonprocreatory sexual habits fall in it. However, I expected more courage from a prominent national daily that prides itself for its progressive values and has avant-garde journalists who have covered issues of sexuality, unbiased and unabashedly. I decided to try other newspapers but ensured I came out to them and explained that I was a gay man placing an ad for a gay or bisexual man in a country where being openly gay can invite legal penalty.
Next I tried the Times of India. They were enthusiastic in the beginning but quickly chickened out, once again citing legal problems with the content. In fact, TOI made me sign a form confirming that I am okay with the content. The receipt also mentioned that the newspaper took no responsibility of the content of my ad. It is a mystery how they would reject this advertisement citing legal issues when they have written that they assume no responsibility for the content. Again, this too from a great newspaper with superb journalists who had covered the issue of section 377 very well.
The rejection from the Hindustan Times was more blatant and no explanation was issued, though they sent a mail confirming that they couldn't take my ad. Finally, a silver lining came when Mid-Day accepted the ad. I explained everything to the girl I had a conversation with. She understood the gravity of the situation, the legal ramifications (that technically do not exist) and seemed excited about it. It was not the editor Sachin Kalbag that I was speaking to. However, it was heart-warming to read his email to Buzzfeed in which he stands his ground about his paper’s decision to publish the ad. I am happy that Kalbag chose to stick with the empowering potential of the ad, instead of simply harping on the "newsworthiness" of a debate, cultural and legal.
|Harish Iyer with his mother Padma in 2013.|
So it began as a personal need to make my unwaveringly tolerant mother happy by placing a simple ad for a prospective life partner. Since then, it transformed into a part of my activism for equal rights for LGBT people across the world. Allow me a bit of flattery. I have been named among the 100 most influential LGBT people in the world and I extend the ambit of rights to animals as well. Guess I love them more. Hence, I don’t want anyone to don silk garments at my wedding. Or have any food being wasted. I understand it wouldn’t be legal in India if I marry a man, but dream I must.
The advert was less about mainstreaming being gay as it was about ensuring there’s no discrimination on the basis of one’s sexual orientation, among other things.
And cheers to Padma Iyer! She’s a real heroine!
(As told to Angshukanta Chakraborty)