New Delhi, India – A week after they got married last year, Nimmy found texts on her husband’s mobile phone describing a sexual encounter with a man. She initially forced herself to believe her husband’s explanation that the phone messages were harmless fun – but in February, she saw emails with naked photos of her husband sent to his male best friend, who is also married.
“I was in denial, as he still is,” Nimmy said. “Finally, I snapped out of it and accepted the fact that I married a gay man and my marriage is over.”
The 30-year-old software programmer from the southern state of Kerala, who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym, said she had never suspected her partner was gay during several months of courting. It was an arranged marriage but she had happily approved the match.
Rashmi, a social worker from the western state of Maharashtra who requested her last name not appear, was also content with her parents’ choice after spending time with her future husband. But on their honeymoon last November, she said he avoided physical contact with her, and she refused his demands for anal sex during the few months that they lived together.
Family pressures and financial dependency are among the most frequently cited reasons for Indian women staying married to gay men, experts say, in a country where gay sex is not only stigmatised but outright illegal. In 2012, the Indian government estimated that 2.5 million gay men live in the country, which has a population of more than 1.2 billion.
Many gay men in India marry under intense pressure from their families. While there is no data on forced marriages, Anjali Gopalan – executive director of the Naz Foundation, which has led a legal battle to decriminalise gay sex in India – said she has counseled thousands of gay men over the past two decades.
“Most parents tell the men to produce children and be gay in secret,” Gopalan told Al Jazeera, noting there are currently no support groups in the country for the wives of gay men because such matters are considered private. “Most of them have nowhere to go for help.”
Nimmy and Rashmi said they experienced similar emotions upon discovering their partners were gay: shock and denial, followed by intense anxiety when they decided to confront the issue. Both said that being able to earn a livelihood and having access to the Internet to find help, were key to them leaving their husbands. Now, they are planning to build a website and support group to connect “straight partners” in India.
A support group for straight partners of gay men is not an indictment of homosexuality, Rashmi told Al Jazeera. She spoke critically of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that upheld a ban on gay sex under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
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In April, activists formally challenged the Supreme Court ruling, which overturned an earlier Delhi High Court decision to decriminalise homosexuality. The apex court said only the Indian parliament could change the existing law – a colonial-era statute of the Penal Code which bans sex “against the order of nature”.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who at the time of the Supreme Court ruling led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), backed the court decision, noting: “Gay sex is not natural and we cannot support something which is unnatural.” Last month, the BJP government said it would take no action on the matter until the Supreme Court dealt with the latest challenge.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, however, has said the rights of all people, including homosexuals, should be protected: “Everybody has human rights. It is the job of the government to protect them.”
Reflecting on these conflicting statements, Gopalan said: “I’m hoping that better sense prevails. But how does one hold politicians to their word? They flip-flop.”
Activists fear that criminalising homosexual acts will spur more men to conceal their sexual orientation, leading more women into empty and isolating marriages.
Nimmy, who lives in London, does not believe that her husband was a victim of parental pressure. Both of their first marriages ended in divorce, and she said he wanted to be regarded as a man with a successful career and a happy marriage. “In our society, even if you have great job, you are considered a failure if you are not married with kids,” she said. “Our marriage was really about putting up a show for the world.”
While apologising for his past relations with men, Nimmy said her husband insisted that he was not gay. She was even more disturbed, however, when her sister and brother-in-law – both doctors – insisted that being gay was a disease brought on by a western lifestyle. They advised her to consult an Indian doctor in London for a cure.
“I’m saddest about my relationship with my family changing,” she said. “What hits me most is that they believe sexual orientation can change and I’m being blamed for not compromising.”
Both Nimmy and Rashmi said they used the Internet to get information about homosexuality as well as finding others in similar situations by Googling various permutations of “married to a gay man”. Nimmy also found an online support group for spouses who were trying to end their marriages. Their long chat sessions became her lifeline during traumatic months of visiting counselors and warding off family pressure to stay married. She also met with some of its members in London.
Meanwhile, Rashmi’s search led her to Bonnie Kaye’s online “checklist“, which has pointers to determine whether one’s husband is gay.
Kaye, a US-based counselor who has dealt with thousands of women in similar situations worldwide, told Al Jazeera that Indian culture also makes it “almost impossible for women to stand up for themselves”. Over the past 30 years, Kaye said she had heard from one or two Indian women in a year. “It surprised me that six or seven have reached out to me in the past three months.”
Rashmi, meanwhile, has spent the past few months seeking advice about her legal options for divorcing her gay spouse.
Last month, she filed for divorce under India’s domestic violence law, which covers mental, verbal and emotional abuse; this was her only option, she said, as she had no proof of her husband committing adultery. Her husband’s family, on the other hand, wanted a “mutual consent” divorce.
“That means no mention of him being gay or recovering of wedding expenses,” Rashmi said. “But then I’ll get blamed for ruining the marriage, and that damages any chance of another relationship.”
Rashmi wants to reach out to Indian women in similar situations by launching a website in English and Hindi languages, which will include a “checklist” as well as information to join a private support group.
While interacting with Westerners on support groups, Rashmi said that she realised they could not always relate to the social constraints and the conservative culture that Indian women faced. She said people in the West often linked recovery with dating again.
“If I was to date, my husband’s family would say in court that I had no morals,” she said. “We need a network that is in tune with our culture.”
Follow Betwa Sharma on Twitter: @betwasharma