Here Comes The Bride…… And The Bride
The gray cat dozes contentedly on a bench in the afternoon sun as Arvind Kumar, his head shaded by a floppy blue hat, plucks weeds from his garden. Upstairs in the San Jose home they have shared together for over a decade, Ashok Jethanandani is enjoying his Sunday siesta. It’s a scene of cozy, almost Normal Rockwellesque Americana. But in it lie the seeds of a domestic revolution that has caught the attention of everyone, including the White House. Ashok and Arvind are gay. They have the house, the cats, the twin Toyotas, the joint bank account and the Costco shopping card. Now they would like to get married.
On Friday, Feb. 20, Ashok and Arvind rose at 5:30 am and drove an hour to San Francisco to do just that. When they reached City Hall, there were already some 300 couples ahead of them in line.
Around noon they realized it was futile. But Ashok has no regrets. “It was so festive. So many people were rooting for us. Even the garbage truck went by and honked its support.” Though they came home empty handed that day, Ashok, editor of India Currents magazine, found on their doorstep a huge bouquet of flowers and a card from all his co-workers.
“It was completely unexpected,” says Ashok. “I hand’t really given them any warning.” The weekend before when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom set the nation abuzz by instructing City Hall to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Mala Nagarajan and Vega Subramaniam were visiting Mala’s sister in San Francisco from Seattle. They watched the excitement but decided not to be a part of it. They had already had their own wedding ceremony at their home in Washington in 2002, what they laughingly call “perhaps the first lesbian Hindu wedding in America!”
“Personally I would rather have the state be out of our personal relationship,” says Vega. “For me the most important thing was to have a ceremony with our loved ones. We were not sure we wanted to take the legal step.” But within a month the repercussions from San Francisco had reached Seattle. On March 8, the Northwest Women’s Law Center and Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of six gay and lesbian couples who were denied marriage licenses. One of the couples was Mala and Vega. “We wanted to help get the right to choose whether or not to get married. We wanted people to be able to bring their partners over (from another country) and have access to health care benefits,” says Mala.
A decade ago, few lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) Indians were visible in the United States. though major cities like San Francisco and New York had organizations like Trikone and SALGA. While mainstream gay America was fighting about the right to serve in the military or job discrimination, LGBT South Asians were grappling with issues of coming out and marriage. Now as America wrestles with the idea of same-sex marriage, LGBT desis find their Number One issue is suddenly headline news.
Samina Ali can relate to this desi preoccupation with marriage. The San Francisco writer entered into an arranged marriage 13 years ago with a man who turned out to be gay. “In Western culture, children grow up, leave the home, have lovers, get married or not; in the end, a person’s life belongs to him/her,” says the author of Madras on Rainy Days. “In India, children’s lives belong to their parents, to their community. So the idea of a person having the freedom to declare his/her homosexuality and then getting married to a person of the same sex seems almost unbelievable.”
But that was what happened to Aditya Advani.
In 1993 when he took his partner Michael Tarr home to New Delhi, he resisted going to yet another family wedding. “No one is ever going to come to my wedding,” he complained. His mother thought for a moment and then said, “Why not? We could have a ceremony for you and Michael.” Swami Bodhananda, the family’s spiritual mentor, presided over the ceremony dedicating it to Ayyappa, son of an unusual union between two male gods, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. “I couldn’t believe my luck,” hreflects Aditya. “Openly gay and married in my parents’ drawing room at the age of thirty. Right on schedule as a good Indian boy should be.” Not everyone’s mother is quite so understanding. “My father and brother were excited because Mala is so likeable,” says Vega. “But my mother thought why flaunt it, why be proud of something shameful.”
When Ruth Vanita, a professor in English in Montana, told her family in India that she was going to marry her partner Mona Bachman in 2000, the initial reaction was negative though they were fond of Mona. “The usual problem, ‘What will people say?'” remembers Ruth. As it turns out few people said anything. “Most relatives ignored it; the uncle and aunt to whom I am closest gave us a nice present,” says Ruth. Mona’s 87-year-old mother had her qualms as well. But in the end she walked her daughter down the aisle. Now Ruth’s parents have adjusted. “They now live with us, and my mother hrefers to Mona as her daughter-in-law,” says Ruth.
Though their wedding vows have no legal significance, for Ruth, a wedding ceremony was like a second coming out. “(It) helped me to make the relationship visible to family and friends as more than just a friendship,” she says. “We are married, whether or not the state likes it. Marriage is defined by people, not by governments.” And it is the people who attend who make the ceremony meaningful.
Tom’s parents flew in from upstate New York. Yatin’s parents flew in from Mumbai. Though everyone initially was nervous about a public ceremony, by the time the big day arrived, the mothers were completely in “mother of the groom” mode. Yatin’s mother was hunting down CDs with specific mantras. “On the morning of the wedding, my mother was stringing the wedding garlands with Yatin’s mom,” remembers Tom.The national hullabaloo about gay marriages is a legal one involving talk of constitutional amendments, law suits and counter law suits, and state Supreme Courts. But for couples like Yatin and Tom, the moment is all about personal rituals.Without any roadmap to follow, lesbian and gay couples get to create their own ceremonies freely borrowing from each other’s cultures.
Ruth and Mona’s Hindu-Jewish ceremony involved a chuppah, breaking glass, a three tier wedding cake, Vedic shlokas and jaimalas.
Of course, there are challenges. “The United Nations chapel in New York, which is supposed to be dedicated to equality and inclusiveness, hrefused to let us hold the wedding there,” says Ruth. Yatin and Tom couldn’t find a Hindu priest. “Most made excuses, though only one said he wouldn’t do gay marriages. And he was the white American priest from the Hare Krishna temple,” says Yatin.
Mala and Vega had a more basic problem. They didn’t have wedding sarees. When they put up a sign looking for wedding saris at local Indian grocery store, they got a call instead from a woman whose husband was a priest. Though he was taken aback to hear two women were planning to get married, he soon got into the spirit of things. “He was looking for hreferences to unions such as ours,” remembers Mala. “He didn’t find anything specific but he found lots of hreferences to ‘two souls coming together’ in union, with no hreferences to the gender of those ‘souls’.”
While the ceremonies are moving and beautiful, in the end do they make a difference? Aditya Advani thinks so. “It’s a social cement that holds you together,” says Aditya. “Everyone understands we are a unit now.”
Arvind’s mother, who had once adamantly rejected Arvind’s sexuality, presided over a Hindu ceremony complete with pheras he had with Ashok in Toronto in 1996. “I came full circle from being the alienated teenager, angry with my parents for not accepting me the way I was,” says Arvind. “I finally entered the family circle.”
The courts may have put the wedding fever in San Francisco in a limbo and the couples have gone back to their daily lives. But in some subtle ways they have been changed forever. Aditya is waiting anxiously for his photographer husband to return from a research trip to Arunachal Pradesh. “If they still allow marriages, we’ll definitely do it,” he says.
They are not yet quite used to hreferring to each other as “husband,” but Tom doesn’t care. “I still look at my wedding ring and it still brings a smile to my face” he says. “I can’t believe I finally have this ring on my finger.”
Ashok and Arvind just got an email from the city of San Francisco canceling their April 30 marriage appointment while the state Supreme Court tries to sort things out. But they are patient. The registration licenses from being domestic partners in Palo Alto and California hang on the wall where other couples might have pictures of their children.
“We are just fighting to simplify our lives,” says Arvind. “I don’t want a Palo Alto date, a state of California date, a Hindu ceremony date. I just want one date, one wedding anniversary like everyone else.”