- By Sophia Jones<p> Sophia Jones, a former editorial researcher at Foreign Policy, is an Overseas Press Club fellow and freelance journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter: @Sophia_MJones. </p>
On July 22, Savita and Beena stood before a court in Gurgaon, India, and became the first lesbian couple to be legally married, defying their disapproving families and strict laws banning same-sex marriage. Now, the newlyweds seek police protection following death threats from 14 of their family members and local villagers.
Savita, 25, and Beena, 20, met 15 years ago as children in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Savita had been forced into an arranged marriage last year with a man from her village, but she ran away five months later. She was granted a divorce by a court near New Delhi, which also approved her wish to marry Beena. Savita was deemed the husband, and Beena, her wife. Though India bans same-sex marriage, the Gurgaon court recognized their union after the couple signed an affidavit asserting that they meet all of the requirements of a legal marriage.
But following the ceremony, the young couple soon returned asking for asylum after an open declaration was made in their village to kill the women. Now, the judges in the Gurgaon court are granting the couple police protection, upholding a 2009 ruling from the Punjab and Haryana High Court to "ensure help and [give] assistance to runaway couples."
Details on their current situation are cloudy. Some reports claim that the two women attempted suicide by jumping in front of a moving train. But Dr. Abhe Singh, the Gurgaon deputy commissioner of police, told the Daily Telegraph that the young women are currently safe under 24-hour protection.
In the past year alone, two lesbian couples have committed suicide in India. Others have fallen victim to honor killings at the hands of disapproving family members. Homosexuality is still widely frowned upon in India, with the health minister recently speaking out at a national HIV/AIDS convention against the "MSM disease" — men who have sex with men. But beneath a traditional blanket of conservatism, an outspoken LGBT community is emerging, and not just in India.
Neighboring Nepal, the first South Asian country to decriminalize homosexuality, has been called the next potential gay wedding destination for foreigners. Same-sex marriage was recently approved by the Nepalese Supreme Court, which is also pushing for the new constitution to include gay rights. Third gender ID cards are now issued to Nepali citizens who do not identify as male or female. And, in 2010, operation Pink Mountain was launched, the nation’s first travel agency for gay tourists. Sharad Pradhan, the Nepal Tourism Board spokesman, stresses that Nepal is "more liberal than other countries" and that "all the tourist sites are open for everyone, including gays and lesbians." An American lesbian couple recently took advantage of Nepal’s gay-friendly stance on tourism, becoming the first same-sex couple to publicly marry there.
Following Nepal’s lead, India decriminalized homosexuality in 2009, and since then, a ripple of change has pulsed through the country. Once taboo, Bollywood now no longer shies away from films with homosexual characters. In 2008, the first large-scale gay pride parade hit New Delhi, with some protesters calling it a national coming-out party. Now, India’s annual parade celebrating gay rights attract thousands — complete with drums, masks, and rainbow flags.
Meanwhile Savita and Beena are putting on their own show of strength. "If they want to take any steps against us, they should not hesitate to do so," said the couple. "Don’t fear anything, just follow your heart."