Homosexual victim exposes the Delhi press

IN Media Practice | 08/09/2004


Aniruddha Dutta


"Double Murder Outs Delhi’s Gay Culture": On 14 August, Pushkin Chandra, the 38-year old son of a retired IAS officer and himself an USAID employee, was found dead along with his friend Kuldip, at the former’s residence in Anand Lok, Delhi. They had returned from a party given by Pushkin’s friend, Uffe Gartner, along two other men. Pornographic tapes of men engaged in same-sex activity were recovered from the site. Pushkin’s car and several other belongings were missing. From then till the suspects were eventually arrested about two weeks later, the spotlight of the media rarely wavered from the case. If this seems astonishing in a city where murders are a dime a dozen - there were several other murders and at least one suicide reported around this period - the reasons are soon evident. The victims of the crime were homosexual. The murders opened up one whole tabooed area to the media, and it was clear that coverage would sell. From that very first day, when few facts were available and the police was still very much in the dark, the media focus was relentlessly on a ‘gay culture’ which it portrayed as a source of endless sleaze. There was endless speculation regarding not only the sexual lives of the victims but also those of homosexual people in general. So the area of concern seemed not to be the fact that two young men had tragically died - but rather, as the Hindustan Times proclaimed in the headline announcing the crime - that the "double murder" outed "Delhi’s gay culture."

What this article seeks to show is that it was not the murders which outed gay culture, but the media which did so - using the pretence of investigative journalism to paint a sordid picture around homosexuality which revealed not the truth but prejudice. The TOI stated, "Investigations into the Pushkin Chandra murder are throwing considerable light on the capital’s dark underbelly."

But it is the dark underbelly of print journalism that needs to be documented, as do the rare, brighter, exceptions.

‘Gay abandon’: The articles that dealt with the case itself talked endlessly about Pushkin’s lifestyle and even that of his friends. Articles such as "Courting strangers and danger," (HT, 19 August) and "A Reckless life behind a ruthless murder?" (The Hindu, 20 August) were based mainly on conjecture and the focus shifted from available facts to a whole area of activity which were causally linked to the crime — pornography, parties, and multiple partners led to sexual jealousy, revenge, and blackmail, and these must have led to the murders. The responsibility for the crime seemed to belong to the victim’s fecklessness alone: "Pushkin Chandra led a dangerous other life… after work… Pushkin hooked onto a network of strangers who emerged from the shadows of lanes and parks… ("Courting strangers and danger", HT.) Devesh K. Pandey wrote in the Hindu, 20 August: "Pushkin Chandra... had lately become easy target for anyone nursing an evil design against him----he apparently did not care much about the background of the young men he would allegedly pick up for company at random."   While this was definitely a factor that precipitated the murders, the connection made was generalized ("anyone nursing an evil design") and relegated the blame to the victim’s lifestyle and not the criminals who committed the crime.

However, the slips committed by the police were glossed over. Only one article dealt with the fact that Pushkin’s stolen car was taken across Delhi on Independence Day without the police knowing, in spite of the security arrangements ("Pushkin car recovery reveals chinks in cops’ armour", TOI, 22 August).

Most significantly, the preoccupation with lifestyle did not stop with only the men concerned. It was linked to the fact of them being gay: for example, lavish parties, smuggling in boys, etc. were described as ‘gay abandon’ (HT, 18 August.) From here, the case became an opportunity to stereotype an entire section of people.

Heterosexist Voyeurism: Therefore it is not surprising to note that an amazing number of articles completely dispensed with the case, and dealt with what they claimed to be ‘homosexual’ lifestyle. "Coming out is easier, but it’s usually about sex" said the headline an HT article on the 15th. It spoke of people "checking each other out" on the net using webcams, then arranging to meet. It aimed to give insights into gay lingo and habits: "a typical conversation involves questions like ‘asl?’ and ‘top or bottom?’… Age, sex, and location (asl) is a standard opening (to a dialogue over the net) while dominant partners refer to themselves as ‘tops’." One could add that ‘asl’ is a standard opening line for even heterosexuals wooing over the net. Another article in the HT, 17 August, documented the spaces available for homosexuals to interact: from "websites and chat rooms" to "secure networks/established ‘social’ circles." The article was titled "Risque business", giving an air of illicitness to perfectly consensual activity. "Top and bottom are words that say it all" from the HT, 17 August, shifted focus on same-sex massage parlours and male prostitutes. One wonders if none of these practices had its counterparts within heterosexuals.

Obviously, such reporting had no insight to offer regarding the case, except to sensationalize homosexuality itself and satisfy the voyeurism of the mainly heterosexual reading public. One only has to look at the sheer number of such articles to show the extent of voyeurism- two in the HT on 15 August, two in the same paper on the 17th.

Linking homosexuality to crime: This was the next level to the stereotyping, of course. There were two main ways this was done. The sexual habits of all same-sex desiring people were generalised, and implicated as factors which would lead to such crimes. The use of the subhead "Gay Murder", in various articles in the TOI, HT and The Statesman, itself suggested this. The Hindustan Times, specifically, used graphics to represent homosexuality, with two signs representing maleness juxtaposed and the caption of "Dangerous Liaisons". This would accompany all their reports on the case. This could be interpreted to mean that even if gay people were victims, they invited crime in the way all of them apparently lived.

The second way was more direct - to portray the ‘gay community’ as active perpetrators. "Darkness at dusk for gays" (HT, 15 August), spoke about cruising areas which were "haunts for quick and illegal sexual gratification at night". "At Nehru Park, feminine men, wearing cheap clothes, are known to solicit customers… most of their customers, again closet gays, know where to find and use them." The use of suggestive language like "darkness" hinted at crime without offering facts — the phrase "find and use them" clearly suggested exploitation without, again, offering evidence.

Sometimes the reporting verged on slander. Sachin Parashar quoted some anonymous sources to say that "Pushkin was part of a homosexual syndicate which went out of its way to rope in fresh members," ("Gay murders tip of sordid sleazeberg," TOI, 17 August). This extremely serious charge wasn’t substantiated by facts discovered subsequently. Another piece entitled "Gay community grows in city’ (HT, August 16th) quoted a survey of the State AIDS Control Society which linked growing numbers of homosexuals to growing instances of HIV/AIDS (As if heterosexuals are immune to it or do not take-part in ‘high-risk’ practices.) Worst of all, the articles quoted the survey to link homosexual activity to child abuse: "The survey found the city’s 35,000 street children made easy prey." No details or statistics from this survey were provided in the article. One wonders, what about little girls, even babies raped every other day by heterosexual men?

Space for self-representation: However, some articles did bother to look at the situation that gay people face in their day-today lives, and gave voice to activists who were speaking up against the generalizing and slander. "It’s about life under constant scrutiny", said the title of a Times of India article dated 17th August. This article quoted Shaleen Rakesh, a gay-rights activist, speaking on the media’s portrayal of the gay community: "It is not just about libidos. We all want to be in a healthy, loving relationship. Don’t straight men look for sex?" Specifically about the Pushkin murder, it quoted ‘another gay’ saying "they are incessantly talking of the porn tapes (that) were discovered at his place. It is disrespectful to make such a deal out of this just because he was gay. We read about men killing their wives and raping their daughters. So why don’t we label all heterosexuals as being crazy about their heads?" The writer of the article followed this sentence up with his/her comment: "Point to ponder."

Another article in the Hindu, dated 19th August, recorded the voices of various activists: "‘Different’ people flay media bias." "Concerned over the ‘stereotypical’ reporting by sections of the media on the gay community after the recent murders, the activists are worried that it might have an adverse effect on a community that is struggling to stay alive."

The newsweekly, Outlook, also had a feature on 25 August entitled "The Nowhere Men" which looked at the position of gay men in society and their problems, and had an accompanying box that dealt with the reasons why homosexual men are prone to crime and blackmail, locating it not in their lifestyle but their social vulnerability. Homosexuals are prone to social ostracism and abuse, hence often lead closeted lives and are susceptible to blackmail regarding their sexual identity.

Spaces undercut: Unlike this sympathetic stance, some articles which seemed to be anti-homophobic actually distanced themselves from the opinions expressed within. Witness this in the HT article dated 21st August, which had the title "On Balance: Sensationalizing Alternate Sexuality". The article is prefaced by the leader "This is how a member of the community feels," which will obviously distance a ‘non-member’ from the article. The same page of the paper carried a report on the case accompanied by the graphic stating ‘Dangerous Liaisons" - continuing the sensationalism that the other article bemoans.

Another article from the Hindu, "Prejudices out of the Closet" (19 August) was strange in the way it veered from concern for homosexuals to support for an anti-homosexuality law. It began with sympathy and consternation: "His (Pushkin’s) alleged promiscuity has sought to be palmed off as the characteristic of the entire invisible minority. Many such stories have been clubbed under a convenient but absolutely obnoxious subhead of ‘gay murder’" The same article, however, targeted ads for same-sex body massages. It lamented how the police are not able to curb such activity in spite of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which renders same-sex activity between consenting adults illegal. Besides this tacit support for an overbearing, archaic law, the article problematized the media treatment of the case only when it came to other newspapers, with an implicit moral superiority regarding their own stand. "Some of the largest selling newspapers in the capital have gone to town talking about the ‘gay murders’ in the capital. Many have speculated about his predilection, others shamelessly talked about his weakness for variety when it comes to personal matters." The fact is that even the Hindu, at least on one instance, "shamelessly talked about his…personal matters", viz. "A reckless life behind a ruthless murder?" on 20 August.

Brunch, the Hindustan Times Sunday Magazine, ran a cover story on 29 August which claimed to be a "first person account of what it’s like to grow up homosexual in India". It was written by a gay man who was candid and comfortable about his sexuality. The article was titled "Glad to be gay?" — note the question mark. The piece portrayed homosexuality as a completely normal way of life; but it was accompanied by a box titled "Oh Boy" which advised the reader what to do if he was gay. One of the instructions reveals the way in which limiting representations of homosexuals are sustained: the person should "Get a red T-shirt, tight black pants and music by Cher."

A new visibility? Let us return now to the case. The eventual arrest of the three suspects revealed that it was neither sexual jealousy nor blackmail that had led to the crime - it was a highly peculiar and unique situation which developed when two men who had initially consented to be with Pushkin took offence at his insistence that photographs be taken of the sexual acts. So though lifestyle was a factor (he picked up men unknown to him), it was not the definitive factor. Even if it was proved to be the case, it could never be the occasion to extend it to a very DIVerse group of people encompassed by the term ‘homosexual’. In doing so, the media completely ignored its responsibility as a guardian of public opinion. There were exceptions to the rule, of course, but as a whole the media showed little concern about how it might affect an already sensitive, marginalized section.

In conclusion - how did the case alter or influence the media’s general perception of homosexuality? In the past, references have tended to revolve around controversies that took root elsewhere - films like Fire or Girlfriend that irked the Hindu right-wing, or the debates surrounding gay marriage that became important during the run-up to the U.S. elections. This seems to be the first time that the print media became so directly involved, and a new level of visibility was reached. Does this mean that it will be easier in the future to bring up such issues in newspapers? It does seem so - looking at articles like "Glad to be gay?" (Brunch, 29 August) and "Still ‘nay’ to gays?" (Delhi Times, TOI, 18 August), which might have been unimaginable in their frank treatment of the area, some time ago. But as Nina Martyris suggested in the TOI, 21 August, visibility is a "two-edged sword": which means that the more visible homosexuality is in the media, the more visible is the "metro’s latent homophobia". A lot more activism, a lot more awareness, is needed to change that. Not to mention - a more sensitized and responsible media.

Aniruddha Dutta is a student of literature at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. Contact: anirdutt@gmail.com

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