Sometimes, when the usual frustrations of writing for the Internet get me down, I think about what lesbian visibility in the media might have meant to me growing up. I mean, lesbians were so invisible in my world that I didn’t even know a woman could be gay.
But what if little Linster had seen The Kids Are All Right or Pretty Little Liars or AfterEllen.com and realized that the feelings she had for her best friend actually had a name – and that she wasn’t the only one with such feelings? I can’t imagine how different my life would be.
That’s what Heather Hogan wrote about a few months ago in her Beyond Visibility column: the power of media to change lives. And make no mistake; we who write for the media have to remind ourselves frequently that it matters.
This week, that message was driven home in a tragic way. Two teenage girls in India committed suicide, in despair after seeing a film that convinced them of the impossibility of living openly as a lesbian couple. The couple, 19 and 17, took poison and died in each other’s arms.
The movie they watched, Aar Ekti Premer Golpo (Another Love Story) is the story of Abhiroop, a male filmmaker in a long-term relationship with his male cinematographer, Basu, who’s also married to a woman. The movie explores the men’s relationship during the making of a documentary about another gay man, a stage actor known for playing female roles whose career ended when he was outed.
As the documentary progresses, Abhiroop realizes that living as a “third gender” in India leaves his as lonely and alienated as the closeted older man. Despite time, education and changes in culture, negative attitudes toward alternative sexuality prevail.
While the film received acclaim for bringing such attitudes into the open, the two teenage girls failed to see a cultural commentary. They saw only a hopeless future.
The movie alone can’t be blamed for the suicide, of course. The girls’ families admitted that they admonished their daughters for being affectionate in public. The couple often was subject to name-calling and exclusion by classmates. But no one suspected that they were considering ending their lives.
Sadly, lesbian suicide pacts are not uncommon in India. A study on lesbians in India found 24 documented cases between 1996 and 2004 in the state of Kerala alone. Organizations like the Lesbian Association of India (LAI) operate from outside the country to provide a place to share stories and messages online. But most Indian women do not have access to a computer.
So, lesbian youth are desperate to find role models. We can point to films like Fire, Nina’s Heavenly Delights and The World Unseen that depict empowered Indian lesbians, but those films are rarely available to the young girls who need to see them.
The situation is not hopeless. Same-sex couples over 18 no longer are criminals and Indian people are more accepting of gay acquaintances. But we can never underestimate the power of a fictional representation to young women who may identify with it. And we can never forget that positive lesbian portrayals can literally save lives.