India’s Stonewall

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This is a first in a series of articles about LGBT activism and a look at bisexuality in India.

On a sweltering day in July 2009 the Delhi high court, in a landmark decision, struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 377 is an archaic anti-sodomy law imposed by the British but one that remains in force in several former British Colonies around the world. LGBT activists in India had worked tirelessly for more than a decade to facilitate this legal victory.

It was relatively short-lived, however, as the Supreme Court of India decided last month to reverse the Delhi High Court’s decision and reinstate section 377.

There is widespread speculation in India that the Supreme Court’s decision is simply clearing the field for a takeover by the ultraconservative Bharatiya Janata Party in national elections to be held this year. Nothing else explains the timing of such a homophobic ruling when Indian politicians have far worse issues to tackle, chief among which is the plunging value of the Rupee leading to an uneasy wariness among multinational investors.

People across the world have expressed outrage at the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling. Rallies and protests were held in several major cities worldwide in a Global Day of Rage. Local activists are calling this ruling the Stonewall of India’s LGBT rights movement and have already launched major initiatives in their continued fight for equality.

Homophobia is not the genetic encoding of the people of India. If the colonizers implemented laws restricting freedom of gender and sexual expression, what was it like before they arrived? I decided to ask Ruth Vanita, Ph.D., one of the preeminent scholars on same-sex issues in Indian culture and society. Dr. Vanita is an Indian academic, activist and author who specializes in lesbian and gay studies, gender studies, British and South Asian literary history. She is the author of several books including the Lambda Literary Award finalist Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History that she co-edited with Saleem Kidwai. Her latest book Gender, Sex and the City explores the representation in Urdu of polyamorous male and female bisexuality in precolonial Lucknow. She is now a professor at the University of Montana in the Liberal Studies Program.

BiMagazine: There is evidence that divergent forms of gender expression, sexual orientation and practices were common and widely accepted in precolonial Indian culture. What written or unwritten laws made such an environment possible?

Ruth Vanita: I don’t think precolonial Indian society was at all unique in this respect. Most ancient societies, including China, Japan, Greece, Rome, Persia, were accepting of different types of gender and sexual expression. Acceptance of diversity in the universe is, if I may use a much-misused word, the natural response of any intelligent civilization or person. The question is not, what laws made acceptance possible but why and how did laws arise that mandated intolerance? Plenty of research has been done by historians on how ancient Jewish society tried to distinguish itself from surrounding civilizations by outlawing same-sex sexual relations, how Christian antiquity distinguished itself from the powerful Greco-Roman civilization by scapegoating certain groups like those practicing same-sex relations, and how later, European Christianity in particular turned sins into crimes, for example, when Henry VIII made sodomy a crime punishable with death instead of just a sin to be atoned for by religious penance. These European laws were exported by colonial powers to the countries they colonized. It is no accident that Japan, which was never colonized, had an anti-homosexual law only for a few years in the nineteenth century, but never before or since.

BM: Do you think it is possible for Indian society to once again be so open and accepting?

RV: Certainly, it is possible.

BM: What convergence of events or what factors can make this possible?

RV: Acceptance will be different from the way it was before and it will take time to develop. Now India is a secular democratic country. The rights and liberties of individual citizens and of minority groups are protected by the Constitution. The judiciary needs to affirm that Constitutional protection.

At the social level, the complicated legacy of colonialism will be hard to undo, particularly because it is so little understood and because most Indians know so little of our own history and heritage. Puritanical attitudes, not just to homosexuality, but to sex and pleasure in general – shame, guilt and violence towards whatever is not understood and is perceived as wrong – are deeply ingrained in many Indians’, especially semi-educated Indians’ mental make-up. However, society is also changing rapidly, as is evident from the widespread outrage at recriminalization of homosexuality, that has been publicly expressed by many Indians, from writers and politicians, to friends, parents and grandparents of gay people.

Social acceptance will evolve in its own way, but the law must be in tune with the Constitution, not with social acceptance or lack thereof.

BM: Do you see evidence that bisexuality may be the dominant orientation among Indian men and women?

RV: I am inclined to agree with Kinsey that most people are bisexual to different degrees, with a few people on either end of the spectrum being exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual.

BM: Due to India’s attitude toward pre-marital sex, it seems that men have sex with men and women with women before they settle into a heterosexual marriage, and even after such a marriage some men and women continue to seek same-gender companionship and sex. Can you comment on this?

RV: I suspect that many people in the West too have clandestine pre-marital and even post-marital same-sex flirtations or affairs or feelings, and never reveal these when studies are conducted. We cannot know the true numbers as long as homophobia remains enthroned; people are bound to deny their ambiguous feelings both to others and to themselves. It is inevitable that the sexuality that is condemned most is the one that becomes visible in protest. If a person is bisexual it is his/her homosexual feelings that are under attack, not his/her heterosexual feelings.

BiMagazine will continue to cover this struggle in India by bringing you interviews with LGBT activists as well as an exploration of bisexuality in India and in the South Asian diaspora globally. When the Delhi high court did the sensible and humane thing by repealing Section 377 back in 2009, the judges wrote this extraordinary paragraph in their 105-page ruling:

“Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding, such persons can be assured of a life of dignity and non-discrimination. This was the spirit behind the Resolution of which Nehru (India’s first prime minister after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru) spoke so passionately. In our view, Indian Constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who the LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is anti-thesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.

As the world closely watches this battle in India, it will be interesting to study the art and design of their LGBT activism. India may turn out to be the place from which the rest of the world learns some valuable lessons in queer power.

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About Author

Anil Vora

Anil Vora is based in Seattle, Washington and is a regular contributor to Bi Magazine. As a result of his series of articles about bisexuality in India, written exclusively for Bi Magazine, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs included bisexual content in their development of a global charter on LGBT rights. He has been a queer activist for more than three decades starting with HIV prevention, treatment, and advocacy issues and is now focusing on the health and wellness of LGBTQ elders.

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