Desire, Bisexuality, and Sexual Orientation in India: 1970s to Now


This is the third article in our coverage of LGBT issues in India with a particular focus on bisexuality. Bi Magazine launched this series in January 2014 with the article ‘India’s Stonewall

Rajiv Dua’s attraction to men and women dates back to his teen years. Dua grew up in Delhi at a time when 1 in 20 households had a telephone, people communicated across towns via postcards, and there were no video recording devices. It was a time when Indians knew that one could be attracted to men and women and they were permissive as long as personal matters were kept between consenting adults.

Inquisitive young minds struggling to understand their sexuality had nowhere to turn to for information. The ‘Evening News’, a four-page rag that came out ritually at 1:00PM every day, carried a breaking news item on the front page but was otherwise devoted to notices about Delhi’s thriving club scene and the occasional scandal concerning an army officer caught having sex with another man. It did not stop Dua from an intimate relationship with a college-age man next door. His parents were more concerned about him catching a disease. “These are diseases that adults, not children, get”, they said.

When Dua looks back on his personal journey he wonders whether things are better now. “I think there is a small regression, in fact,” he says. He grew up in a culture that may not have understood the complexity of sexual orientation but at least refused to condemn dual attraction outright. “The discourse has become more stringent,” Dua says. “Now we have very strong gay groups, very strong trans groups but, somehow, bi visibility has not taken root at all.”

Dua thinks this regression is due to

  1. lack of understanding, and acceptance, that desire can be many hued and fluid, and
  2. failure to disengage same-sex behavior from disease transmission.

In the 1980s, when Dua moved to Mumbai to get his master’s degree in medical and psychiatric social work, one of his first cases was a teenage boy with anal gonorrhea. The boy was being treated with medication but the doctor and social worker wanted Dua to guide the boy out of his “habitual homosexuality”. Dua protested that there was nothing wrong with the boy, which only resulted in a stern lecture from the head of the department of social work of the hospital where he was placed. Post graduation, Dua was also engaged in many “Pentothal Interview” cases in which men would be induced into a semi-conscious state, using the “truth serum” sodium thiopentone, and given positive suggestions to change their behavior. This is when Dua began to wonder whether what had been considered socially acceptable until then had now begun to move into a disease paradigm, particularly in the absence of a meaningful discourse on desire and sexual orientation.

Bisexual Activist Rajiv Dua is a trained social worker and community health expert based in Dehli who consults in the field of HIV/AIDS. Rajiv often volunteers his time for up and coming Indian CBOs like Udaan and Pahal.
Rajiv Dua is a trained social worker and community health expert. He has a post graduate qualifications in Social Work with specialization in Medical and Psychiatric Social Work.

His coming out story appears in Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World edited by Robyn Ochs and Sarah Rowley.

Currently Rajiv consults in the field of HIV/AIDS with focus on health issues of men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who inject drugs, sex workers and other key populations. He also consults for malaria transmission prevention issues.

Rajiv often volunteers his time for up and coming Indian CBOs like Udaan and Pahal.

Despite his interest in science, Dua, while growing up, did not know of any research targeting bisexuality. “Until the 1990s, there was not much research on LGBT people in South Asia, including India,” he says. “We relied on information from the West. Most of the articles I have read to date stem from the U.S. or Australia.” He fears that bisexuality may not be an interesting subject of study for most. He knows that many bisexuals are not out and would be reluctant to talk to investigators, especially if the investigators identify as gay or work for predominantly gay organizations.

In the 1990s, HIV spread rapidly in India and everything changed. Research conducted during this time focused on same-sex behavior within the context of the disease paradigm. Dua also remembers being the only out bisexual volunteer in a predominantly gay male environment of a HIV services organization. He recalls being shut out of discussions if he ever brought up the subject of desire or attraction to both genders. These men believed that gay-identified single men did not have HIV and that HIV was spread by closeted, married men that were coming into the gay community seeking sex. The discourse on sexuality was hijacked by the discourse on HIV and bisexuals came to be seen as the bridge to sexual transmission of diseases. Gay men also considered bisexual men unreliable and likely to dump the gay man for a woman. Another group that he tried to join – also a predominantly gay male group – told him not to come to their meetings and talk about women. They accused him of trying to promote marriage. Some even sent anonymous emails to his employers outing him.

Dua went silent for a while but not for long. Luckily at the time a small Internet revolution was talking place in India and he was able to log on to the early version of and read some essays written by bisexuals. He joined email ListServs and online discussion groups and rekindled his passion for equal rights activism. He credits L. Ramki Ramakrishnan as an early inspiration who elevated his understanding of the issues germane to bisexuality. Another mentor and role model helped him start a support group for bisexuals in Mumbai. The group served people who knew they had desires for both genders. Male sex workers, who had male and female clients, also came and, remarkably, a few gay men came to learn more about bisexuality. The group ran weekly until Dua had to move back to Delhi where he has continued his work in HIV prevention among men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender populations.

Dua, meanwhile, has decided to be true to himself, keep coming out, and continue to explain bisexuality to those who don’t get it. He is fascinated by the Kinsey Scale. “It talks about sexual orientation and attraction as a continuum,” he says. “It reflects the spectrum nature of sexual orientation rather than binaries.” Still, he thinks that the positions in India have hardened over time primarily due to the perception of bisexuality as a vector for disease transmission. “The good thing is,” Dua says, “that a lot of women are coming out and speaking out about bisexuality, particularly over the past 4-5 years. Hopefully that will reduce the pressure and hardened stands from people denying the existence of bisexuality.”

In the next article, Bi Magazine talks to a couple of Indian bisexual women about their experience and perspective.

  1. India’s Stonewall – January 2014
  2. Bisexuality in India: How Section 377 Impacts the Discourse on Bisexuality – March 2014
  3. Desire, Bisexuality, and Sexual Orientation in India: 1970s to Now – May 2014

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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