By Namit Arora
19 August, 2008
"We don't have any," is the classic Indian
response to homosexuality in
As a boy in
As in many other societies, procreation also underpins the Indian sense of social (and familial) order. Any threat to this social order is instinctively resisted, though the resistance takes many forms. In the Christian West, homosexual acts were persecuted as a sin against God (and less often, seen as a disease). Indians, on the other hand, denied the idea of homosexuality, while tolerating homosexual acts—a trick made possible by regarding these acts not as sex but as a kind of erotic fun, or masti. Sex is only what happens in the context of procreation, usually within marriage. Sex is what makes babies, and truly virile men, of course, produce male babies.
It is no surprise then, that the notion of a homosexual liaison as an equal alternate to a heterosexual one doesn't exist outside a small set of urban Indians; that would threaten the social order. Instead, the Indian response is: As long as men fulfill their traditional obligations to family and progeny, their homosexual acts are (uneasily) tolerated. Notably, according to the Kakars, the vast majority of even those who continue having sex with other men do not see themselves as homosexual. "Even effeminate men who have a strong desire to receive penetrative sex are likely to consider their role as husbands and fathers to be more important in their self-identification than their homosexual behavior." Lesbian activity is invariably seen as a response to sexually frustrating marriages (as also in Fire, the 1998 movie by Deepa Mehta).
While the Indian response reduces open conflict, the flip side is a muffled suffering: countless men and women lead double lives, hiding from their true natures and denying themselves the most precious of intimacies and self-knowledge. When I was young, one of my aunts filed for divorce just weeks into her marriage; an uncle told me in hushed tones that something was wrong with her husband's "manliness." My aunt was fortunate; far more often the marriage is for ever, and is even given full marks for a happy normalcy if a child is somehow produced.
Of course, every so often a homosexual couple openly flouts convention and declares their love for each other, as in the famous case of two policewomen in MP in the late 80s. Here a uniquely Indian solution has been to see it as "unfinished business" from a previous life, where the two were surely husband and wife, separated and united again by destiny. While this creative interpretation serves to fit "deviant behavior" in a traditional framework, it is not always invoked, resulting more often in disapproval and harassment.
A bit more tolerance of publicly "deviant behavior" does extend to the Hijras, not the least because their cultural status as "the third sex" has made them non-threatening (most are homosexual men who dress as women; some are eunuchs or have ambiguous genitalia) and imbued them with a special power to bless newlyweds and newborn males. Hindu gods and mythic heroes aid their acceptance too: Shiva at times assumes the female form; the goddess Yellamma has the power to change one's sex; Arjuna disguised himself as a eunuch during the Pandava exile.
Even after the arrival of Islam (the Qu'ran is hostile to homosexuality), Sufi mystics used homoerotic metaphors to describe their love of God and celebrated homoeroticism in poetry and literature of a "Persianized" Islam. Upper class Muslims got away with pederasty as long as they fulfilled—or pretended to fulfill—their obligations in marriage. It then fell upon the British to make things decidedly worse in the 19th century. The Kakars write:
It is the sodomy aspect of male homosexuality which the British colonial
authorities, encased in a virulent, homophobic Victorian morality, latched on
to in their draconian legislation of 1861. This law, Section 377 of the Indian
Penal Code, states: "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against
the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with
imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term
which may extend to ten years, and shall be liable to a fine." The law,
challenged in the courts by a gay organization and currently awaiting judgment
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in
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