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The Indian Way: The GLBT Movement in the Subcontinent

July 3, 2008

Washington D.C. – For the land that gave us the Kamasutra – the global manifesto on love and sexual desire – today’s India is a relatively conservative society, with restrictive norms and mores on marriage, pre-marital relations and same-sex relations. The gay community in particular suffers from discrimination, which sometimes turns into outright persecution.

This past February, police officials raided a party in Thane, a district neighboring Mumbai, after being tipped off about homosexual goings-on — reportedly by TV journalists looking for a sensational headline for the evening news. The police arrested six men. The party had been drug-free and nobody was caught having sex; nevertheless the police questioned and harassed the six men all night long, and brought them before a judge the morning after on charges of violating the Prohibition Act, which requires a permit to serve alcohol at large gatherings. The judge threw out the case because the lack of a permit is considered a minor violation, despite efforts by the police to keep the men for further investigation.

In response to the incident, Indian author Shobhaa De published an op-ed on the treatment of homosexuals titled Gay Hunting in the pages of India’s Weekly Magazine. “Society at large continues to be hostile and suspicious of people who prefer same sex love,” wrote the lifestyle writer and well-known Bollywood socialite. “Why else would the Thane police bother to raid a gay party and detain six people? What was the crime? That a bunch of guys had decided to hire a suburban bungalow, share a few drinks and, perhaps, have sex?” According to De, gays in India remain as marginalized as ever: “Their portrayal in commercial cinema, television and popular culture remains caricatural and hostile.” Even the high-profile gays that have chosen to go public in India have done so knowing that they would inevitably face prejudice and ostracism.

India’s mainstream middle-class especially, though increasingly affluent and well-traveled, is still suspicious of homosexuality, especially in the way it challenges the traditional concept of marriage and family. Marriage in India is thought of as a sacred union between a man and a woman sealed with the purpose of procreating – forming one of the pillars of Indian society. “Parents plan their lives and their children’s lives viewing marriage as the fundamental goal that must be achieved as soon as education and career are taken care of. After marriage, children must come,” says Aditya Kundalkar, a journalist and gay rights activist from Mumbai. “It’s still hard for a gay person in India to even accept himself or herself,” Mr. Kundalkar told Washington Prism.

“Yes, mainstream society is conservative,” medieval historian and gay studies scholar Saleem Kidwai echoes, “and the recent trend to stamp out cultural diversity is largely fueled, I suspect, by fears of sexual attitudes as it is about cultural diversity and respect of the individual agency.” Nevertheless, Mr. Kidwai says “the assumption that Indian society is overall a sexually conservative society assumes that Indian society is homogeneous.” Mr. Kidwai believes that the reality is quite the opposite; India is far too complex a society for this to be true.

Traditionally, representatives of the GLBT movement track the causes of such discriminatory mindset to attitudes imposed by colonialism and foreign imperialism. “Conservatism on many issues, including familial ones, was a product of our colonial history as innumerable studies have shown. The same is true for homophobia,” Saleem Kidwai told Washington Prism. Even from a legal standpoint there were no implications for homosexual relations prior to British rule since homosexuality was not a crime. As a result, Mr. Kidwai points out, “Homophobia in India is not as virulent and violent as it is in the so called sexually liberated societies. Same sex attraction might not be approved of, be derided or scorned, but is still tolerated and accommodated fairly comfortably in Indian society, as are alternate lifestyles.”

In fact, much of the legal quandary about gay rights revolves around Section 377, an article of the Penal Code that is a remnant left-over from the British Empire. Section 377 reads: 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 also be liable to fine. Section 377 was introduced by colonial legislator Lord Thomas Babington Macualay in 1860 while the current judicial interpretation of the law dates back to 1935 and to the court case Khanu vs. Emperor. “The Court in Khanu vs Emperor laid down that, the natural object of sexual intercourse is that there should be the possibility of conception of human beings,” legal scholar and LGBT activist Arvind Narrain explained in 2007 in an articled titled An Idea whose time has come? The repeal of Sec 377 of the IPC.

Although supposedly neutral in scope, in the opinion of India’s growing movement of gay rights activists, the law has effectively stigmatized and criminalized a part of the population more directly than others, namely gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT), and other queer people. In fact, while Section 377 does not directly prohibit homosexuality or criminalize homosexuals as a class, it targets instead sexual acts which are commonly associated with only homosexuals. “This has made homosexuals the only groups vulnerable to prosecution under the law, with heterosexuals being completely immune,” Mr. Narrain believes. He is the author of Queer: Despised Sexuality, Law and Social Change and is now a part of a collective of lawyers at the Alternative Law Forum based in Bangalore.

Those who advocate for the maintenance of Section 377 claim that the law has hardly been used to prosecute cases of consensual adult same-sex relationships but rather, the main usage has been to prosecute child abuse. However, and in spite of the actual number of incriminations, “Section 377 becomes the basis for routine and continuous violence against sexual minorities at the level of the street by the police,” Mr. Narrain wrote in another paper titled There are no Short Cuts to Queer Utopia: Sodomy, Law and Social Change. In his opinion, the real danger of the law lies in the fact that it permeates different social settings including the medical establishment, the media, the family and the state. Thus it becomes part of ordinary conversations and ultimately a part of the social fabric of the country, crystallizing a societal repugnance of homosexuality as a perverted, animal-like behavior.

Even culturally, some believe, British attitudes and costumes were largely responsible for the emergence of prejudices and discrimination. According to Mr. Kidwai, the social reformers and early Indian nationalists adopted Victorian notions of propriety and these naturally seeped into the mindset of the middle classes. “The intellectual effort that went into declaring Indian society licentious was staggering,” Mr. Kidwai told Prism. “Hindu gods and goddesses were an obvious target. Sufism and Persian-Urdu poetry, which often valorized same sex attachments, were the first victims when the Indian intellectuals went on the defensive and tried to ‘modernize.’” Saleem Kidwai, co-authored with University of Montana Professor of GLBT Studies Ruth Vanita, a book titled Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, a pioneering work documenting the indigenous roots of homosexuality in South Asia. The book shows that traditions of tolerance towards same-sex relationships existed and were well established in pre-colonial India.

British journalist, travel writer and broadcaster James McConnachie addressed similar issues while researching the origins and history of the Kamasutra. “It (the Kamasutra) certainly had little to do with my experience of South Asian village life, where I was supposed to ensure the door stood wide open if a woman entered my room,” Mr. McConnachie writes in his recently published The Book of Love, an historical examination of how the Kamasutra went from collectible rarity to the world’s essential text on sexuality. “It had still less to do with the India in which the Health minister of the Hindu-fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party had responded to the country’s mounting Aids crisis by proclaiming that India’s native traditions of chastity and fidelity were more effective than the use of condoms.” James McConnachie can’t help wondering, “What on earth could have happened between the apparently carefree composition of the Kamasutra in the third century and the problematized publication of my gift copy at the end of the twentieth? Had the colonizing West somehow infected an entire culture with sexual conservatism?”

Despite the fact that western colonialism certainly strengthened a moralistic and highly conservative view of sexuality in general and homosexuality specifically, India’s history shows that tensions between two opposite worldviews already existed within the native culture. “Simply discounting this (i.e. sexual conservatism) as the result of imposed Muslim religiosity and imported British ‘Victorianism’ would overlook the inherent complexity of India’s indigenous sexual culture,” James McConnachie writes. At the time when Vatsyayana, the author of the Kamasutra, lived – during the 3rd Century A.D. – Indian urban society was highly developed, an aestheticized culture of luxury and sensuality. Nevertheless, even then, India didn’t lack more religious-minded citizens that associated cities with moral turpitude. In fact, around the time of the composition of the Kamasutra, which so openly addresses the sexual desires of men and of women, even sketching out instances of same-sex desire, the Manavadharmashastra was also published. The Laws of Manu, as it came to be known in the West, is a text preoccupied with matters of religion and morality and aimed at rigidly regulating, among other things, sexual behavior. Manu bans sex in “non-human females, in a man, in a menstruating woman, in something other than a vagina”. “Its ideal,” Mr. McConnachie comments, “is that sex should be strictly procreative and monogamous,” not unlike India’s mainstream sexual morality of today.

Such cultural complexity and divergent understandings of morality and sexuality should be regarded as an asset and not as a hindrance, says Saleem Kidwai. In his opinion, all it would take for India to recognize that there is a legitimate place for homosexuality is “the acknowledgement that Indian society is capable of absorbing enormous diversity.” Kidwai’s personal experience, as an Indian gay man and a Muslim, is a testimony to that. “I was born after the Indian constitution had been written and grew up as a secular Indian citizen. I have never felt a contradiction in these three aspects of my person, and am surprised that they should be assumed to be contradictory,” Kidwai said in the interview.

Beyond recognition of the country’s inherent diversity, increased awareness could be the basis for a wider acceptance of a multiplicity of sexual behaviors. “Awareness of GLBT issues is increasing,” says journalist and activist Aditya Kundalkar. “It’d be safe to say that all urban citizens in the age group of 15-30 know about homosexuality, while perhaps until a decade ago, people thought of this as only a ‘western’ concept. ‘This doesn’t happen in our country,’ they might have said.” Simultaneously, acceptance seems to be also growing, especially among those people who have been personally exposed to stories of homosexuality, and by having gay relatives, friends and colleagues who might have come out to them. Such link between awareness and acceptance creates an important role for the popular media. “At least part of the credit for those positive developments goes to the increasing coverage of gay people and gay issues,” Mr. Kundalkar said.

For precisely this reason, Mr. Kundalkar recently joined an all-volunteer organization named the Queer Media Collective (QMC). Founded in the fall of 2007 by Times of India journalist and long time activist Vikram Doctor, the QMC joins a growing line-up of GLBT movements, such as the NAZ Foundation, Gay Bombay, the Humsafar Trust and LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action). The goal unique to the QMC, comprising a group of media professionals, is to track and evaluate the coverage of LGBT issues on mainstream media and to train journalists to address such issues in accurate and fair terms. Recently, the collective organized the QMC Awards to recognize the responsible coverage of particular productions, media professionals, networks and publications.

The project immediately excited Mr. Kundalkar. “I had recently begun to notice the increasing number of newspaper column-inches, magazine articles and TV programs that were discussing gay issues and lifestyles. Ten years ago, it was almost absent,” he recalls. “And here was an opportunity for me to become a part of something that I felt will shape future coverage and reportage of these issues.”

The immediate goal for the QMC, as well as for every other LGBT advocacy organization, is the repeal of Section 377. “Since the case in ongoing, we feel that we are going in with the hope that change will happen and the judiciary will take a positive stand,” lawyer Arvind Narrain told Washington Prism. “There will be immediate implications of how homosexuality is perceived, but change will undoubtedly be a longer term process.” In fact the movement has much more complex challenges ahead and more ambitious objectives that they set for themselves. Among other things, the GLBT community is still faced with a mainstream political class that mostly refuses to take a position or to address the issue of sex-based discrimination. “The left parties offer the best chance for a breakthrough. The women’s wing of the left parties AIDWA (All India Democratic Women Association) has already taken a stand that Sec 377 should go,” Mr. Narrain said in his interview. “I’m not entirely disappointed at the progress that India’s GLBT movement has made, but I do worry about the road ahead,” adds Saleem Kidwai. “I warn my younger friends that our current struggle to challenge section 377 of the IPC will seem like a picnic if we win this round. If we win, I think the struggle for rights will get far more difficult for the morality brigade will start taking us seriously and launch an offensive which would include violence.” Nevertheless, Mr. Kidwai claims to be confident that Indian civil society is fully capable of accommodating the human rights of GLBT people.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism – Persian edition

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