When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one. ~Epitaph of Leonard P. Matlovich, 1988 (Thanks, Marlene)
The famous irony that speaks volumes about India’s attitude towards the word or the very activity of ‘sex’ is that, India being the sub-continent where the ancient Indian text Kamasutra was written by Vatsyayana in which an entire chapter is dedicated to erotic homosexual behaviour and activity- which, again went on to prove that homosexuality was prevalent in ancient India as made evident by the carved images on the Sun Temple in Odisha and the Khajurao temple in Madhya Pradesh . Kamasutra was the first sex treatise written in the world somewhere between 4th and 2nd century B.C and for a country that had a very liberal outlook and approach towards sex and homosexuality till 18th century B.C , it is comic , perturbing and queer that there should be a drastic change in people’s outlook towards these- now ‘tabooed’-subjects. The country that was unprejudiced in its mind set is now nurturing anti-sex , homophobic bigots.
What changed after 18th century? Why did people start despising homosexuals and consider them social deviants? Awadh (modern-day Lucknow), had a ruler who would practice living as the opposite gender at times, including changing sexual partners. Bengali novels from the late 19th century such as Indira describe lesbian relationships. And Sufi Muslim texts in East India explicitly mention homosexual male romance. But all of this was in the pre-18th century period. It seems that with progress of time , the mentality of the Indian society seems to have regressed. If such know acts of homosexuality, transsexuality and bisexuality were not unknown and condemned, then in 20th and 21st century , what made people denounce it ?
It is said that homophobia is a legacy of the 157 year old colonial rule in India. In 1857 , with the Sepoy Mutiny that shook Britishers and Indians, because for the first time, India had aroused after the repeated acts of transgression on part of Britishers against the Indians. It gave a befitting reply to the Britishers and though it failed to claim its freedom, Britishers realised that India must be suppressed even harder than before One of the main driving forces of British imperialism was its ideology of being a civilising mission. Drawing on the rhetoric of early settlers, colonialists planned on using Britain’s territorial superiority to impose British values on the colonies. Part of this ideological thrust of Empire and civilisation euphuism was affiliated to even reforming the ways in which desire and love were accepted and practised and manifested itself in the moral policing of desire. And so, under the garb of ‘civilisation’ British started propagating Christianity in India in order to ‘civilise’ Indians.
India was home to several religions except Anglican Christianity and after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, there was great opportunity to incorporate religious ardour into the legal system. As a country where gender and sexuality has been loosely conceptualised in the past, India’s custom and traditions were unacceptable to the Britishers and it was a conflict against the British Crown’s idea of how a society should be. Victorian Christianity dictates that lying with another man as one lies with a woman is detestable and such ‘homosexual offenders’ cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Old Testament) . The question that arises here is : why is sex that is not performed by a man and woman only ,detested? If homosexuals, transgender and transsexual do not cause any harm to the society , why are they looked down upon? The answer was this- that any sexual activity that doesn’t lead to procreation is not an acceptable , is considered “immoral” and “sinful”. Any form of intimacy that didn’t result in reproduction and gearing of children was unthinkable , primarily because sexual intercourse was seen only as an affair meant to keep the human race alive and not for self- gratification and hence, homosexuality was seen as the worst of these offences.
With such inflexible vision in mind, the British Raj implemented Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code,1860. The Section 377 states,” Unnatural offences: 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.
Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.”
Any person engaging in “unacceptable carnal desire” was to be jailed or fined or both and this law was transmitted to other British colonial outposts. Hence, by the use of legislation, Christian values were set to be imposed, acceptable and legal acts of intimacy were defined to create a utopian world for the Indians and redeem them from the “uncivilised” world they were living in.
Subsequently, as it could have been anticipated, criminalising one’s sexual orientation or preference had a devasting effect on the society, especially the hijra community in India. Earlier when there was a gender fluidity due to the presence of these hijra community, emphasise was laid more on respecting one’s identity, way of expression and marriage relationship. However with the installation and implementation of the Section 377,people with sexual preferences or orientation that were unconventional were christened as the “undesirable others.” Due to the absence of pro-queer narrative , homophobia carved a niche for itself in the Indian society due to its legal backing and thus, the transgenders, homosexuals and hijras began to face abysmal discrimination.
The irony that remains is that Britain itself decriminalized homosexuality and repealed the very laws it brought into India through the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 which decriminalizes homosexuality in private between consenting male adults over 21 years while India still remained in the dark cave carved in the colonial era. And because there is no central Hindu authority to regulate the stances of Hinduism on homosexuality, homophobics have ignored the past and in the name of religion, started propagating homophobia among the masses more. Strangely, when the Rigveda says regarding Samsara that Vikruti Evam Prakriti (perversity/diversity is what nature is all about, or, what seems un-natural is also natural), Indian society should consider people like us but with a different sexual preference , “unnatural.”
The Lesbian,Gay,Bisexual,Trangender movement in India began with a study done by the math wizard Ms. Shakuntala Devi who interviewed homosexual men and published “The World of Homosexual Men”, where she bought out the plight of these men against the backdrop of the Emergency years and called for the need to sensitise the world about them. Since 1980’s the Hijra community started forming conferences while in 1986, the first ‘coming out story” was published when the journalist Ashok Row Kavi penned his own story in a magazine and later went on to publish the first magazine for queer men called “Bombay Dost” and open the Humsafar Trust that advocated awareness about HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ. Also in 1987, two police women went on to marry each other , such marriage being the first documented of its kind, although later both were discharged from their respective duty which goes on to show the toxic level of intolerance of the Indian society and the government towards the homosexuals. The ’90s also saw the emergence of the lesbian movement in India. This was when activist and academic Gita Thadani set up Sakhi, a women’s helpline and lesbian resource centre which facilitated cross-country networking between queer women.
The medium of art was utilised to generate consciousness amongst the multitude with the production of “BOMGay’- the first film in India revolving around homosexuals and the actor R. Raj Rao, later went on to write the first gay romance novel – “The Boyfriend” in 2003; “Sakhiyani”, a book which talks about lesbian desire in ancient and modern India; Deepa Mehta’s “Fire”- a movie based on lesbian relationship. “Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India” published in 1999 became an important bit of literature that increased visibility for queer women in the country and in the same year , an organisation called CALERI published the ‘Lesbian Manifesto” which pretty much broke the silence about lesbian women. In the recent times, films like Aligarh(2010), Sisak(2017) and Ka Bodyscapes( 2017), all which deal with homosexuality and the ideal concepts of masculinity. Magazines like Queer Ink magazine and India today have written exhaustively on the issues f homosexuality, LGBTQ movement and human right violations committed against the queers. At the age of 21, RJ Shilok is the only trans Radio Jockey in India to use the platform to engender awareness about LGBTQ issues, rascism etc. in 2016
As for the idea that trans-people can’t be parents, in 2001, Mumbai-based trans activist Gauri Sawant by adopting Gayatri, the orphaned daughter of a sex worker showed the world that they can be parents as well as anyone. Even in the political and educational field, transsexuals weren’t any less when in 2002, Kali became the first hijra person to stand for elections in Bihar. She was elected as ward councillor to the Patna Municipal Corporation. Again Manabi Bandhopadhyay became the first openly trans college principal of Krishnanagar Girl’s College in 2015 and in the same year, Madhu Bai Kinnar was elected as the first trans Mayor in Raigarh.
Sangini and Humraz were two separate helplines and support networks that were set up in 1997 for lesbians, transgender women and for gays and transgender men, respectively. Trans people and homosexuals were denied accommodation by prejudiced landlords which is why between 1998 and 1999, G.H.A.R (Gay Housing Assistance Resource) was founded to find safe living spaces for LGBTQ Indians who then didn’t have to worry of being abused or of being constantly discriminated by the landlords or other tenants. There were multi-organisations like Voices against 377 which started sensitising people on issues like sexuality and mental health, human rights violations, sex reassignment and more. In recent times, parents have been encouraged to support and become campaigners of the LGBTQ youths when the Humsafar Trust in partnership with the online platform LoveMatters, floated the “Strengthening Bridges” which explored the relation between family ties and the development of LGBTQ individuals and apprised parents the same. Even recently, parents have been invigorated to take up the rainbow flag which represents the LGBTQ community, forming first of its kind support group.
LGBTQ activism was on full swing and by 2004 , the LGBTQ community was increasingly organised and was taking their fight for their rights on the streets and progressively becoming vocal about it. Society was endorsing the LGBTQ awareness through various means such as in 1999, a discotheque in Delhi hosted the first “Gay Night” giving the members of the LGBTQ community a private space to let their hair loose minus the fear of being abused and judged while the launch of Amour -a queer dating app launched in 2016 which was created with the promise of personalising its matchmaking service to suit the personal needs of individual users. In 2016 and 2017, the Chez – Q Jerome café in Delhi and Amra Odhbhuta café in Kolkata was opened, respectively in order to encourage celebration of identities. From 2014, Delhi University started giving out forms with the option of ‘Third Gender” category to improve access to education for trans students while Kerala-based Trans activist Vijayaraja Mallika set up India’s first ever school for transgender people called the Sahaj International in 2016. In order to encourage employment among trans people other than begging and being forced into the world of prostitution, trans activist and Mitr Trust founder Rudrani Chettri opened the first Trans Modelling agency in India to encourage the world to modulate the way they apperceive the idea of beauty, the fact that it goes beyond and deeper than just one’s physical appearance or gender and then Kochi metro in 2017 employed 23 trans women mostly as ticket officers.
“When you hear of Gay Pride, remember, it was not born out of a need to celebrate being gay.
It evolved out of our need as human beings to break free of oppression and to exist without being criminalized, pathologized or persecuted.
Celebrate with us.”
? Anthony Venn-Brown, A Life of Unlearning – a journey to find the truth
The most powerful way of expressing our dissent , frustration and our concern for the society’s need of understanding, is to take to the streets, come out and let it out loud! Peaceful protest accompanied by efficacious and persuasive rally crying and bywords caught the attention of the millennials who finally wanted to come out of the closet. In 1999, Calcutta held the first ever ‘Gay Pride Parade’ in India with only 15 people marching but with an effectual message they were proud to be queers. Almost a decade later, New Delhi and Mumbai held their first Pride marches in 2008 and saw a promising turnout. The next year itself Chennai too held its first Rainbow Pride Walk with large number of various LGBTQ groups in attendance. More recently , Guwahati held its first pride Walk in 2013 where the LGBTQ community made their presence felt in the north east. Gurgaon Pride March was held in 2016 which brought into limelight Queer politics and visibility while Lucknow and Bhopal held their first ever Pride Marchs in 2017 which saw in attendance renowned trans activists around the country.