There is a tendency to use the West’s experiences as canonical and to measure Eastern experiences based on these. This is one of the biases that underlie so-called “Orientalism.” Thus, it is assumed that the status of gays, lesbians et al. is the same in India as it is in the United States. That is, in fact, incorrect.
An Abrahamic perspective underlies Western society, and it is precisely because of the ingroup-outgroup dichotomy that minorities feel oppressed.
Indic religions are more liberal. They are tolerant and less judgmental. Thus, historically, India did not marginalize and excoriate those outside the heterosexual norm. Hindu tradition does classify non-vaginal, ayoni, sex as impure; but the penalties for ayoni sex are light: for instance the Arthashastra levies a small fine, same as for petty theft. Thus, ayoni sex was viewed as a minor transgression, but not as sinful or evil, as in Abrahamic traditions.
The Kamasutra categorizes homosexuals as of a “third nature,” and details ayoni sex between them: there is no judgment, merely observation that such exist. Ancient Hindu medical texts matter-of-factly describe same-sex desire.
Deep and intimate same-sex friendships are common in India. Western visitors to India are startled by the physical intimacy between men, who may walk hand in hand, but be totally hetero. Young Indian software engineers visiting the west have to be strictly warned, in “cultural awareness” classes given by their employers, to “never touch a man, ever, other than when you shake hands!” lest they be misunderstood!
Another fact of life in India is the communities of transvestite and trans-gender persons, known as hijras. It is not uncommon to see a tall, beefy “woman” in a sari, with flowers in “her” hair, and a five-o’clock shadow on “her” face. Hijras are treated as yet another caste, and not particularly discriminated against.
British colonialists, as they did in all sorts of other ways, disturbed this equilibrium. They introduced virulent homophobia into the legal system, and Thomas Macaulay, who was instrumental in the creation of the Indian Penal Code in the 1800s, made any “unnatural” sex punishable. This law, is, sensibly, largely not enforced.
Still, Victorian prudishness affected the public perception of gays, lesbians and others, and people do look askance at them today. But there has seldom been active animosity. In fact, the exhibitionist glee with which some gays treated the striking down of Section 377 may trigger a backlash: there is no room in India for yet another minority asserting its victimhood and, as it were, its implied virtuousness.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Bangalore, India.
Yes, it is a step towards social acceptance
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which regards homosexuality as a crime, is a 148-year-old anachronistic law, a hangover from colonial days, that should have been scrapped a long time ago. Repealing it is a step in the right direction by the government, and a much deserved victory for gay rights groups. This landmark ruling legalizing gay sex not only protects LGBT individuals from blackmail and harassment, but also allows them to conduct their lives openly and with dignity, instead of having to face the terrible social stigma that now attaches to gay and lesbian love.
Homosexuality has been condemned in the earliest Hindu scriptures like the Manu Smriti, where aberrant sexual behavior invited severe punishment, especially if the perpetrator was female. Today, homosexuals in India face untold persecution and discrimination by the police, over-enthusiastic “guardians of morality,” and society at large. Many homosexuals have been forced to languish in frustrating “acceptable” heterosexual relationships in order to save face in society. Hopefully there will be no more sad cases of lovers committing suicide when compelled into a “normal” marriage or on being forced to sleep with the opposite sex to be “cured” of their homosexuality.
This law was a major road block to AIDS prevention initiatives, and revoking it will encourage victims of AIDS/HIV to come forward without fear to seek much needed medical treatment. It might even bring down future HIV statistics as there would not be any need to seek sexual partners furtively. The ruling is bound to bring about a decrease in related crime rates for the same reason, and protect the gay community from atrocities perpetuated against them. India’s act will also set an example to several other countries that still outlaw homosexuality.
However, though the repeal of elements of section 377 might advance gay rights substantially, it would be naïve to assume that life would instantly be a bed of roses for the homosexual community. Attitudes formed by years of ingrained discrimination are harder to wipe out than a penal code. Not just the society, but individuals, too, will take time to fully accept and welcome alternate sexual behavior as a norm.
Ultimately, what will give this cause a real shot in the arm and bring about a cultural shift, will be the increasing recognition of the human face of same-sex relationships. As more and more individuals choose to come out, members of this sidelined community are likely to be respected on their merits as human beings, and not defined by their sexual orientation. In the meantime, the community must be watchful that the rights so recently granted are upheld by the Supreme Court.
Remitha Satheesh wrote this opinion from Cary, North Carolina.