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Is Homophobia in India an Alien Legacy of the Victorians?

Indian gay activists

[See 2009 and 2013 updates at the foot of this writing]

Why sex, one of the joys of life, – lived with some freedom in the Greco-Roman world or at the time of the Indian Gupta empire (just to name two civilizations considered somewhat classical) – became in later centuries something to be ashamed of? Was it in the West because of the switch from Paganism to Christianity? And in India, was it because of Muslim or British Victorian influence, or of both?

(We make known to minors that one picture following may offend their sentiments)

Since I have been musing on these questions in my series Sex and the city (of Rome) – thanks also to a good discussion with two Indians, Ashish and Falcon – I was struck recently by all the commotion regarding the Victorians & homophobia thing in many ex colonies of the British Empire, and especially in India.

We are also at a time when French President Nicolas Sarkozy has just proposed to the UN to decriminalize homosexual acts all over the world, and all 27 European nations have agreed. The Church of Rome is instead strongly against it. The topic seems hot.

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Same-sex love was accepted, it is well known, in Ancient Greece and it was sometimes a bit frowned upon in Rome but basically widely tolerated (Julius Caesar for example was probably bisexual: a future post on Caesar will also mention that. We also mentioned some possible female homosexuality in the secret rites of the Roman goddess Bona Dea).

As far as the ancient Indian civilizations I guess it was pretty much the same (see the image below at Khajuraho) although I need someone with more knowledge than I have.

Khajuraho Temple scene

Today India gay activists accuse “Britain of exporting homophobia during the 19th century when colonial administrators began enforcing Victorian laws and morals on their Indian subjects [the Independent].” Homophobia, they say, is something alien to the original Indian civilizations.

The organisation Human Rights Watch has recently published a 66-page report describing “how laws in over three dozen countries, from India to Uganda and from Nigeria to Papua New Guinea, derive from a single law on homosexual conduct that British colonial rulers imposed on India in 1860.”

Under accusation is the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” with imprisonment up to life. In short, it punishes same-sex love.

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs defends the Indian code:

“The law does not run separately from society …. Section 377 … responded to the values and mores of the time in the Indian society.”

2013

Indian Gay Rights protester. Courtesy of Aljazeera. Click for source file

“This is sheer amnesia” answers the Report:

“Section 377, at its origin, did not respond to Indian society or its “values or mores” at all. British colonial governors imposed it on India undemocratically. It reflected only “the British Judeo-Christian values of the time.”

A ruling is expected soon by the High Court in Delhi, following a “years-long case seeking to decriminalize homosexual conduct there.”

Nita, Indian blogger and journalist, observes:

“We are squarely to blame if even 61 years after independence we are incapable to seeing which law is reasonable and which one is not. The British have moved on, and have liberal laws on homosexuality today.”

ψ

Sex. Always a complex topic in any society.

I need a higher authority on what is happening in the sub continent and elsewhere. Any Indian (or non Indian) take?

Ψ

Readings. Here some of Nita’s recommendations on the subject:

Calling gays criminals and moral policing by the police
Our reactions to people who are different (Amit)
Transgender issues discussed on Tamil Television
Gay parents and heterosexual parents – any difference?

A post from this blog on the possible causes of sexual repression (Romans, Indians, Victorians):

Sex and the City (of Rome). 1

A very well balanced post by IssuesBeyondBorders:

Legacy of British Constitution in Independent India and Section 377

Emblem of India

2009 UPDATE. With an historic ruling the Indian High Court has decriminalized homosexuality on July 2 2009The Court has found that Section 377 was against the Indian tradition.

2003 UPDATE.  The Supreme Court of India has overturned the 2009 Indian High Court ruling that decriminalized homosexuality. Archaic anti sodomy ruling is back.


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