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.

ψ

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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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hello Man of Roma,

    Great post indeed. I am from the sub continent and I’m glad you feel the same way many do.

    Like I said in my post, the British laws of the nineteenth century criminalized homosexuality and the Muslim rulers as you have noted had begun the cause of homophobia.

    With the help of available literature and art, we may safely conclude that homosexuality was not a crime in ancient India though it may not have been encouraged or accepted zealously. For example, Manu, the Indian law giver notes that ‘it is an avoidable act’ which doesn’t mean it was considered a ‘criminal act’. Indian society for long has been sexually repressive for both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

    This attitude continues today as well. In fact, heterosexual men enjoy more sexual freedom than homosexual ones who are easily noticed when being promiscuous, especially in the rural areas.

    The issue really is that of the obsolete law and law enforcement officials who use the Section 377 of Indian Constitution to extort money from gay men and threaten them with exposure. We must understand that there really isn’t a ‘gay culture’ in India and most gay people hide behind the closet and fear the police for just one reason – Being exposed to the society as gay people.

    If the law were decriminalized, police wouldn’t be able to extort or harass gay people, and working with HIV patients and the risk group an easier task.

    Britain may not have forced homophobia on India, for Indian society had been quite Victorian itself, especially among the upper classes, and the law was ‘admired’ by the Indians and we have kept the law long after Britain herself decriminalized homosexuality many decades ago.

    I would love to provide any input you may require, as this is a very complicated and multi-layered issue.

  2. Thanks for linking to my posts. :)
    Well, yes you are right, same sex love was not taboo until the advent of the British, and Christianity in India. However, there are signs that it will change though as people are speaking out, the movies are showing homosexuality too.

  3. Homophobia, whether in India or anywhere else, stems in my view from some people’s insistence on imposing their personal values on others. I certainly condemn such tendencies of imposition, be they in matters of sexual orientation, faith, race, political ideology, language or anything else. Taken to an extreme, they manifest themselves as fascism.

    Culture, as I understand it, is a compendium of consensual values of a society. Within that broad public-domain framework, every individual in private life must have the right to follow the dictates of his or her own inclinations or conscience. The only condition is that such pursuit should not hurt or harm another.

    I have no particular like or dislike of homosexuals. I find some of them interesting people and some crashing bores. The only thing I know for certain is that pre-colonial Indian culture, dating right back to the pre-Christian era, did not consider homosexuality abnormal or unnatural. The erotic murals and sculptures in our ancient monuments portray homosexual acts and even bestiality, though not in as much abundance as heterosexual acts. So one may conclude that ancient India did not have any strong feelings about it.

    Of course it is difficult to generalise about anything in Hinduism. As you would know, it is not a messianic religion and does not have a unique or definitive Holy Book. Simultaneous streams of theological and ethical beliefs evolved through the ages. Depending on political conditions, they sometimes coexisted and sometimes conflicted.

    I myself was born and brought up in a liberal Hindu tradition.

    India as I understand it has always been a pluralistic and catholic society, accommodative of diverse influences. It is a tragedy that in modern times we are losing these qualities and driving ourselves to annihilation as a civilisation.

    All my best regards

  4. I too like innumerable other people oppose article 377. Present health minsiter did say something about doing it away, he earned praise for it but there has been no action so far.

    I have written about opposing Article 377 here: http://alchemistpoonam.wordpress.com/2007/12/18/10-reasons-why-my-india-is-regressive/

    See point 5.

  5. @Jaiyant Cavale

    Hello Jaiyant, welcome to my blog, and thank you for your comment and info!

    My impression too is that “Britain may not have forced homophobia on India – as you write – for Indian society had been quite Victorian itself, especially among the upper classes”. Of course British law reinforced behaviours, which were though probably already existing, and possibly influenced by Islamic manners.

    The hindu Chandelas for example, in the first centuries of the last millennium, whose first capital was the famous Khajuraho if I’m not wrong, were attacked several times by Muslim forces who were of course motivated by conquest but were also outraged I believe by their temples and their free sexual conduct. The Muslims were coming from abroad and have deeply influenced India, as far as one can observe. Some doses of cultural merging must have happened during time.
    Centuries later, when the British arrived, the large power of the Mughals still existing at that time on the sub continent is no little indication.

    Although I admire the Muslim civilization (and in many of my posts have shown this admiration) their attitude towards sexuality is not very different from Christianity.

    The British though criminalized homosexuality. I cannot tell if this ‘crime’ already existed before their arrival. But I agree with Nita when she writes that the British are not much to blame. They have moved on. All countries should today consider that homosexual rights = human rights. It is time to build a better world.

    All my best regards

    (pls tell me if you think I’ve said anything incorrect: yes, your world is very complex seen from abroad)

  6. @Nita

    I also think there are signs that things are changing not only in India, thanks also to media like Internet and movies. I read in your post, the first on my list, about Deepa Mehta’s film “Fire”, which depicts female homosexuality. I didn’t see it but I will. Of her Trilogy I only saw “Water” and I think it was a good movie.

  7. @SubContinent

    Thank you for your stimulating comment!

    every individual in private life must have the right to follow …(their) inclinations or conscience. The only condition is that such pursuit should not hurt or harm another.

    I quite agree. Law should not enter into personal people’s lives when we don’t hurt anybody else. Problem with many religions is that they want to be concerned even with people’s inner soul & feelings. For example, in our Christian religion even the intention, even just the thought of the sin is almost like committing the sin itself. So you find very good people who live in guilt, feeling criminals at heart and fearing eternal damnation. I must say that the Roman Catholic Church forbids a lot but also forgives a lot, while some real and good protestants though seem in worse shape.

    The erotic murals and sculptures … portray homosexual acts … though not in as much abundance as heterosexual acts. So one may conclude that ancient India did not have any strong feelings about it.

    Well, homosexuals after all are a minority, and this is probably why they are seen as diverse and are ill-treated. This is against human rights though.

    it is difficult to generalise about anything in Hinduism. As you would know, it is not a messianic religion and does not have a unique or definitive Holy Book. Simultaneous streams of theological and ethical beliefs evolved through the ages.

    The fact that you don’t have a revelation in some specific holy book can only be an advantage in my view.

    Your last paragraph seems very pessimistic about the future of your country (annihilation). You probably refer to the civilization, more than the economics, which seems to progress astoundingly. You feel you’re somewhat losing your souls? Modernization (and the fast way you’re going through this process) has its prices, but I don’t think that civilizations like the Italian or the Indian can ever die (this being true not only of our civilisations).

    All the best

    @Poonam
    I was wondering if you would pop up lol ;-)
    Thanks for the link to your post, where I read:

    A previous government’s argument to keep this law [Article 377] was that if gay rights were recognized, more people can be victimised by homosexuals. So, we have a law instead to victimise gays and lesbians.

    It doesn’t seem such a good argument. If they erase that law and afterwards some gays and lesbians do anything wrong, for example by abusing minors, they are citizen like others and they can be punished.

  8. The Emperor thinks that sex in any form is good. Fuck anybody who disagrees, by Imperial Decree. :P

    Sowee my mind is completely blank at the mo. lol.

    anyway, Merry Christmas Man of Roma and Woman of Roma! :)

  9. @Ashish

    Listen dude Emperor, I’m the one to often feel flat when I comment on your words. A flat brain can still talk history, much less keep up with humour!

    MERRY CHRISTMAS ASHISH TO YOU, TO BRO THE MYTH (and ruthless labour exploiter) AND TO *ALL* YOUR FAMILY!!

  10. I haven’t read in details what your are writing on this blog, but I’ll tell you one thing… Sex is not a matter of religion as religion is a domain of intellect (Mind). One does not need higher states of intellect to get enjoyment of flesh. For there is no religion as the Hindu religion. It’s a name given by other cultures to differentiate their religion as a different entity form what exists in the Indus valley.

    Khajuraho is not a temple of sex though it seems one. Like a sexologist journal may appear like an adult magazine to passionate desires. Just ask yourself: if you see a painting depicting an ancient man having sex with a monkey – will this sight justify your desire to try it or you judge it as unethical? The picture is there, so you can accept this thing existed as a rare abnormal psychological disorder of a cultural trait.
    See, this world is as funny as funny your mind is… God Bless you All… and Lets save our planet Earth.

  11. [...] Is Homophobia an Alien Legacy of the Victorians? [...]

  12. [...] Is Homophobia an Alien Legacy of the Victorians? [...]

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