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The History Of LGBT+ Rights In South Asia And Why It’s Not A ‘Western’ Concept!

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Whilst India has a complex and varied history regarding queer love and identities, it seems a not-uncommon idea that queerness is something not “Indian”; in fact, that it is potentially an imperialistic project by Western forces.

Suspicion of the idea of an Indian queer identity comes from both Left and Right, conservative and liberal. Analysis of queer identity may come from those who wish to deride queerness as only the degenerate creation of a decadent Western sphere; others may be less generally bigoted, but still view the idea of “queerness” as a colonial import that India could do well without. And even those who are pro-LGBTQ+ rights may still consider the politics of queerness to be mostly of Western origin, formulated for Western-influenced people, and thus potentially enacting a form of sexual imperialism upon Indian discourses of sexuality. But those who support section 377 – part of the Indian law code that states that non-heterosexual sex is an offence – fail to understand that Section 377 is itself a product of the British occupation of India.

(As a caveat, I will be using the word “queer” to mean those who self-define as having identities that not heterosexual or cisgender, and choose to politicise these identities as a way of fighting back against the rigidity and inevitability of preconceived notions of what is “right” or “normal” in gender and sexuality. But readers should be aware it has a history, and should not be used interchangeably with “LGBT” when describing individuals unless with consent.)

Through nebulous “pro-nationalist” arguments, those who do not wish to see a full repeal of Section 377 can hide their homophobia under anti-imperialist sentiment, ignoring the irony of Section 377 being a law instigated by the British. But bigotry aside, it can still be argued that the LGBTQ+ movement in India is highly influenced (or easily perceived of as being influenced) by Western discourses of queerness.

Many queer activist collectives are headed by individuals from urban, English-medium educated groups. India’s first exclusive gay magazine Bombay Dost, remains an exclusively English language publication aimed at the middle class. And after all, queerness as a political identity and “queer theory” in academia originate from and have largely been influenced by Western academics such as Teresa de Lauretis and Michel Foucault.

However, Western conceptions of queerness cannot be lumped into one category, just as non-Western conceptions of queerness shouldn’t be over-generalised either. Just as it is difficult to find a definition of “queer” that matches more than one individual perfectly, it is difficult, and perhaps, not wise, to try to find a definition of queer that matches more than one nation perfectly.

And ultimately, what is most important to keep in mind is that India has a rich and varied history regarding LGTBQ+ experiences. The West did not invent homosexuality, bisexuality, or gender-non-conforming individuals. Whilst one should apply Western definitions of “queerness” with caution to experiences and stories in Indian art, literature and history, it is obvious that India already has an established past that references LGBTQ+ related practices. The Kama Sutra, an erotic classic written in the first millennium by Sage Vatsyayana, involves a whole chapter regarding homosexual sex saying “it is to be engaged in and enjoyed for its own sake as one of the arts.” The Kama Sutra also references those defined as “third gender,” without going into specific detail regarding identity politics or definitions of trans-ness. Gender and sexual identities show themselves to be fascinatingly varied within Hindu mythology. Ancient dharma codes regarding law and “right” forms of living have no set opinion on homosexuality, with legislators varying from condemning, to indifferent. Thus, we can see not only that LGBTQ+ people existed in India for centuries, but that they were acknowledged and often lived openly as what they were.
And if queer pride can be at all linked to the West, then you can be damn well sure homophobia can be as well, because colonial laws have been responsible for institutionalising LGBTQ-discrimination from Uganda to India.

In February 2014, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed his country’s controversial anti-gay bill into law, describing the bill as “provoked by arrogant and careless western groups that are fond of coming into our schools and recruiting young children into homosexuality.” He certainly didn’t have much to say about the American Evangelical pastors who had visited the country four years earlier to spread homophobic rhetoric about the “evil institutions of homosexuality.” And think of the recent North Carolina bathroom bill, which demands transgender individuals use the bathroom of the gender which they were assigned at birth. America and the rest of the Western world, whilst home to a number of brave and important queer activists and movements, is also the origin of considerable amounts of hate speech and institutionalised anti-LGBTQ+ feeling.

There is a rich history of LGBTQ+ activity in non-Western countries, especially those pre-colonisation by Western countries, such as Africa. Gender amongst various indigenous North American tribes was not the binary depicted in the West, and the term “Two-spirit” was used to describe those “between genders.” Whilst individuals such as these should not be automatically labelled “transgender” or queer, as they would have had their own culturally specific terms, it is clear that examples such as this demonstrate a wide variety of ways to do gender and sexuality.

Whilst one must be careful not to apply specific, modern definitions of homosexuality or trans-ness to all instances of potential queerness in history, it is obvious that LGBTQ+ identities and people have existed in non-Western countries since recorded history began. The number of instances and examples are too great to be covered in a single article, but here is a reading list for those interested.

To conclude – did the West invent LGBTQ+ people? No. Has colonialism been responsible for spreading of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric? Yes. Are Western conceptions of queerness potentially homogenising and imperialistic? Yes and no – the fact of the matter is that the relationship between queerness, cultural identity and discourses of power in knowledge are far too complex to be covered in a single article, unfortunately. However, what must ultimately be understood is that India had a rich history of LGBTQ+ experiences long before colonisation by the British, and long before imperialist laws condemning homosexuality came into play.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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