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

Posted on June 10, 2016 in Cake, LGBTQ, Upside-Down

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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