“The time is overdue now, when rather than pretending that homosexuals don’t exist, or hoping to eradicate them by sheer weight of disapproval or prison sentences, we face the fact squarely in the eye and find room for them.” – Shakuntala Devi.
India has come a long way since Independence, growing on both social and economic fronts. Though being two different terms, both are often interlinked to help achieve substantial progress. But talking about social growth, we can’t let go of basic human rights, which play a key role in developing an equal and just society.
In modern India, it’s important for every single citizen to be aware of their basic rights, as it helps them to seek justice in any case of threat or discrimination. But in a diverse and inclusive society like in India,it becomes equally important for us to respect the rights of others as well, and also support them in their struggle, if we get to know of any form of injustice being done to them. It not only helps in developing a sense of mutual understanding and unity, but also helps shape strong democracy in a country.
One community in India which struggles even today for their basic human rights of identity, dignity, expression and life are LGBTIQ+ people. If you don’t know what LGBTIQ+ stands for, it refers to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex and Queer/Questioning—people belonging to the broad spectrum of sexuality and gender identity, who are often marginalized. Sexuality refers to whom you are physically attracted to, like heterosexual (meaning someone who gets attracted to opposite gender), homosexual (meaning attraction towards same gender), or bisexual (attraction towards two genders), and other identities. Talking about gender, it is something you identify your body and psychological self as—men, women, transgender or non-binary.
Both sexuality and gender remain independent of each other. For people who are heterosexual and identify as their ‘biological gender’, it may seem easier to lead a happy love life, along with several other plus-points that we often don’t realise the pain and discrimination suffered by many other Indians who can’t even be open about their sexuality because some people out of ignorance consider it to be ‘unnatural’. People with mindsets such as this often discriminate against trans people for not fitting into the gender binary resulting in harassment.
The honorable Supreme Court of India granted trans people the right to identify themselves on their own as male, female or transgender. It has asked the ruling BJP government to enact laws preventing discrimination and giving equal opportunities to trans Indians. Little has been done since then, with the government even trying to walk away from the guidelines given by Supreme Court.
On the other side, India still has the colonial-era law of punishing homosexuality under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes carnal intercourse, which includes even consensual homosexual acts. The given law, which was enacted by the British in 1860, during their colonial rule in India, was based on Victorian morality considering homosexuality to be against the law of nature. It’s important to note that homosexuality was never a crime in India before 1860. Homosexuality in ancient India, which often included the third gender too, was referred to as Tritiya Prakriti or the ‘third nature’. Also, several mythological stories in India often included characters from the LGBTIQ+ community as well. An interesting book called “Shikhandi: And Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You” by Devdutt Pattanaik lets you peep into Indian mythology and makes you wonder why some people still think homosexuality as a ‘western influence’. Not only Indian mythology but paintings and sculptures in Khajuraho temples and Ancient literature on sexuality included homosexuality too. Hinduism and other religions based on karmic faiths too provide acceptance regarding equality for everyone irrespective of gender and sexuality as discussed in Devdutt Pattanaik’s recent book “I Am Divine So Are You” co-authored by Jerry Johnson.
While the law criminalizing homosexuality no longer exists in England, the country which actually enacted it in India, it was responsible for the loss of a prominent scientist and mathematician named Alan Turing, whose work not only helped Britain defeat the Nazis during World War I by breaking the Enigma code, but is also the basis of modern computing. He was harassed because of his sexuality and prevalent homophobia resulted in his death through suicide in 1954. A similar case happened in India with Professor Ramchandra Siras, who was then the Head of the Department of Modern Indian Languages at Aligarh University, Uttar Pradesh. Lack of awareness, insensitivity and discrimination resulted in his death in 2010.
In modern India, while talking about homosexuality, we come across three different views based on the level of awareness and understanding regarding the topic. They are the following:
This is the most common myth which often increases discrimination towards LGBTIQ+ Indians. The truth is that after several researches, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) declassified homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1974, followed by World Health Organization (WHO) in 1990. The Indian Psychiatric Society in February 2014 issued a statement stating that based on scientific researches there is no evidence to prove that homosexuality is a mental illness.
With some awareness, views on homosexuality shifted from it being a mental disorder, to being a choice. This may seem a positive step towards awareness in general population regarding sexuality ,but is actually the same thing said in a different way. People who think homosexuality is a choice mostly never consider heterosexuality as a choice. Thus, even though they may claim that they support LGBTIQ+ rights, people often demean the discrimination suffered by LGBTIQ+ community by considering it a choice.
Though less common and held by people who try to know about human sexuality, it is the most accurate and scientific view on homosexuality. Homosexuality is a just another variation of human sexual orientation. Human sexuality is much more diverse than we think, including heterosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, asexuality and more.
While homophobia often arises from the lack of understanding and awareness, it often affects the physical and psychological health of the LGBTIQ+ population. Some common myths and prejudices in Indian society which often lead to social stigma, discrimination and inequality are the following:
Some people think that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) only occur in the LGBTIQ+ community. But both homosexual and heterosexual individuals are equally prone to STDs because of a lack of proper awareness on safe sexual practices and hygiene. Diseases like HIV, or herpes are mostly caused by unprotected sexual practices, having multiple partners and sharing needles.
The social stigma and discrimination towards LGBTIQ+ individuals, lack of love and support from family and friends, and a lack of commitment in their love relationships due to fear often results in their involvement in unsafe sexual practices, multiple partners and even drug use. Further, the stigma also prevents them from accessing the basic medical facilities for healthcare.
–False beliefs like considering homosexuality as a mental disorder and lack of awareness on the issue of sexuality and gender identity are more common in rural parts and small towns of India, which often results in bullying and discriminatory attitude towards LGBTIQ+ individuals.In lack of supportive and understanding environment,feeling of lack of self worth, depression, anxiety and other related psychological problems often increases,along with an increase in suicide rates. Gay men, lesbian women and trans people (who remain in the closet due to fear) are often forced to marry the opposite gender under family pressure. Thus,living a dual life,where their partner remain unaware about it most of the time.An example to this is well-known Indian math genius Shakuntala Devi. Her book, “The World of Homosexuals”, is the first documented study on homosexuality in India, written post her marriage to and divorce from a homosexual man.
On the other hand, anyone who tries to be open, suffers due to the prevalent ignorance,where parents either disown their own children, take them for treatment to quacks, force queer girls into corrective rape in order to ‘cure’ homosexuality. Change in such regressive attitudes and ignorant mindsets through awareness can only help bring justice to LGBTIQ+ community. Still, parents like that of Bollywood screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal, activist Harish Iyer and many others remain role models of unconditional love from parents, unaffected by societal prejudice and ignorant judgement.
–The other belief which is often used to promote discrimination based on sexuality is that accepting LGBTIQ+ community in India will destroy Indian culture and everyone would turn gay.While you may think of such beliefs to be the product of irrational minds.Such thoughts also shows the fear and prevalent ignorance on the topic of sexuality and gender identity.when several countries including the one which first enacted Section 377 have even granted marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples and trans people and it has helped them in reducing discrimination and increasing equal opportunities for every citizen,irrespective of gender and sexuality.While India even today criminalizes even the consensual same-sex acts and remains in the group of countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, by continuing to make fun of human rights and identity.
The main opposition of LGBTIQ+ rights in India comes from two different group—people who either know little or nothing about human sexuality and gender.but consider only heterosexuality as ‘normal’ in accordance to their self-formed prejudice and other from some religious extremist groups.
Though India is a secular country and considers the Constitution to be the only relevant document for evaluating the rights of its citizens, political parties have the attitude of bigotry regarding the issue.Where the ruling BJP government on one hand launches an adolescent resource kit called “Sathiya” to educate and help in tackling the taboos, misconceptions and misinformation regarding sexuality, health and gender, directly engaging with the younger population. On the other hand, the government seems unwilling to be rational.As they use moral grounds to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ citizens, by denying their rights.As when Shashi Tharoor, member of parliament from Indian National Congress,recently tried to introduce a bill for amendment in Section 377, members of BJP refused to initiate a debate on it, yet calling it ‘debatable’.Though Indian culture never criminalized homosexuality as discussed in “Immortal India”, a book by popular author Amish Tripathi. Whereas,Indian politicians often try to portray borrowed Victorian morality as “Indian culture”. Such ignorant beliefs among even the so called ‘cultured’ and educated Indians often increases the discrimination towards LGBTIQ+ individuals, not just in public and workplaces but at homes as well.
The Supreme Court of India gave legal recognition to trans people along with the right to self identify, in the NALSA judgement in April, 2014. Again in its landmark judgement on Right to Privacy in August 2017, the court added sexual orientation as a part of right to life, privacy and dignity. Recently on January 8, 2018, the Supreme court agreed to review its earlier 2013 judgement in which it had criminalized homosexuality stating that it affects only a minority, without considering it’s negative consequences on a community,which is often stereotyped,discriminated and marginalized in Indian society because of ignorance and social prejudice.Also,the colonial-era law is often misused to blackmail,extort money,harass and generate fear in the minds of LGBTIQ+ Indians. Thus,it definitely needs to be amended,such that ‘consensual’ sexual acts and love are no longer be criminalized under it. Whereas it can still be used by Indians belonging to LGBTIQ+ community against any form of sexual abuse and rape.
In absence of protection of diversity, through laws which support equality and inclusion, it often becomes a tool to discriminate among human beings. As sexuality and gender are just a part of our complete human identity, any form of discrimination on the basis of it has no place in modern India. No doubt, the contributions of Rituparno Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Wendell Rodricks, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and several other Indians are valuable and cannot be denied because of their sexuality or gender identity. Justice to LGBTIQ+ Indians can only be done when anti-discrimination laws in India would include sexuality and gender identity, along with unbiased similar rights be given to LGBTIQ+ citizens as enjoyed by their heterosexual cisgender counterparts.
No matter how diverse we are, both on the level of society and as individuals, the feeling of love and the sense of humanity unites us. Thus, it’s important for us to support LGBTIQ+ Indians in their struggle for equality and justice, irrespective of where we belong on the broad spectrum of sexuality and gender identity. It will help bring love and happiness to a section of society which is still misunderstood by many and suffer discrimination because of homophobia and transphobia arising from a lack of knowledge and understanding on the topic.
Increasing awareness will help break the barriers, which gradually puts an end to prejudices and ignorance, setting love free!