Exploring The Bylanes Of Gender And Sexuality In Indian Culture

It was a typical Sunday afternoon and Akash, an 18-year-old, was watching television along with his family. His immediate family consisted of his parents and a younger sister aged 15 years. While watching a movie that was very entertaining, there appeared a trailer for the new season of a TV show which dealt with the concept of same-sex relationships. Watching the trailer gave Akash a certain sense of comfort. A flurry of thoughts arose on the lines of “maybe these kinds of relationships exist, maybe I am ‘normal’, maybe I stand the chance of finding someone for myself”.

Akash was lost in a daydream, imagining himself in the characters portrayed on the screen until he suddenly heard his name being called out in an angry voice. His father’s sharp voice broke his daydream and he was forced into the present. “Where are you lost?” said his father. God knows what is wrong with this generation, they always seem to be so lost. I suppose it is to be expected when such type of things become commonplace, almost like it’s ‘normal’. Akash, you please stay away from ‘such’ people. They are the reason for the demise of our cultural values.”

Hearing these words broke Akash’s heart, although he did not say a word. He was used to silencing his voice and his needs. 

The above example attempts to illustrate one possible experience of someone who may be struggling with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, pretending to be someone they are not. Unfortunately, this is the reality of many today. 

Sex, Sexuality and Gender are taboo subjects, especially in India. 

Sexuality And Gender In Indian Socio-Cultural Context

As if navigating the bylanes of sexuality and gender was not hard enough already, it is even more so given the Indian socio-cultural context. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

As if navigating the bylanes of sexuality and gender was not hard enough already, the Indian socio-cultural context makes it worse.

Growing up within a heteronormative, patriarchal society may often be extremely distressing and confusing for non-conforming individuals. Certain points need to be clarified before these issues can be further discussed.

It is important to understand what is meant by terms such as Heteronormativity, Patriarchy, Sex, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation:


It is the assumption by individuals as well as institutions that everyone is heterosexual.


It may be defined as a societal or government system which places men over women. Men are the heads of families or states and the family name is carried forward by the male line. Men possess most of the power.


It broadly has two main definitions: 

  1. Sex assigned at birth (or before, during ultrasound) based on the appearance of external genitalia. When the external genitalia is ambiguous, other indicators (e.g., internal genitalia, chromosomal and hormonal sex) are considered to assign sex with the aim of assigning sex that is most likely to be congruent with the child’s gender identity (MacLaughlin & Donahoe, 2004). For some people, gender identity is congruent with sex assigned at birth; for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, gender identity differs in varying degrees from the sex assigned at birth.
  2. The physical act of sex which includes but is not limited to penetrative sex (peno vaginal, Oral and Anal sex), kissing, rubbing, fondling and other acts of physical intimacy.

Gender Identity

A person’s deeply‐felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender non conforming, gender-neutral) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth or to a person’s primary or secondary sex characteristics. Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.

“Affirmed gender identity” refers to a person’s gender identity after coming out as Transgender/gender-nonconforming or undergoing a social and/or medical transition process. A person whose gender identity is congruent with their sex assigned at birth is cis-gendered; this means that people who are assigned the male gender at birth go on to identify as male or people assigned female at birth goes on to identify as female.

Sexual Orientation

A component of identity that includes a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behaviour and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction. A person may be attracted to men, women, both, neither, or to people who are genderqueer, androgynous, or have other gender identities. Individuals may identify as lesbian, gay, heterosexual, bisexual, queer, pansexual, or asexual, among others.

It needs to be stated in explicitly clear terms that having a non-hetero, a non-cis-gendered identity or both is absolutely okay. This, in and of itself is NOT a disorder or disease and does NOT require any treatment or intervention. 

According to current research, sexuality and gender identity are both on a spectrum and are believed to be fluid; they are not a binary as is commonly believed. This means that everyone lies somewhere on this spectrum, we all may have differences in who we are attracted to and how we feel about our own gender identity and expression over time. We may lean more towards one over the other or be attracted to men as well as women or not be sexually attracted to anyone at all, whatever the case be, it is absolutely natural.

How Deeply Does The Society And Its Conditioning Affect Gender And Sexuality?

There are, however, factors that may come to the surface as a result of these identifications which may require attention and professional support. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth are at a greater risk for depression, suicide, substance use, and sexual behaviours that can place them at increased risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). (Kann L, Olsen EO, McManus T, et al., 2015)

For e.g. A person, who identifies as non-heterosexual or is gender-nonconforming may feel hopeless, helpless and worthless given the socio-cultural context they find themselves in. They may not be accepted by their loved ones or significant others and may have to actively hide who they are, being forced to wear a very uncomfortable mask. Consequently, this may give rise to anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation or other mental health concerns. 

Substance use is common to help cope with the discrimination and prejudice faced, which may lead to substance abuse and addiction. It is extremely important to address these concerns and seeking appropriate, timely help is essential. It is vital to seek help from well trained, queer affirmative mental health professionals, as they will be able to identify and address these concerns effectively, in a supportive way. Also, in case any medication is required to alleviate symptoms they will be able to provide appropriate guidance.

Away From Society, Towards Acceptance

Sex, Sexuality and Gender are taboo subjects, especially in India.

Having cleared these concepts, let’s address the experience of someone who might find themselves struggling to accept themselves for who they are. 

It is extremely difficult, firstly to acknowledge to oneself that one does not fit into the socio-cultural norms and then even more difficult to communicate this to others, be it friends, family or even complete strangers. This may be a long or short process and each person’s journey to find acceptance within and without may be completely different.

Some may choose to deny these thoughts and feelings whereas, some may accept these thoughts and feelings, one person may find their family and friends to be very accepting, loving and supportive another may find them to be violently aggressive and rejecting. Yet, some others may find a mixture of reactions ranging from wholehearted acceptance to violent rejection.

The decision to come out, to acknowledge one’s sexual orientation or gender identity whether to oneself or to anyone else is a very personal one and should be taken only when one feels adequately equipped and ready to deal with the consequences of doing so, whether they be positive or negative.

It is important to know that if you are going through this struggle, you are NOT alone. There are many people who have faced similar circumstances in the past and many others still, who may be experiencing similar thoughts and feelings at this very moment.

Additionally, you can find below a list of resources that you may utilize to better inform yourself and also reach out to others who are going through similar challenges. There are also helpline numbers for availing queer affirmative counselling services as well as crisis intervention services.

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