Why is LGBT so taboo in India

Bernhard Peter
Queer in India

Misunderstood physical closeness
Men sitting arm in arm on a small wall. Guys strolling through town hand in hand. Complete acceptance? Not at all.
India is prudish - physical affection is never shown in public, even among straight couples. Men and women are nicely separated from each other. Even in the exuberant dances on the occasion of festivals, men and women dance separately. Showing loving feelings in public - unusual. Even in one of the most famous honeymoon locations, Mount Abu with its romantic Sunset Point, you can see newlywed couples everywhere, but no kiss or hug in public. And in the countryside in the villages of the Thar desert, the deeply veiled young woman stands three paces behind her husband when they pose for the photo.
If mainstream sexuality is pretty taboo, homosexuality is even more taboo. And physical contact between same-sex people is only an expression of deep friendship, comradely togetherness, but never of physical love. Good friends like to take each other by the hand or in the arm. It's so easy to misunderstand gestures.

The legal situation
Not only is homosexuality generally not accepted socially, but India is one of the countries that still criminalizes homosexuality. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes gay acts and punishes anal or oral sex with up to 10 years imprisonment, possibly plus a fine ("Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years and shall also be liable to a fine. "), whereby all consensual gay sex is viewed as criminal, even in private rooms (although the scope of punishment seldom exhausted in practice), but cruising or exchanging caresses in public can quickly lead to arrest for violating the law against obscene behavior.

Homophobia - a Colonial Import?
Whether this reflects the values ​​of classical Hindu societies, however, is another question: After all, these laws are leftovers from British colonial times (originated in 1860, replacing a more tolerant, older regulation). It would be quite possible if legal and social homophobia were a European import, an adopted homophobic Anglo-Saxon so-called “morality” of the 19th century, as a parallel comparison of gay-friendly Thailand and homophobic Laos shows in connection with their respective colonial histories. The irony of history: The British counterpart to Indian law that was the model for that model was repealed in the United Kingdom in 1967, but the Indian counterfeit persisted.

The role of classic social expectations
What goes well with Indian life, however, is the willingness to meet prevailing norms, be it those of the caste, be it those of the family or those of one's own social circle, if necessary against one's own feelings. This does not only affect gays - straight people also suddenly find themselves with spouses they haven't really chosen themselves, caring parents will take care of that. But with the dilution of the old borders by modern urban societies, there has been movement in there too.
In classical society, where the caste dictates what to do and what not to do, you simply cannot afford to feel differently. The order within a caste is always patriarchal and heterosexist. Even today, deep inside most gay Indians, there is a strong fear of jeopardizing their own existence by leaving the protective networks. In the past, a social "out" was a knockout case, but today it is very possible, especially in urban societies, to lead a self-determined life as a gay or lesbian, and first cautious attempts to create gay or lesbian self-confidence are to be reported.
This fear is not unfounded. Tanuja Chauhan and Jaya Verma from Ambikapur (Chattisgarh State) tied the knot in a lesbian Hindu marriage in 2002, all the anger in the neighborhood was directed against them and they were driven from their homeland. There is no state recognition of same-sex couples in India anyway.

Same-sex love in Hinduism
What does the Hindu tradition say about it? In fact, the ancient Vedic scriptures and the other traditions of the religion are not at all anti-gay per se. You mention various forms of sexuality. The many stories from the Hindu pantheon are rich in erotic adventures, heterosexual and also homosexual, even gender reassignments or ideas of a third gender occur. In the Indian tradition, sexuality is a broad topic. Take, for example, the story that the high god Vishnu had adopted a feminine form as Mohini in order to be able to enter into a connection with Shiva. Vishnu becomes a woman to make a difference, but he fights and kills as a man. Or think of Shiva, who only remained childless with his wife Parvati. Shiva was only able to procreate a descendant through the connection with the male fire god Agni, when he took up the seed of Shiva. Shiva as Ardhanarishvara is the god who is half male and half female. And Shiva took the form of a woman in the Ramayana to please Parvati. Third example: the homoerotic affection of Krishna and Arjuna, the two heroes of the Mahabharata. In a legend, Arjuna turned into a woman in order to share the "secret of secrets" with Krishna. Despite all these metamorphoses, the game of same-sex love remains, albeit in a different form. The free disposition of the divine and mythological figures over their gender, their sometimes double gender, the overcoming of gender boundaries in mythology, their changing appearance and their love for one another is fascinating in Hindu tradition and gives rise to the interpretation that from religious In any case, there is no justification for homophobia in India. But Hinduism is so diverse that there is no unanimous opinion about it.

A hell of their own for men without sons
The traditional image of society in India is still based solely on marriage leading to sons. A look at the Hindu hells shows how strongly this is. The Hindu tradition lives in principle on the model of rebirth; the reward or punishment for previous actions lies in the quality of the rebirth identity. But still Hinduism knows hells. There are very bad hells, such as the foul-smelling hell Tamisra (also called Puti-Mrttika), or the Kudmala hell, where the inmates are covered with ulcers. The mildest hell, but also a hell, is the put - the hell of sonless fathers. Without a son, the deceased can be condemned to reside in the same. One son is "Putra" in Sanskrit - Put the liberator from hell.
Nice to know what to expect, who will not have a son or a daughter. But on the other hand it is also interesting that there is no separate hell for gays, and that this hell of Put expects straight men without son as much as it does us. So that's not enough to deduce hostility to gays from it.

Ignorance through taboo
A self-determined homosexual life independent of social classes and castes has therefore not been able to develop in Hinduism so far. Due to the enormous taboo, many gay Indians often do not even know what they are feeling. Men who develop feelings for men, as well as women who develop feelings for women, are at a loss when faced with their feelings and do not know what is happening to them, and they also have no contact person to help them find themselves. They feel differently and feel shame, are afraid of the failure of the social demands on them. They stand alone in front of a wall of silence and do not know what is happening to them.

MSM yes, queer no?
This mental restriction is also expressed in the fact that many homosexual Indians cannot identify with a gay or lesbian attitude towards life, but “only” look for same-sex sex. They often do not refer to themselves as "gay" or "queer", but rather as "same sex desiring", "women attracted to women" or "men having sex with men" (msm). Sexual desire is expressed, but it is not enough to identify or define oneself. Accordingly, gay life usually takes place in secrecy, and the strengths to establish social identity are still rather weak.
One border area is sexuality between men before marriage. Many gays still feel at some point pushed into traditional marriage by external circumstances, where they would rather live an unhappy life within the accepted norms than a self-determined one in social isolation. The social pressure to get married is immense. Here, too, it is clear that homosexual acts and fundamental identification with a gay lifestyle are two very different things in India.
An active gay person is often viewed as a heterosexual, while passive gays are known as "Koothi".

"Not married"
Of course, Indian friends always ask travelers about their family circumstances. An honest answer about being gay will cause consternation, incomprehension, and a complete failure of the English language skills, which were actually well-functioning until then. It is the same wall of suddenly-no-longer-understanding as when one talks about a crime, such as a theft. That doesn't happen! He doesn't want to have anything to do with it and is bricking it up, and he'll put it in the "Depraved Western Lifestyle" drawer afterwards. Even the middle ground of evasively answering that you are "not married" creates compassion and a great deal of effort to explain why that is "not good" and "not healthy" for a man my age. But do you want to lie to new friends just to reap a beaming smile when they are happy with you about the four fictional children? No. The best thing to do is to turn the question around and ask the new acquaintance about their own children. His eyes will shine, and he will proudly present cheesy tattered pictures or z. For example, hand over the visiting card of the son who worked successfully as a jeweler in the Emirates, which should be admired with the greatest admiration. Not only is a son who works in the Gulf States a family member who has achieved social advancement, but also one who contributes significantly to alleviating the worst misery through financial aid.

Are the real taboos called "equality" and "individuality"?
Why the Indian society had a hard time with homosexuality in the past and for the most part still does, lies perhaps in the real meaning of the demands of the gay movement - first of all, of course, it is about tolerance, better: acceptance. But what is really revolutionary for Indian society are the ideas of equality and individuality, which absolutely do not coincide with the premises of the classic Hindu caste society.

Films create a sensation
In 1998 the deadlocked positions got moving when the film "Fire" by Deepa Mehta was shown nationwide. The newly wed Sita moves to his brother's family. He is a religious fanatic and neglects his own wife. And Sita's husband is enjoying himself with a lover. Under these circumstances, the two women get closer. As affection grows, traditional roles and positions are challenged. The typical Indian middle class family eventually breaks apart. But the real achievement of the film is the showdown: There is no drama with the punishment of the "guilty", but instead there is a confession to each other with all the consequences. This film about lesbian love caused a great stir: in December 1998 a vandalizing mob mobilized by the radical right-wing religious Hindu group Shiv Shena attacked some of the cinemas playing the film in question, and gays and lesbians for the first time dared to set up protest guards in large cities in return the public.
Other films followed, and in the meantime Bollywood has also taken up the theme of gay life, e. B. Mango Soufflé (Mahesh Dattani 2002) and many other film adaptations. India, the country with the world's largest film production, is slowly discovering other sides of life, where so far there have only been the mildest hints.

India's government remains tough
As nice as it is that individual Indian artists and intellectuals have resolved to remove taboos on the subject of homosexuality, this has not yet changed the prevailing norms. The official rejection and criminalization remains. On the contrary, even after "Fire" anti-homosexual legislation in India was tightened by the right-wing conservative Hindu Party (BJP), which was in government until 2004.
Various organizations, including the NAZ Foundation, called on the highest court in India to rule on the decriminalization of homosexuality. The Indian government then announced that the population would "never accept" this. In a letter to the country's Supreme Court, the government disclosed that "the Indian population is intolerant of gays and lesbians". With its restrictive policy towards gays, the Indian government even drew a condemnation from the UN.

Gay life in India today
There is almost invisible gay life in India, mostly very secretive. Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore are considered to be relatively open-minded about gay nightlife. One searches in vain for a life comparable to our openly gay scenes in average India. And the big, western ideas towards more open-minded cities are the exception. On the flat land, the ignorance and the resulting oppression in the midst of an ocean of silence is terrifying.
Lesbian girls are still forced to marry today. Often they end in suicide or so-called accidents. Such unfortunate kitchen accidents also happen from time to time when the dowry does not flow in the agreed amount. Another taboo, where monstrous things happen behind a wall of silence.
More is possible in the cities. The caste laws are more diffuse, people can achieve a higher degree of independence through their employment, especially women. As in many other countries, the Internet generation has found a new forum for establishing contacts, solidarity and information. Many groups from Delhi, Bombay etc. are online, take gaybombay.org as an example. There is a separate newspaper for gays with "Bombay Dost".
Even if the percentage of gays and lesbians in India is certainly no smaller than in other countries, the number of those who stand by their feelings, who admit to their gayness, who go public is minimal. Some Indian cities even have their own CSD - but the 35 (!) Participants that the cosmopolitan city of Kolkata (Calcutta) with 4.6 million inhabitants in the actual city and 14.5 million in the metropolitan area mobilized for the CSD in 2003 speak for themselves: Still Very few dare to go public. But a stage victory has been achieved: In India, too, work is being done to remove taboos on homosexuality.

Hijras in India

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© Text, graphics and photos: Bernhard Peter 2005