India’s Rejection of Homosexuality has no Cultural Basis!

Proud Grand Mother

photo by Ramesh Lalwani

There has been a furious public response on the net over the law in Uganda that intends to impose the “death penalty” (death by stoning!) for homosexuality.  Uganda  probably won’t  implement the death penalty, at least not openly, given that western countries like the U.S. have threatened to withdraw millions of dollars in aid.

However there are at least 7 countries in the world which have the death penalty for homosexuality, and these include  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Nigeria, Mauritania.   Now these nations haven’t faced the same threats from the western countries because — well some of them are sitting on large reserves of oil that literally runs the wheels of many western economies, and there may be other more important political interests than protecting the gay communities from the hideous destiny of being stoned to death.

And besides these countries, there are many more countries where homosexuality is still a criminal offense.  In India this law (Sect 377 of the Indian Penal Code) was struck down by the Delhi Court in 2009, and later in 2012, the Supreme Court of India observed that traditionally homosexuality was not an offense (legal or social) in India before the British rulers decided to impose a new law in India in 1860 criminalizing it.

Indeed while researching for my book Sex and Power, I was amazed at the normalcy with which both homosexuality and homosexual acts between individuals (regardless of their sexuality), was treated in ancient India.  It is depicted on temples walls, in art, in poetry and literature.  In fact, the Kama Sutras, that are indeed the world’s first research based anthologies on love-making had entire chapters dedicated to various positions of lesbian love-making!

So the intolerance towards homosexuality in India is that much more surprising.  It has no religious, cultural or historical basis! Yet, I remember in high school attending the wedding of an under-age classmate (she was 17), whose parents thought marriage to a man at such a tender age would perhaps “cure” her of her natural inclinations toward girls. I remember our classmates giggling as they tried to get a glimpse of the ‘groom’ and nudging and asking each other if it was “a boy or a girl?”

Indian author, Vikram Seth, whose ‘A Suitable Boy,’ was an internationally best-selling book  has only recently (in his 50s!) talked more openly about his homosexuality.  His mother, Leila Seth, who was also a Judge in India, and is a rare example of  how she has supported her son in being himself,  explained why this was so.  She said because  “It was a criminal offence then. I worried for him. I thought he is a young man and somebody could misuse it… I remember reading a book called The Well of Loneliness about two lesbians and I remember it moved me…I read it at 17 and I thought how lonely a person must be if you can’t share his love with other people.”  

And Leila Seth is not alone.  In the photo above from a gay pride parade in Delhi, a Punjabi grandmother proudly holds a banner declaring her love and pride in her gay grandson.  She doesn’t just tolerate him! She loves him and embraces him for everything that he is — including his homosexuality!  This photo is among my top 10 favorite pictures on The 50 Million Missing’s flickr group.  It is one of those pictures that stays in my head as a snap-shot of what Indians can become! And I want to thank Ramesh Lalwani for sharing it with us, as indeed all the other marvelous photos he has sent to The 50 Million Missing Campaign on flickr.

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  1. could section 295A (ban on offending the religious sensitivities of different religious groups such as Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists) India’s legal code still be used by overzealous police, prosecutors, and judges as an excuse to put known or suspected homosexuals in jail?

    • Well, that argument has been used elsewhere. For e.g. there are various Hindu temples that don’t allow girls and women in between the ages of 12-50, because that’s considered an age when they menstruate and according to Hinduism are “dirty” or “impure.” An Indian actress who went into a temple as a teenager many years ago, and confided to a friend, was recently slapped with many law suits and arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiments etc. !!


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