When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one. ~Epitaph of Leonard P. Matlovich, 1988 (Thanks, Marlene)
The famous irony that speaks volumes about India’s attitude towards the word or the very activity of ‘sex’ is that, India being the sub-continent where the ancient Indian text Kamasutra was written by Vatsyayana in which an entire chapter is dedicated to erotic homosexual behaviour and activity- which, again went on to prove that homosexuality was prevalent in ancient India as made evident by the carved images on the Sun Temple in Odisha and the Khajurao temple in Madhya Pradesh . Kamasutra was the first sex treatise written in the world somewhere between 4th and 2nd century B.C and for a country that had a very liberal outlook and approaches towards sex and homosexuality till 18th century B.C, it is comic, perturbing and queer that there should be a drastic change in people’s outlook towards these- now ‘tabooed’-subjects. The country that was unprejudiced in its mind set is now nurturing anti-sex, homophobic bigots.
What changed after 18th century? Why did people start despising homosexuals and consider them social deviants? Awadh (modern-day Lucknow), had a ruler who would practice living as the opposite gender at times, including changing sexual partners. Bengali novels from the late 19th century such as Indira describe lesbian relationships. And Sufi Muslim texts in East India explicitly mention homosexual male romance. But all of this was in the pre-18th century period. It seems that with the progress of time, the mentality of the Indian society seems to have regressed. If such know acts of homosexuality, transsexuality and bisexuality were not unknown and condemned, then in the 20th and 21st century, what made people denounce it?
It is said that homophobia is a legacy of the 157-year-old colonial rule in India. In 1857, with the Sepoy Mutiny that shook Britishers and Indians, because, for the first time, India had aroused after the repeated acts of transgression on part of Britishers against the Indians. It gave a befitting reply to the Britishers and though it failed to claim its freedom, Britishers realized that India must be suppressed even harder than before One of the main driving forces of British imperialism was its ideology of being a civilizing mission. Drawing on the rhetoric of early settlers, colonialists planned on using Britain’s territorial superiority to impose British values on the colonies. Part of this ideological thrust of Empire and civilization euphuism was affiliated to even reforming the ways in which desire and love were accepted and practiced and manifested itself in the moral policing of desire. And so, under the garb of ‘civilisation’ British started propagating Christianity in India in order to ‘civilise’ Indians.
India was home to several religions except for Anglican Christianity and after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, there was great opportunity to incorporate religious ardor into the legal system. As a country where gender and sexuality has been loosely conceptualized in the past, India’s custom and traditions were unacceptable to the Britishers and it was a conflict against the British Crown’s idea of how a society should be. Victorian Christianity dictates that lying with another man as one lies with a woman is detestable and such ‘homosexual offenders’ cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Old Testament) . The question that arises here is : why is sex that is not performed by a man and woman only, detested? If homosexuals, transgender, and transsexual do not cause any harm to the society , why are they looked down upon? The answer was this- that any sexual activity that doesn’t lead to procreation is not acceptable , is considered “immoral” and “sinful”. Any form of intimacy that didn’t result in reproduction and gearing of children was unthinkable, primarily because sexual intercourse was seen only as an affair meant to keep the human race alive and not for self- gratification and hence, homosexuality was seen as the worst of these offences.
With such inflexible vision in mind, the British Raj implemented Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code,1860. The Section 377 states,” Unnatural offences:
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 fine.
Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.”
Any person engaging in “unacceptable carnal desire” was to be jailed or fined or both and this law was transmitted to other British colonial outposts. Hence, by the use of legislation, Christian values were set to be imposed, acceptable and legal acts of intimacy were defined to create a utopian world for the Indians and redeem them from the “uncivilised” world they were living in.