It's not just the date that's different in India. The progress of gay rights is moving at a dizzying speed since a Delhi High Court decision in July 2009 overturned the quaintly worded law banning "crimes against the order of nature." In just over a year, being gay has gone from a criminal act to something that can at least be discussed in the context of other rights guaranteed to Indian citizens. But like so many other things in this deeply contradictory country, there is no easy correspondence between gay identity here and in the West.
[Photos and video here.]
Sexual orientation takes two very different forms in India. There is both a traditional "love that dare not speak its name" and a brash, demanding "we're here and we're queer" rhetoric. The former has been around since the dawn of time and tends to avoid labels, rather like being on the "Down Low" in America. It is about attraction and action rather than identity. The latter, demanding attention, is a phenomenon of the last decade or so, and involves taking on a label (queer, gay, lesbian, etc) and using it to defend one's rights in society. I am including the political mobilization of the transgender people called hijras as part of this new identity movement. Hijras have actually been a highly visible group for centuries and are so much a part of the culture that they are considered auspicious at weddings. They are, however, generally pushed far off into society's margins.
I am, of course, sketching the contours roughly, but the contrasts are borne out by experience and social science. These identities break along India's class divides and the huge rural/urban divide, but they are increasingly coming into contact. Those trying to make the gay cause more visible in India want to give a name to same-sex attraction that many people feel. (Remember that in the United States, this kind of conversation has been going on for around fifty years—and the long road still ahead for full acceptance of gay people there shows just how quickly things are moving in India.) It is a question of getting society's sense of itself to be more reflective of the reality of different sexualities. Just as when President Ahmadinejad declared at a speech at Columbia University that "we have no homosexuals in Iran," the denial didn't actually make it so. For people who are struggling with their sexuality, it can be tremendously empowering to realize that they are not alone. Hence the need for events like gay pride marches.
During the Pride march, which is of course the ultimate expression of gay visibility, the Indian terminology for gay identities was largely in English. The name's official event, "Delhi Queer Pride" had been translated into Hindi as "dillī kwiyar garv" ("garv" is the Hindi word for "pride"). The handout from the event is bilingual but the list of words for gay identities is the same in English and Hindi, meaning that a few indigenous Hindi terms like "Hijra" make it into English while quite a few English terms appear in Hindi. (I never cease to be amused by transliterated English words, like "dāik" for "dyke." Once I saw "Pawar Brek" (in Hindi letters) painted on the back of a truck and wondered what part of India such a strange name came from. Then I realized that it was "power brake.") Even people in India who can't speak fluent English use English words all the time, but in this context anti-gay campaigners claim that the English words prove that homosexuality is a Western import.* (Incidentally, The Economist has a great debate feature right now that debunks the idea that "if the language doesn't have a word for it, people can't think it.")
The struggle for gay rights here has the remarkable—and perhaps unique quality—of causing virtually all of India’s religious leaders to agree on something. When the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377 of the colonial-era Indian Penal Code (which outlaws homosexuality with the flowery Victorian phrase “crimes against the order of nature”), their condemnation of the decision was nearly unanimous. And for them, of course, gay Indians only exist because of the evil, decadent West (and its Indian enablers). Let's be honest about how stupid an argument this is. Same-gender attraction exists in every society so get over it.
Since I used to write about gay issues for the South Asian Journalists Association, I was carefully following the media coverage of the parade. It was of course a day for the newspapers to compete for the worst punning headline. The Times of India managed both “Celebrating Life With Gay Abandon” and “Gay To Be Alive.”A few narratives crystalized around the event. Firstly, fewer members of the crowd of more than 2,000 people wore masks this year because technically they were no longer criminals. Secondly, the photogenic sixty-five year-old grandmother Rani Sharma was emblematic of Indian families' increasing acceptance of gay relatives (here and here). Thirdly, foreigners were prominent. There seemed to be an editorial rule that every photograph that ran had to have at least one white face in it (there were a few exceptions). The copy, such as The Hindustan Times's wire piece from the Indo-Asian News Service, also reflected this. The article's tone is neutral and professional, but ends incongruously with “A large number of foreigners also took part in the parade.” Did they have two more lines of column space to fill or was there a need to subtly cast aspersions on the event as being "foreign"?
As I watched from the sidelines, I noticed the lack of facemasks compared to photographs of previous years, and Mrs Sharma was hard to miss. She was near the back of the marchers, smiling but a little diffident after being surrounded by reporters making her the media darling of the event. But the foreigners thing is interesting. It's true that there were more white people than you would see on an average street even in a touristy area like Paharganj or Connaught Place. But I managed to snap lots of pictures of Indians enjoying themselves with nary a foreigner in sight. The gay pride parade was not about some Europeans showing up for a good time but for Indian gays to prove that they in fact exist. For touchy issues, like gay rights, perceived foreign influence is the kiss of death in a postcolonial society.
There is unfortunately still a fascination with foreigners and their mores that can be very off-putting. I find that Indians, who are generally very proud of India, still pay an inordinate amount of attention to non-Indians. For example, a few years ago, I was pacing through an exhibition at the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta after a long day. I had come for the historical displays but had wandered into a special exhibition of hundreds of paper fans from around the world. A camera crew ambushed me and asked me for my thoughts. I couldn't resist the possibility of being on television, but at the same time, I knew it wouldn't go well. "I didn't know that there were so many kinds of... fans," I stammered, and it only got worse from there. I didn't watch the news that night to see if my segment made the cut. (Just to be clear, India is not the only place where foreigners are regarded as an object of wonder: When I was living in Germany in 2005, I saw a group of old German ladies at a bus stop literally point and laugh at an African family dressed in their flowing, bright traditional clothes.)
But back to the debate over gay rights. One quick way of gauging opinion is by reading the comments on news sites on the Internet (I didn't have time this month to do any real reporting). As a media critic, I always had a troubled relationship with Internet comments. Far too much power seems to be concentrated in the hands of uniformed cranks. You feel duty-bound to respond because they are so obviously wrong, and yet you know that you time could be better spent.
Predictably, the topic of gay rights generated a lot of all-caps, semi-literate back-and-forth between those who are adamantly opposed to seeing gays as human beings and those who are pro-gay rights. There isn't much there that's interesting. However, the revealing comments are the ones that fall in the middle: For example, Virender, who gives his place as Kotdwara (Google Maps tells me it is a tiny, tiny town in Uttarakhand state), writes:
“gays were adjusted, accepted and given responsibility in the society of this nation. history speaks for it. but this western concepts of parades and open vulgar display will make things difficult for them in the long run specially in this country.”That perfectly captures what I mean by the two kinds of gay identity in India. Virender objects not to the idea that gay people should have rights but to what he thinks is decadent, Western gay "vulgarity." Another similarly interesting idea is that Muslims—whom the Hindu Right generally believe to be responsible for everything bad—are the real cause of intolerance. One commentator writes,
“Dont confuse ideologies borrowed from Islam with "Hindu culture". Hinduism never showed violent intolerance to homosexuals. You are shaming Hindus.”The fact that Hindu leaders use social issues like homosexuality are fodder for their mobs doesn't figure into that commentator's worldview. But it is oddly heartening that a flashpoint issue like this breaks down into the traditional if unfortunate pattern of Hindu versus Muslim. Gay rights have a chance in India in part because they rise above the toxic stew of religious politics.
After homosexuality was legalized, India has become a de facto member of a new sort of non-aligned movement. If on the one hand western European countries are moving full-steam ahead with gay rights, and on the other a bloc of Arab, African and other countries are determined to keep homosexuality criminal, there is a group of countries in the middle making incremental progress. I count the US among these countries, because while 40% of Americans live in states that formally recognize gay relationships, there are still states where someone can lose his/her job for being gay. India is now by far the most populous of the middle nations.
The divide in the world was on display recently in two spheres of international politics. First, a UN resolution deploring extra-judicial killings was watered down. A bloc of Arab and African nations successfully cut a specific reference to sexual orientation and replaced it with something vague. (Showing uncharacteristic leadership, US diplomats went on the record saying they want to get the gay-specific language reinstated.) Second was the choice of Russia and Qatar, neither of which have particularly good records on human rights of any kind, to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The Guardian reports that Sepp Blatter, the director of FIFA (the international governing body of professional football, i.e. soccer), gave a very awkward answer when asked about what gay fans should do when the World Cup comes to Qatar in 2022. The article says:
When asked about the issues facing gay fans, Blatter, apparently joking, said: "I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities." He continued then on a more serious note, saying: "We are definitely living in a world of freedom and I'm sure when the World Cup will be in Qatar in 2022, there will be no problems.He went on to explain that FIFA believes in a world without discrimination, and so on. But the damage was done. John Amaechi, an Englishman who is the first openly gay NBA star, bitterly criticised Blatter, apparently taking his words at face value. (Blatter has since apologised—but his apology was so convoluted that the situation has not been clarified.)
Being gay is illegal in Qatar because sodomy is criminalised in article 201 of the Qatari penal code with a penalty of up to five years in prison. (Just as in India before the sodomy law was struck down, expressing a gay identity is considered synonymous with committing an illegal sexual act.) Article 201 has in the past been used against foreigners, which was a major concern when Cornell University opened up a medical college in Doha, as the Cornell Sun reported. (Though I should note that the article is being a little Orientalist when it quotes H.A.R. Gibb on the immutability of shariah law since the issue here is the penal code, not Islamic law. The penal code came into force with independence in 1971 and so was presumably written by British colonial officers.)
So what will happen in Qatar? Or in Africa where American missionaries, starting to lose the battle on home territory, have taken their anti-gay crusade? I don't know, but things are looking good in both India and America. As I write this, the United States has taken a major step towards recognizing gay rights nationally. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that forced otherwise qualified soldiers out of the military merely for admitting to being gay has cleared the last major hurdle for repeal. Because a strong gay identity exists in Indian cultural history, hopefully the Western practice of self-labeling will merge seamlessly with the fact that India never really institutionalized homophobia until the British period. One day, perhaps soon, we will all see the oppression of gay people as the same kind of immorality as colonialism itself.
* Though if you read the books I mention in the bonus then it's clear that Indians have historically had plenty of words to refer to same-sex love.
Three important books of readings and analysis of LGBT cultural history in India are:
- Same-Sex Love in India: Readings From Literature and History. Ed. Ruth Vanita & Saleem Kidwai (New York: Palgrave, 2001) [Amazon.com] [Amazon]
- Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. Ed. Ruth Vanita (New York: Routledge, 2002) [Amazon.com]
- Queer: Despised Sexuality, Law and Social Change by Arvind Narrain (Bangalore, 2004) [Amazon.com]
- Love in a Different Climate: Men who have sex with men in India by Jeremy Seabrook (London: Verso, 1999) [Amazon.com]