Queer India

...is coming out to play. *Nick Harvey* sets the scene – and then takes an in-depth look at the problems faced by Indian lesbians.
Special feature

Wild orgies involving sages and courtesans, elephants mating with tigers, warriors comparing their genitals, half-naked women in passionate embrace… if you spend time taking in the artwork and sculptures in some of India’s temples you could be forgiven for believing anything went in ancient Hindu society.

But the reality is a little more complicated. Despite references to same-sex love in classic Hindu sagas such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and a sanctioned place for transgenders (hijras) in Hindu culture, religious conservatism ensured homosexual expression remained mostly silenced throughout Indian history. Lesbians in particular could expect serious punishment. According to the ancient Hindu law book, the Manu Smriti: ‘…a woman who pollutes a damsel shall instantly have her head shaved or two fingers cut off and be made to ride (through the town) on a donkey.’1

Though stigmatized, penalties for male homosexuality were much milder (having to take a bath with your clothes on being a typical reprimand). It wasn’t until the British moved into India that homosexuals and hijras alike were threatened with long-term imprisonment under the notorious section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Indian nationalistic and post-Victorian puritanical attitudes merged. Queer communities on the subcontinent to this day are persecuted by the police, rejected by their families and declared ‘diseased’ by the medical establishment.2

‘It has only been in the last 20 or so years that we have been able to gain some sort of visibility,’ says Rex Watts, co-ordinator of the queer support group Sangama. ‘Before that there was almost nothing.’

After years of secrecy, ambiguous references and denial, the issue bulldozed into the public spotlight in January 1988 with the high-profile marriage of Leela Namdeo and Urmila Shrivastava, two policewomen from small-town rural backgrounds. This coverage coincided with the emergence in the late 1980s of an increasing visibility and organization within the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, culminating in the publication of the first queer magazine Bombay Dost in 1990.

‘It was like a renaissance for us,’ says Arti Sharma from Delhi. ‘A magical time of affirmation and hope.’

The momentum carried through into the 1990s when a boom in media coverage, television discussions and books by queer activists contributed to a wholesale widening of exposure and acceptance of sexual difference on the subcontinent. The world was changing and this time India was changing with it.

Greater awareness

But with the benefits of globalization also came the cloud of HIV and AIDS. UNAIDS estimates that over 2.5 million people are infected with HIV across India.3 The state-run National AIDS Control Organization says over six per cent of gay men live with the virus.4

Yet queer groups argue that greater awareness and modern medical advances are improving the situation dramatically: ‘Four years ago,’ says Rex from Sangama, ‘there were three to four deaths every month here [in Bangalore]. Now there are three to four deaths a year.’

Perhaps as a response to the epidemic, support organizations for sexual minorities in India have grown from only 4 in 1994 to over 70 today. On 29 June this year Delhi hosted its first ‘Queer Pride March’, with similar marches also being held in Bangalore and Calcutta. Even Indian cinema has begun to take the issue seriously, departing from its usual negative and slapstick references to gay men and hijras. Films such as My Brother Nikhil (2005) and Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007) treat the issue of homosexual love between men sensitively and have been applauded by gay activists in India.

But these recent developments should not give the impression that all is well in queer India. Many argue that the ‘revolution’ has been limited to middle-class city dwellers and has little influence on poorer rural communities.

‘The meetings are in English and so are many of the leaflets,’ says Prassana Dheer, a student from Delhi. ‘There is a lot of work to be done if the message is to go further than a select English-speaking cultural clique.’

Despite all the hard work of campaigners over the past 20 years, in most areas of Indian society, especially amongst the poorer classes, anything relating to homosexuality remains a strict taboo.

Women’s groups are still reluctant to embrace lesbian rights as part of women’s rights and none of the major political parties has endorsed queer activists’ concerns in an official party manifesto.

‘[The gay rights movement] is an abysmal, absurd thing,’ says Navin Sinha, an official of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). ‘For 1,000 years, these two things – I don’t want to even say the words [homosexuality and lesbianism] – have simply not been here.’

A prime example of ‘the little done and the vast undone’ that faces queer activists in India is the situation of Zoltan Bhaindarkar, the Indian competitor for the international ‘Mr Gay’ contest, held early in 2008. ‘Indian media have exposed me so much that when I call my friends back home their parents do not even let them talk to me,’ he said from the US in January. ‘To be frank, I’m scared to return to India.’5

  1. Manu Smriti, Chapter 8, Verse 370, circa 200 BCE.
  2. People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka, Human Rights Violations Against Sexual Minorities in India, PUCL-K Press, Bangalore, 2001 pp 19-22.
  3. UNAIDS press release, 2008.
  4. National AIDS Control Organization, HIV Sentinel Surveillance and HIV Estimation, Feb 2006, www.nacoonline.org
  5. Hindustan Times, 1 February 2008.

Section 377 needs to go

Also known as ‘Macaulay’s Law’, as it was first framed in 1861 by British administrator Thomas Babington Macaulay (later a prominent politician and historian), section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC 377) outlaws any sex deemed ‘unnatural.’ Simply put, any penetrative sex not between a man and woman or without the aim of reproduction is punishable under the IPC by up to 10 years in prison.

Though such legislation has long since been removed from the British statute books, it still remains firmly intact within the Indian system. Convictions are extremely rare, yet it continues to be used to harass homosexuals, lesbians and sex workers alike. But it is the hijra (transgender) community that faces the greatest harassment.

‘They (the police) come to the cruise points to get money from us,’ says Pooja, 27. ‘If we haven’t got any they just beat us up or demand sex – or sometimes both.’

Activists argue that IPC 377 interferes with programmes preventing the spread of HIV, therefore increasing the risk to the queer community.

‘Section 377 has been used by homophobic officials to suppress the legitimate work of HIV prevention groups,’ read an open letter sent by gay activists to the Government in 2006.

An AIDS and human rights research centre was raided in 2001 and the co-ordinator arrested under IPC 377 for ‘conspiracy to promote homosexual activities’. An English-language newspaper ran the headline: ‘Gay Racket Busted, 2 NGOs caught in the act.’6

From October 2006 petitions against IPC 377 filed by the AIDS support group the Naz Foundation have been considered in Delhi’s High Court. The case was heard in May 2008 but, despite much expectation from queer pressure groups, the Government remained undecided on its position.

Since then anti-377 campaigners have been given a lift as the Minister of Labour and Employment, Oscar Fernandes, has voiced the clearest statement by any official condemning the archaic law. ‘Section 377 of the IPC needs to go,’ he said a day after Delhi’s Pride parade in June. ‘It is time for India to move forward on this.’

6 Hindustan Times, Lucknow, 8 July 2001.