I am particularly referring to this enlightening discussion I had with my Indian TA about a week ago.
Me: I know I walked in twenty minutes late. Let me just fill in these values and I’ll be out of your way, ok?
TA: Oh it’s no problem. I have no pressing appointments to attend to anyway.
Me: Thanks. I hate holding you up after class like this, so I’ll be done in no time, I promise.
TA: Oh it’s ok. So you’re Indian right? What do you think about the world cup?
Me: Oh it’s a waste of time to pontificate on the World cup. Um, that’s just my opinion anyway.
TA: Yes, yes I completely agree. So do you watch Bollywood movies?
Me: Yes, I do.
TA: What do you think about that KJo faggot and his stupid movies? I hate that ch***ya. He’s so gay. Ugh.
Me: [Shocked into silence]
I moronically stared at him for a full minute. Wishing to hand him the benefit of the doubt and to not jump to any conclusions, I slowly asked my TA if the source of his rage was the movies that Karan Johar made. He answered in the affirmative, but he also hastened to add that his gayness turned him off for the most part. At this point I knew that this conversation was going to take a loathsome turn, and with the weird fascination of watching a gory scene where you can’t look but you just can’t take your eyes away, I harangued on, with vain hopes of ferreting out my TA’s homophobic tendencies. And from there on the discussion basically went nowhere with me valiantly trying to suppress my rage and argue against his increasingly hateful homophobic statements and stolidly ignoring his irksome patronizing; in turns.
The funny part? I already knew where this was going to go. Most desi folk I’ve come across are predictably ambiguous and inexplicit about where they stand on homosexuality, except when directly questioned. With direct inquiry however, most desi’s will vehemently assert that homosexuality is ‘wrong’ or ‘deviant’ or ‘against our culture’ and I remembered overhearing an interesting exchange between two of my dad’s friends a few years ago (I don’t remember exactly as to how the conversation veered towards homosexuality, but I do remember unequivocally that it did) where one of them literally spat when the other questioned him about something related to gay people and their rights (or something along those lines).
Yes, his face twisted into a grimace and he spat.
At that point of time, I found it funny that something like that could bring out such an aberrant reaction from an educated, seemingly liberal adult.
It still irks me and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
I want to know as to how and when such startling levels of homophobia took root in Indian society. Really.
Is it solely because of the anal retentive British colonial project, circa the 19th century? Or is it because by popular moral policing standards anything, and I mean anything related to sex and sexuality and human body parts is somehow deeply unmentionable and therefore by default, against ‘our culture’? Or does it have deeper and far older antecedents? Or is it because of our tendency to glorify and eulogize forced heterosexuality oh whoops, I meant the arranged marriage system?
Isn’t it curious to note that homoerotic behavior abounds in the Indian subcontinent? I see men holding hands, walking arm in arm, having their arms around each others shoulders, laying their heads on their friend’s lap/shoulder/etc and in some vague cases I’ve seen some random pecking on the cheek action too. I find it wholly implausible that homo-social interaction is accepted nay encouraged, and seen as non-deviant or ordinary and yet when such behavior branches out into sexuality or sexual activities, it suddenly becomes horrifically aberrant and sacrilegious as represented by the archaic section 377* of the Indian Penal Code which states that,
Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine. Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.
I am torn between exasperation and stupefaction at the reactions of Indians with respect to homosexuality. What triggers me the most however, is the extremely fallacious notion that gay preferences were somehow imported into our society (which was supposedly the poster-child of rigid sexual conformity) from the West. Nothing can be further from the truth.
In our extensive and convoluted history, there have been several instances of recorded same sex relationships, utterly close friendships between members of the same sex with heavy homoerotic undertones and many instances where friendships are considered the benchmarks of righteousness, both in history and in Hindu mythology.
One of the most prominent examples of male bonding and mutual affection in Hindu mythology can be attributed to the renowned pair of Krishna and Arjuna. Considered the incarnations of the divine sages Narayana and Nara, their love and fondness for each other literally resonates throughout the whole Mahabharata. Although both of them marry and beget children, their glorious friendship is of paramount importance above and beyond the significance given to their wives and children as overtly stated by the conversation between Krishna and Ashwattama when the latter asks Him for His discus in the Sauptika Parva (12) from the epic.
Another discernible example of their feelings for one another is exemplified in this passage with profound homoerotic themes, which describes how Krishna and Arjuna celebrate after the war is won, as narrated by Vaisampayana to Janamejaya.
O lord of the earth, Vasudeva and Dhananjaya were highly pleased when the Pandavas had succeeded in regaining and pacifying their dominions, and they deported themselves with great satisfaction, like unto Indra and his consort in the celestial regions, and amidst picturesque woodland sceneries, and tablelands of mountains, and sacred places of pilgrimage, and lakes and rivers, they traveled with great pleasure like the two Aswins in the Nandana garden of Indra.
(Ashwamedha Parva, 15)
And this passage, also from the Ashwamedha Parva (52),
Krishna of great energy proceeded to the apartments of Dhananjaya. Worshipped duly and furnished with every object of comfort and enjoyment, Krishna of great intelligence passed the night in happy sleep with Dhananjaya as his companion. When the night passed away and morning came, the two heroes, finishing their morning rites and dealing their persons properly, proceeded to the mansion of king Yudhishthira the just.
Another noteworthy example which I would like to shine a spotlight on is the slightly ambiguous union between Shiva and Vishnu and their offspring Ayyappa. The sexual interaction between Shiva and Vishnu (as Mohini) is mentioned distinctly in three instances at least in the Bhagavata Purana. What is intriguing here is the undeniable mutability between the sexes that Vishnu appropriates, and His equivocal male-female form. Vishnu is said to have been impregnated by Shiva and Ayyappa or Harihara (a union of Hari-Vishnu and Hara-Shiva) is supposed to have been this child. Ayyappa is also reffered to as a child born from Ayoni intercourse, where Ayoni literally means vagina-less or absence of a yoni or vagina.
For a classical example of women possessing feelings of sexual or romantic attractions for one another, the attractions felt by Padmavati for Vasavadatta is described with surprising amounts of veracious sensuality in the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva in the 11th century C.E.
And need I mention the oft-quoted Vatsysyana’s Kamasutra, which has several passages and a whole chapter dedicated to sexual activity between members of the same-sex, specifically the Auparashtika section?
Even the slightly nauseating Manusmrithi with all its biases does not harshly condone homosexual activity. Only a mild reprimand is meted out to such behavior. I quote the passages from the Mahabharata etc. to illustrate the overwhelmingly conspicuous fact that being gay is not deviant or abominable, it was never anomalous or immoral to begin with. It is as normal as anything else which naturally occurs in nature. And homosexuality is not just frowned upon according to the proponents of 'Indian culture', it is aggressively damned.
I am flabbergasted at the sheer depths of preposterous ignorance extolled by our rabid Hindutva political parties (and other religious extremists) who erroneously brand same sex relationships as a tragic malady imported from the west. In short the ‘culture’ which they vehemently shove down our throats is but a mirror image of the incompliant Victorian moralities of the British rule and this includes vile, untainted homophobia. In a bizarre paradox, the very same western cultures for the most part, have revised their despotic attitudes towards sex and sexuality as a whole (although I must say that even though it’s not faultless, it is still miles better than the feudal attitudes that most Indians exhibit towards sex and sexuality).
Regrettably the strong patriarchal values (which as I suspect are either directly or indirectly derived from the values represented by the British Raj) perpetuated by our middle class with respect to the institution of arranged marriage have miserably resulted in gay people being made to forcibly marry against their will, propagating an almost total forbiddance of sorts.
It is maddening that this preposterous section 377 still exists. It is even more infuriating to be in the vicinity of people like my TA. Homophobes do not comprehend that a person’s sexuality is wholly private. What happens between two consenting adults is their business and no one else’s. And don’t even get me started on harebrained nutcases comparing homosexuality with pedophilia or bestiality. Such people cannot, or purposely refuse, to grasp the lucid concept of consent. Blind moronism at its pathetic best, I call it.
With respect to homophobia in India, all I can say is that we are accosted by the mutters of our long departed forebears, from beyond the grave. Responding to them however, is our main dilemma.
* A decrepit, outdated, hateful section of the IPC. It is over 140 years old.