“Natural order” to India was introduced during British rule in 1861. That’s when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was added to Indian law. Text of this ruling:
377. 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 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 offense described in this section.
Before 1861 (which is to say, before colonial rule), there was no law criminalizing homosexuality — or likening it to bestality. In fact, India’s cultural past is rich with artifacts that celebrate queer sexuality. The Kama Sutra, which is said to have been written between 400 B.C. and 200 B.C., refers to gay sex and transgender identities. Even across the country’s predominant faith — Hinduism — the concept of queer identity is present — as the idea of a “third gender.” In fact the idea of third gendered deities and figures feature in Mahabharata, one of the preeminent texts of the faith.
Queerness is natural order. One of the more newsworthy figures to emerge out of India has been the openly gay Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, whose choice to come out may have alienated him from his family, but it also Queerness is natural order. empowered him to build the Lakshya Trust in order to bring awareness to the country’s AIDS crisis — and has given him a global platform to disseminate his message.
Perhaps one of the grandest testaments to how confused Indian politicians are when it comes to respecting old cultures as they negotiate new ones remains their treatment of hijras. Members of the transgendered community across India, hijras have been around since the Kama Sutra was originally authored. When British colonialists began drafting Section 377 back in 1861, hijras quickly adapted by creating their own language–a mash-up of Hindi, Farsi, and Urdu. From The New York Times:
“Some call it Hijra Farsi and some call it Kothi Kiwal, but it’s the language that unites the whole community even today,” Ms. Mhaprolkar said. “Of course, there are dialects depending on the region you’re in.”
Among the hijras in Mumbai, key words in their language include “ghodi” for “police,” “khowdi” for “trouble” and “khadekar” for “shut up.”
Alison McCauley writes about how even though hijras are rooted deep in Indian history and mythology, they are still ostracized and abused by contemporary Indian community. The term “hijra,” in India, is used to refer to transgender women. The country has an estimated 1 million hijras, with communities recorded back more than 4,000 years. They’ve had a sanctioned place in Indian society and culture throughout time. But their visibility in history — with ancient myths bestowing them special powers to bring luck and fertility — hasn’t protected the hijra.
In fact, hijras were not outlawed against by the Raj for being transgendered, but for being members of a tribe.
Because the Raj first classified the hijra as a “tribe” at a time when the Raj also outlawed all tribes, hijras have faced severe harassment and discrimination. Hijras are usually rejected by their families and communities once they reveal their gender identity, and they are almost always forced to leave the family home.
It is a sad and bleak irony that the very proclamation of queerness as being against natural order itself is quite unnatural–and inconsistent with the documented history of Indian culture.
Section 377, however, is even further against natural order when you look at the socio-psychological consequences it tends to have. Men and women are raised to hate and fear something which poses them no actual threat. Furthermore, for those who would identify as queer if not for an oppressive government, they may go on to enter heteronormative relationships that will invariably implode. It’s no shock that people who stay closeted are less happy than those who come out — Lindsay Abrams even writes for The Atlantic that “lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who were out and open about their sexuality had fewer signs of anxiety, depression, and burnout (i.e. emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of personal accomplishment), and lower cortisol levels, than those who were still closeted to friends and family.”
India is now stunting the growth of its sons and daughters by creating such a hostile environment for them to grow up. In many ways, the nation is now creating a new class of trauma victims. Also from Feder’s report:
Even some people who are already out and politically active have shrunk from fighting for their rights because of the fear engendered by the return of the law. On Feb. 11, the Mumbai Mirror published the story of a 23-year-old man who was pulled over by police at 2:30 a.m. in the northwestern city of Ahmedabad. He said the officers attempted to rape him and then forced him to perform oral sex. He told the newspaper that the cops said they recognized him from a local gay pride parade held just before the Supreme Court ruling.
It is a nation rapidly deterioriating into a wasteland of human rights abuses — especially for LGBTQ folks — and one so horrendous that it makes my home state’s Michigan tacit discrimination against queer men and women seem less treacherous. India is now stunting the growth of its sons and daughters by creating such a hostile environment for them to grow up.
It’s not lost on me — that a nation which has gone out of its way to rebrand its major cities and public places to sever all ties to its British colonial past — has now fully embraced a piece of legislation that was introduced and enforced by said colonials. Nor is it lost on me that the world’s purveyor of Bollywood is also one of the chief contributors to gay iconography. Bollywood, after all, perpetuates diva worship, muscle culture, and John Abraham donning a pair of low-rise speedo trunks.
It is heartbreaking to think that for as long as India continues to condone violence and hate against queer men and women, it will be a place absent from my itineraries. There will be weddings I’ll continue to miss, cousins I’ll likely fall further out of touch with, and nephews and nieces who I won’t even see grow up. There’ll be piping hot carryout containers of chicken biryani that I won’t get to savor while catching up with relatives who won’t hear any new excuses I’ve conjured up about why I haven’t married yet.
“Oh, my work — it’s so demanding, it’s like I’m already married!” I won’t be able to quip to them.