Homosexuality, Hijras, and India’s Silence

 homosexuality

With the current debacle regarding the Russian Olympics and gay rights, you might think that Indians would have commented on the issue. There are plenty of gay Indians, regardless of what many people say. Yet ‘gay’ and ‘Indian’ are two words rarely connected. Why not? Where is the debate about gay issues? It is as if the whole country is humming to itself, drowning out the subject.

In 2009 the law against homosexuality was repealed, and the small but growing gay communities rejoiced. Yet when Stephen Fry, the famous British actor and writer, did a segment on India in his new show “Out There” about being gay around the world, it was hardly a positive outlook. He visited one TamBrahm family who spoke of their tolerance of their son’s sexuality, and he saw a small gay shop in Mumbai. These small signs were promising, but were overshadowed by his conversation with a community of hijras, the transgender people so feared and hated in this country.

These women spoke of their rejection and banishment from their families, this from the same culture that supposedly treasures family over all else. They spoke of how they are assumed to be low caste, when actually they represent all strata of Indian society. Once they are made outcasts, it makes no difference. Almost all are forced to go into sex work to survive, many of them then contracting AIDS because of it, and this then perpetuates the attitude towards them of disgust.

Yet, as Mr. Fry noted in his documentary, India was once much more open to homosexuality. The law repealed in 2009 was created by the British during the Victorian era, a time of notoriously strict moral codes. Nowhere in Hindu scriptures does it condemn homosexuality, and indeed some people take passages as evidence of support for it. Hijras hold special places in certain rituals and ceremonies in parts of India, and once held a much higher status in society.

So why this silence on the whole issue? Is it because of the Indian obsession with marriage and children? Or perhaps we are just holding on to our coloniser’s opinions on the subject? That would be ironic, because even as India clings to Victorian Britain ideas of morals imposed on them a hundred years ago, Britain has become amazingly gay-friendly. Most likely, the Indian silence on gay rights is due to the general silence on any sexual issue. It is a fact that our culture is not open about such subjects, and because of this, homosexuality is a taboo.

Someday, this will change. As Stephen Fry says in his conversation with the Hijras, it will likely be too slow for anyone’s liking, but it is inevitable. Hopefully, the Indian love for debate and the openness of urban youth today will overpower the stigma of our parents, and the discussions about homosexuality within Indian culture that desperately need to happen can take place. Until then, India waits in silence.

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