Last edited: July 27, 2003

India’s Sexual Minorities

Homosexuality emerged from the closet with the gay march in Kolkata on June 29. Its public face is a mark of changing mindsets

The Statesman, July 27, 2003
Statesman House, 4 Chowringhee Square, Kolkata 700 001 India

By Swagato Ganguly

Globalization is creeping, even if on tiptoe, to a conservative city like Kolkata. I refer not to swanky shopping malls, styled like their counterparts abroad. I refer to a march by gay men in support of homosexual rights on 29 June, a first in Kolkata. It began, and wound its way through, impeccably middle class localities: Park Circus, Gariahat Road, Gol Park.

I do not want to make the claim that homosexuality is a global import unknown in traditional cultures. Same-Sex Love in India, a recent book by Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita, catalogues a whole bunch of references to, if not homosexual, at least homo-erotic passion in traditional Indian texts.

I do agree, however, with French philosopher Michel Foucault, himself a homosexual, that heterosexuality and homosexuality as distinctive lifestyles are a modern, Western invention. It is not that homosexual acts were unknown in non-Western cultures; what was unheard of was that anyone should predicate his or her whole being, and identity, on being homosexual. But that was what the marchers of June 29 were effectively doing.

In traditional cultures, including India, men might have relations with other men while simultaneously leading married lives and having children. Although, as Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have shown, there are references to homoerotic behaviour in premodern Indian texts, homosexual conduct is rarely spoken of approvingly, and judgments on female homosexuality are particularly harsh.

The same social arrangement continues, in effect, in the present day. There exists an underground subculture of homosexuality which is not violently persecuted in India. Homosexuals, on their part, must ensure their activities aren’t too overt and intrude into the public sphere. That implicit social contract was violated when gay men took part in a public procession on June 29. It must be noted, though, that there were no lesbians in the march, although the topic has been aired in films and books from time to time. The emergence of homosexuality into the public sphere is still a hesitant affair.

What makes modern homosexuality shocking to many is its refusal of the “obligation” to procreate. Anyone who believes that the core of his (or her) being lies in his/ her relationship with another person of the same sex is, ipso facto, forswearing his/her “responsibility” for propagating the tribe/ community/ nation/ society. In other words, along with modern homosexuality, the modern individual is born.

In any traditional culture, one of the biggest imperatives is to multiply its members. A community’s numbers may be depleted by nature’s depredations and by war. Replenishing those numbers is a primary need; individual rights and desires come a poor second. Thus the Bible says “go forth and multiply”; for Hindus peace in the afterlife isn’t possible unless funeral rites are performed by one’s offspring.

Modern culture, by contrast, has acquired sufficient control over nature to make overpopulation, rather than underpopulation, a problem. And as far as war is concerned, a million men do not count for much when faced with a single intercontinental ballistic missile, which makes gaining access to the latter a rather more important factor in contemporary power politics. There has thus been a loosening, in the last half-century or so, of the taboo against non-procreative partnerships.

If consumerism makes possible an expanding array of lifestyle choices, and an individual is defined by the choices he makes, then there are alternate sexualities one can “consume” as well. It is in that context that the emergence of sexual minorities becomes a marker of incipient globalization. Take the occasion that Kolkata’s marchers were commemorating on June 29, along with marchers in Sao Paulo, San Francisco and other cities across the globe. The occasion was the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich village in 1969.

On June 27, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich village. While such raids had been routine, on that occasion the crowds fought back, and the neighbourhood erupted in riots and protests for the next few days. That sparked the worldwide gay rights movement which has become a facet of contemporary modernity.

Many might scent dark neo-imperialist conspiracy here, as raids on gay bars are not yet a local issue in India. But what is a local issue, undoubtedly, is the existence of Section 377 on the statute books, according to which homosexuals can be awarded imprisonment for upto 10 years. And sooner or later the issue might capture the attention of the neo-Hindu right which is obsessed, after all, with questions of numbers and demographics. A marriage between Article 377 and a conservative BJP-type government could yield as offspring some serious persecution of sexual minorities.

The ire visited by the Shiv Sena upon Fire, a film depicting a lesbian relationship between two women, can be a precursor of things to come. While West Bengal’s Left Front government might be right up there with anyone else when it comes to the suppression of individual rights and the persecution of dissent, it must be placed on record that it did provide police protection and didn’t allow untoward incidents in the case of the marchers of June 29.

If the backlash against homosexuality can be attributed to its privileging the modern individual over the social “necessity” to procreate, 21st century biotechnology could bring about a fascinating twist in this tale. I am not referring to cloning where, besides the complex ethical issues that it raises, the characteristics of only one “parent” among a homosexual couple would be transferred. But can there be a procedure where a homosexual couple can have a child who will inherit the genetic material of both parents, just as the children of “normal” heterosexual couples do?

The answer to that question appears to be yes. An experiment carried out with mouse eggs, and reported in the journal Science, raises that very possibility if duplicated with human eggs. In the procedure, called egg nuclear transfer and initially conceived to help infertile couples, the DNA from a damaged egg can be evacuated and placed in another egg, whose own DNA has been removed. In theory, the same procedure can be used to introduce sperm DNA into an evacuated egg, fertilize this “male egg” with sperm from another parent in the laboratory, then gestate the resulting embryo in a surrogate mother. The baby born would have the genetic material of two male parents. The same procedure could be repeated for two female parents.

If this or similar procedures of mixing human DNA were to become widespread in another fifty years, an offshoot would be that homosexual couples could become parents and have families just like everyone else. That would, of course, force us to radically revalue our concepts of “motherhood” and “fatherhood”. It would do away with one problem, though. If the unconscious resistance to homosexuals stems from the fact that they do not contribute to society’s imperative of reproducing its members, that wouldn’t hold anymore. Radical individualists might rue the loss of homosexuality’s subversive charge, but it would lead to the integration of homosexuals into society, to the extent that even mashima and pishima might not take much notice of the family with same-sex parents living next door.

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