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
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
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
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
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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