Title: Paradoxical India Credit: Craig Young Comment Friday 3rd November 2006 - 12:00pm1162508400 Article: 1469 Rights
If India still retains criminal penalties for male homosexuality, why have there been instances of village same-sex marriage? Ruth Vanita recently wrote an eye-opening book on India's LGBT communities, Loves Rites: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (2004). Her work demonstrates many of these apparent contradictions within her society. In Hindu antiquity, there were contradictory attitudes toward lesbianism and male homosexuality. If a married woman had lesbian sex with a virgin, her head was shaven and she was forced to ride a donkey. If two female virgins had sex with one another, they were heavily fined, and each received ten lashes. If gay men were caught in the act, they were forced to bathe with their clothes on, although caste demotion was possible. On the other hand, ancient temple architecture depicts same-sex embraces and explicit straight, lesbian and gay sex alike. Some Hindu traditions refer to a great king born of a simultaneous lesbian orgasm. In the Kama Sutra, that great erotic classic, lesbian sex and erotic gay male massage are treated as pleasurable in their own right. As a great faith, Hinduism is decentralised, and has no central religious hierarchy, rendering it more akin to Buddhism than Islam or Christianity in this regard. Thus, it is not uncommon for some sympathetic village priests to find religious authorities and traditions that conclude that current same-sex lovers are the reincarnated spirits of faithful heterosexual partners in a previous life, and should not be kept apart. Others view gender as irrelevant to marriage, as spirits are central to this process, and some traditions consider them to be asexual. Some village priests, and swamis or gurus within their tradition, argue that what is important within Hindu spirituality is the quality of ones religious devotion and spirituality, therefore if one is lesbian or gay, it may be neccessary to settle down with a nice partner of the same gender and religious tradition, much as one would advise for a straight counterpart. With the absence of a centralised hierarchy, LGBT Hindus are free to shop around until they find a sympathetic priest. As for Sikhism, Islam and Christianity, none of the above great faiths are as tolerant within India. It should be noted that most of these cases of same-sex marriage involve lesbian couples, and Vanita's book even includes some magnificent wedding photos of female couples in stunning marital saris amidst the splendour and artistry of adapted traditional Hindu marital ceremonies. Still, there are some familiar stories, and ones not unique to India at that. Closeted gay men still have sex with other men, and their wives feel betrayed, and some lesbian couples in conservative areas have killed themselves to avoid further humiliation, violence or harrassment. It should also be said that many large Indian cities have thriving metropolitan gay communities, even though male homosexuality is still theoretically illegal. Under Section 377 of the (British colonial) Indian Penal Code (introduced in 1860 and never repealed), carnal intercourse is regarded as illegal if it occurs against the law of nature. However, gay male sex per se hasn't been prosecuted under this heading for the last two decades, and de facto decriminalisation has occurred as a result. On the other hand, Indian society values monogamy highly, and while it may accept same-sex marriage, the same is not true of HIV prevention work, or any form of sex work, for Section 377 has been used against both prevention and sex workers alike. Moreover, as in Britain before decriminalisation, blackmailers targeted closeted gay men, and even condom distributors have faced arrest and trial. Unfortunately, previous legal efforts have failed to overturn Section 377. India is a rich tapestry, with many variegated panels to its mosaic. It is difficult to make generalisations about such a diverse and populous nation, but given its growing economic important, LGBT New Zealanders should learn more about this emerging key Asia/Pacific nation. Recommended: Ruth Vanita: Love's Rites: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West: Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan: 2004 Craig Young - 3rd November 2006    
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