InternationalOpinion

Legalization of gay sex in India not a marker of “progress”

Indian culture fully embraced queer relations before British colonialism

Earlier this month, India’s Supreme Court made a unanimous decision to decriminalize homosexuality. The landmark ruling was celebrated as a victory for the LGBTQ community, as the 157-year-old law was buried forever.

Congratulations, India! You’re finally catching up with the modern world! At least, that’s what some in the West have been saying. A South-Asian country has realized the oppressive and outdated ways of their culture and has made steps towards becoming more progressive. While this decision is definitely a win for love in India and around the world, laws against same-sex relationships only came to fruition during British colonial rule.

The law, known as Section 377, was implemented by the British in 1861, during their colonial rule in the country. Surprise, surprise; the Victorian-era English weren’t too accepting of homosexuality, and the law came into being as a result of that prejudice. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that pre-colonial India was actually accepting of homosexuality.

This can be seen when examining Hindu deities, for example. Agni, the god of fire and creativity,  is married to both a man and a woman. As well, the relationship between the pair of male gods in charge of the cycles of the moon is occasionally interpreted as intimate.

In addition, pre-colonial Indian art depicted same-sex intimacy. Possibly the most infamous example is in the Kama Sutra. Though it has been interpreted as somewhat of a novelty, how-to-do-the-sexy-things book by Western audiences, the Kama Sutra was meant to have a deeper spiritual meaning that celebrates intimacy as a necessary part of life. In particular, the ninth chapter of the text depicts sexual relationships between men. Also, some of the stone carvings in the Khajuraho temples show explicit depictions of same-sex intercourse.

It would seem that India was much more open than the British when it came to homosexuality, especially when one considers that no such prohibitions against same-sex intercourse existed before colonization. As it turns out, India is not alone, as several ex-colonies, such as Belize, never had laws against same-sex relationships before being conquered by the British. In Canada, the term ‘two-spirit’ has been and continues to be used by First Nations peoples to describe someone who effectively expresses a third gender, having both a masculine and feminine spirit. As an umbrella term, two-spirit can also refer to indigenous peoples who are gay or transgender.

While a few of these cultures are reclaiming these terms in the wake of post-colonialism, there are still several ex-colonies that uphold Section 377. Earlier this month, two women in Malaysia were caned six times each after the Islamic Court convicted them for having sexual intercourse. Though Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, operating under Islamic law which forbids same-sex relationships, the anti-homosexual laws that are a relic of the colonial British Empire still stand in Malaysia, contributing to the women’s’ harsh punishment.

So while the repeal of these anti-homosexuality laws in India is indeed a huge step in the right direction, it’s important to recognize that cultures of decolonizing states may not be as intolerant as Westerners initially perceive them. Fights for LGBTQ rights, as well as for the decolonization of the British Commonwealth still continue, but the road to equality is long. So even as these battles continue, happy twenty-gay-teen, India!

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