Same sex marriage: How does India perceive homosexuality?

With judges beginning the landmark hearings to legalise homosexual unions on April 18, here's an overview of cultural attitudes towards homosexuality in the country.

How does India perceive homosexuality?
How does India perceive homosexuality?


In India, homosexuality is legally permitted, but same-sex unions have not been recognized yet. That could change soon: Beginning April 18, India's Supreme Court will start hearing final arguments to determine whether same-sex marriages should be legalised .

Gay couples in the country currently face hurdles when it comes to adoption, inheritance and alimony, among other issues.

The disparities of treatment between heterosexual and homosexual couples is also noticeable at many levels. For example, explains Kanav Sahgal, a writer on LGBTQ issues who works for the think tank Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, hospitals usually require a patient undergoing a procedure to fill in the name of their spouse, mother, father or another person. Currently, he says, gay persons can only fill in their partner's names under "other."

It equally affects the definition of a beneficiary of a bank account: "The law stipulates that the spouse belongs to the opposite gender," Sahgal tells DW.

Homosexuality in India today

Consensual intercourse between adults of the same sex was only decriminalized in the country in 2018, following a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in the Navtej Johar v. Union of India case.

"Homosexuality is not perceived very well in large parts of India," Kanav Sahgal says. "Despite the Navtej ruling in 2018 that struck down the sodomy law and even though streaming platforms have been depicting LGBT characters in positive ways, there is still a lack of awareness about homosexuality," he explains.

Same-sex couples mainly find acceptance in bigger cities, such as Mumbai, where LGBTQ groups like Gay Bombay and LABIA have been active for decades already.

Smaller towns and villages rarely discuss queerness and related issues. "It's difficult for family members to accept their own children when they come out as queer," explains Sahgal.

"The families' love for their children is conditional to the point that you subscribe to cisgender heterosexual norms. The moment you transgress those norms, there is a problem," he adds.

In fact, pressure to be heterosexual has been so high that parents have been known to send children to therapy to "correct" their sexual orientation.

In her 2019 American Psychological Association article, "Decriminalizing homosexuality in India," Rebecca Clay shows how mentalities are changing, based on the example of Bangalore-based psychologist Lata Hemchand.

Hemchand used to be among those offering conversion therapy. In the article, she recalls that her homosexual patients were so afraid of losing their families and social status that they would come to her saying, "I want to get out of this." The therapist would show clients sexually provocative photos of members of the same gender and administer a small shock to the client's wrist, aiming to have them develop an aversion to members of their own sex over time.

But following university studies on sexuality and culture in Amsterdam in 2000, Hemchand became one of India's most LGBTQ-friendly therapists.

Homosexuality in India's history and mythology

There have been cultural references to homosexuality on the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Sahgal mentions for example the Khajuraho temples in central India, which were built in the 9th century by Chandela rulers and feature extensive sculptures of men and women engaged in sexual acts, including homosexual intercourse.

He also mentions references to homoerotic love in the ancient Indian sex manual, Kama Sutra. There are also several references to gender-fluidity in Hindu texts. Lord Vishnu, the preserver, changes into a woman and seduces Lord Shiva, the god of destruction.

Scholars including renowned postcolonial academic Ruth Vanita have been seminal in ascribing homosexuality its due space in India's cultural history. In a 2008 essay called "Homosexuality in India: Past and Present," Vanita says any claim that homosexuality is an import from modern Europe or medieval West Asia is an "aberration." She argues that same-sex love has not been researched as thoroughly in ancient Indian documents: Many scholars have chosen to ignore references to homosexuality in older texts or have interpreted them as heterosexual encounters.

Together with historian Saleem Kidwai, Vanita also edited "Same-Sex Love in India" (2008), which mentions 10th-century homoerotic references that developed while Sufi traditions spread across northern India as Muslim rulers expanded their territory.

The book also discusses Persian-Urdu poetry in medieval times, which often distinguished between the role of the wife and the lover and celebrated same-sex sexuality.

The authors explore how homosexuality has been tolerated by Indian communities for generations because it is easier for unmarried persons of the same gender to live together without raising suspicion.

A clash of cultures

Despite this centuries-old cultural tradition, conservative attitudes concerning homosexuality persist across India's communities.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ activists' hopes are up that India's Supreme Court will legalize same-sex marriages. But simply making unions legal might not bring social acceptance with it. Sahgal draws parallels with Brazil, where homosexual couples face violence and social pressure even though same-sex unions have been legal in the country since 2013.

"If same-sex marriages become legal, I can visualize parents pressurizing their (male) kids to marry women and saying that even if gay marriages become legal, it doesn't matter," he says.

No matter what is decided by the Supreme Court, India's majority does not support the legalization of same-sex unions, points out Sahgal: "There is still a long way to go."

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

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