When I say a couple, or a family instinctively we would picture it in the ‘normative’ way. Interestingly, this does not mean that what’s normal is unnatural. It’s simply a rarer phenomenon to occur- that’s the implication. Naturally, what's rarer may cause us some fear. We fear the unknown, we fear anything new and bold- it’s in our evolutionary favour to play it safe. Maybe that’s why most of us stay away from being actively involved in the pride celebrations.
What if I tell you, that the community and its practices are neither new nor unknown to us?
It is true, that India is very familiar and was once open about these practices as a part of its rich cultural heritage and traditions. For starters, according to Hindu Mythology, King Dilipa died before giving birth to an heir. Lord Shiva granted an heir to the throne if two of King Dilipa’s wives had sex. They gave birth to King Bhagiratha (he brought the sacred river Ganga (Ganges) from heaven to earth).
Another popular story comes from the churning of the Milky Ocean. The elixir of life was obtained from this and it needed to be given to the Devas (angels) without knowledge of the Asuras (Demons). To make this happen Lord Vishnu once ‘transforms’ into a beautiful woman named ‘Mohini’. He even goes on to have a baby Lord Aiyappa with Lord Shiva.
Exquisite celebrations of transgender people happen in India as well. Koovagam is a unique festival that revolves around the transgender community. It is an 18-day long festival that is celebrated in Koovagam village. This village is located about 25 km away from Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu. It is based on the myth that Lord Vishnu married and slept with Lord Aravan as Mohini to fulfil his last wish to be married and experience marital life- he was going to sacrifice himself the next to Goddess Kali for winning the Kurukshetra War in Mahabharatha. This festival happens every year till date with transgendered people from all over the world coming to attend this.
Within Mythology also exists ‘Yakshas’ who were gender fluid!
Not just in the mythology, scriptures also have acknowledged queerness. Kamasutra, the classic Indian treatise on Sex and Social conduct has several references to the community. For instance, the 9th chapter discusses oral sexual acts, termed Auparashtika, homosexuality and sexual activities among transgendered persons. They are referred to as the Tritiya-Prakriti or the third nature, Chapter Purushayita talks of ‘svairini’, a self-willed and independent woman engaged in sexual activities with other women. Kamasutra also talks of homosexual male activities, It even recognises same-sex marriage “Gandharva Vivaha” among the 8 types of marriages.
A little ahead in time, we see Baburnama of the Mughal Empire, in his Memoir enunciating his attraction towards a boy named Baburi in Kabul. Sufi Saint Bulleh Shah had pre-modern notions of sexuality and religion and portrayed them in his writings. His poems exhibited the fluidity of his sexuality and his love for his Murshid, Shah Inayat.
The story of Sarmad Kashani, an Armenian merchant who later became a Sufi Saint also talks of his love for a Hindu boy when he came to India for trade. He abandoned his business and started living in Thatta with Abhai Chand as his student. Another Sufi Saint Shah Hussain claims his love for a Hindu boy named Madho Lal in his works. Eventually, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were buried together in Lahore.
In many culturally lauded places like the caves of Khajaraho and Sun temple in Kornak, we can see paintings or carvings depicting homosexuals engaging in intimate sexual acts. As a culture, we were accepting of all as long as the practices promoted safety, consent and pleasure. It was a part of our community.
The colonist era was when an imposition against such acts was ascertained. Some of the overlapping Mughal emperors were also against such acts. Homosexual intercourse was a criminal offence from the introduction of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1860.
It was considered “Against the order of nature” by colonists. It was widely believed to be influenced by the Catholic Church's views on sexual acts without the purpose of procreation. After independence, on Nov. 26, 1949, the right to equality was implemented under Article 14 but, homosexuality remained a criminal offence.
In 1977 Shakuntala Devi's “The world of Homosexuals” a study of homosexuals in India. Subsequently, in 1981 an All Hijra conference also took place in Agra. Currently, there are many conventions conducted by the transgender community among themselves, which creates a safe space to celebrate themselves. Unfortunately many are driven by the community members and social workers with whatever funding they can manage. Recently, there was a two-day conference on Trans Medical Health in Delhi. Bigger more structured approaches Like this allow people to learn the correct information based on science and real experiences and this helps people move out of their stereotypical thought process that’s more regressive and harmful.
In 2009, section 377 was decriminalised after a decision of the Indian Supreme Court.- they found it to be a direct violation of the fundamental rights of people. However, the ISC decided to review its previous ruling and re-instate section 377: in 2013, homosexuality was a crime, once more.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that transgendered people should be considered a third gender category in India.
At last in September 2018, the Supreme Court once again decided to review the 2013 decision and stated that homosexuality was legal again and that discrimination based on sexual orientation was a violation of fundamental rights.
Least to say all queer/gay rights are fundamental human rights. There are many more changes required in the system and the hope is for things to keep moving forward.