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A Glimpse Into The Rich History of Queer Culture in India

Too long have queer stories (especially from Indian tribal communities, folktales, and mythology) been kept silent. Our diverse culture has just recently begun to be more accepting but how and where did the bigotry start? Popularising the outcasts, especially being more forward has a price: cultural selection and a primal rage that most Indians aren't scared to express whenever they hear the word "gay" or the like.

In recent times, LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) rights in India have changed. However, compared to non-members of the queer and transgender communities, LGBTQ+ residents continue to encounter ethical and social challenges. Homosexuality is an even more taboo topic and one that may carry a lot of stigma in India because the open discussion of sexuality itself in any form is so rare.

Given the prevalence of homophobia and transphobia in India, choosing whether and how to come out to coworkers and other individuals you meet might be difficult. That being said, there has been increasing debate about homosexuality in the news media and among the general public.

This article intends to examine the LGBTQ+ community's brief history in India, the ways in which they have been or are discriminated against, and various well-known myths and folktales about them.

A Glimpse Into The Rich History of Queer Culture in India

A Brief History of The Queer Community in India Culture

We all feel incredibly proud of India's lengthy cultural legacy. Traditions have been altered without losing their original meaning, and we have accepted these changes as a reflection of the times. The LGBT community has significantly contributed to the development of Indian culture, and as Indians, we should come together to celebrate this magnificent history, not just because the queer community contributed to it but also because they deserve the same love and respect as all other groups.

All types of love were accepted and celebrated in ancient India. This is evident in Indian religious literature that had gay themes and characters but was otherwise indifferent to the notion of homosexuality.

The Rigveda features the proverb "Vikriti Evam Prakriti", which literally translates to "what appears abnormal is also natural." Lesbians were known as "Swarinis," and they frequently got married and had kids together. This is according to the Kamasutra. The Khajuraho temple in Madhya Pradesh, which was constructed in the 12th century and is well-known for its overtly sensual sculptures illustrating the presence of sexual fluidity amongst homosexuals, is another striking illustration.

A Glimpse Into The Rich History of Queer Culture in India

Although there was significant opposition to homosexuality during the Middle Ages, LGBT persons were not shunned. The culture was accepting of them, and no one faced persecution for having a different sexual choice.

The Delhi Sultanate was ruled by Mubarak, the son of Alauddin Khalji, from 1296 until 1316. It was rumored that he was dating a nobleman who served in his court. The founder of the Mughal Dynasty, Babur, expressed his love for a young man named Baburi in writing, and neither his period nor subsequent generations disapproved of it. There were several instances of homosexual behavior by Mughals from the upper elite as well.

The British Raj and After

Sexual acts "against the order of nature," including all homosexual acts, were made illegal in India in 1861 with the arrival of the British under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The Catholic Church's view that a sexual act performed for purposes other than reproduction was sinful had a significant impact on this.

The World of Homosexuals, the first study on homosexuality to be published in India, was written by Shakuntala Devi in 1977. "Full and total acceptance" was demanded, not "tolerance and pity."

The first All-India Hijra Conference was convened in Agra shortly after in 1981, and 50,000 members of the community from all across the nation participated.

As a third sex, Hijras received formal voting rights in 1994. The AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan filed the first petition challenging section 377 in 1994, but it was ultimately rejected.

Naz Foundation filed a PIL before the Delhi High Court in 2001 to challenge section 377. The Delhi High Court determined in 2009 that section 377 directly violated the basic freedoms of life, liberty, and equality guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. This indicated that although homosexual intercourse was no longer illegal, it was also no longer a crime. However, the Delhi High Court's ruling was contested in the Supreme Court by critics, including astrologer Suresh Kumar Koushal, a resident of Delhi. Still, this was a significant turning point in the fight for freedom.

The LGBTQ community made up a "minuscule fraction" of the nation's population, according to the Supreme Court, and it was therefore unsustainable legally. In 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed the review petition submitted by the Centre and several other organizations in opposition to its previous ruling on section 377.

The Supreme Court of India declared in April 2014 that transgender individuals should be classified as the third gender category.

The Supreme Court granted the LGBTQ population in this nation the right to express their sexual orientation in public on August 24, 2017. The Right to Privacy statute protects a person's sexual orientation. The LGBTQ community now had the freedom to proclaim their sexual preference, although gay activity was still illegal at the time.

Finally, on September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the portion of Section 377 that made consenting to gay behavior illegal.

2019 saw the passage of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill by Parliament on November 26. A transperson was defined in this measure as someone whose gender does not correspond to the gender assigned at birth. It outlawed treating people differently when it came to employment, education, healthcare, and other services. The gay groups in India, however, opposed it since it required that each individual be recognized as transgender based on an identity certificate given by the district magistrate upon the presentation of documentation of sex reassignment surgery.

The focus was mostly on hijras or transwomen, with little attention paid to intersex, genderqueer, or transmen. The new Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules, 2020 were approved by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in July of this year. In accordance with this, the government would make expensive sex reassignment surgery available at state-run hospitals without charge. Additionally, the government will pay for the transgender community's housing and educational expenses.

October 17, 2023, was the most recent development in India with reference to the legislation pertaining to queer communities. In a shocking turn of events, the Supreme Court of India declined to allow same-sex unions, returning the onus to Parliament in a decision that dismayed advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in the most populous nation on earth.

We still have a long way to go from our beginnings, but the biggest point to keep in mind here is that no amount of legislation will be able to change our views. Instead, we must come to understand that each person is unique, and it is wrong to base someone's value on what we anticipate them to be.

Myths and Folktales

Hindu mythology has LGBT themes, which are represented by Hindu deities or heroes that may be identified by their characteristics or behavior as homosexual, gay, bisexual, transgender, or possessing characteristics of gender variation and non-heterosexual sexuality. Although homosexuality is not specifically discussed in ancient Hindu literature, intersex or third-gender figures are frequently found in traditional religious stories like the Vedas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Puranas as well as in local folklore.

Hinduism recognizes a third gender, and certain Mahabharata characters—like Shikhandi, who is occasionally said to have been born a girl but who later comes to identify as male and marries a woman—change their genders in accordance with various interpretations of the epic.

As such, Many gods have also been seen as the protectors of those who like or are predisposed to third-sex relationships. This may have its roots in religious ceremonies and practices or in epic tales about the deity. For instance, rituals performed in honour of Arani, the goddess of fire, love, and sexuality, have been connected to lesbian eroticism; the adhararani and utararani, two pieces of wood perceived as feminine, are rubbed together to simulate a spiritual lesbian encounter.

The deity Agni, who is described in the Rig Veda as the offspring of two pregnancies, two mothers, or even sometimes three mothers, is also thought of as having male and female parents represented by these sticks. Heaven and Earth are named His Mothers. However, the Vedic texts also use the terms "man" and "female" to describe these two, known as Dyaus and Prithvi. The passages also refer to the two mothers as siblings. The ritual's two aranis, or sticks, are referred to as feminine. However, the Bhagavata Purana interprets the two sticks as being of different genders.

A Glimpse Into The Rich History of Queer Culture in India

The Hijra's patron deity is named Bahuchara Mata. She is frequently seen wielding a sword, trident, and book in popular iconography while astride a rooster. Many legends connect Bahuchara to castration or other bodily sexual transformations, sometimes as a result of her casting curses upon men. It is thought that Bahuchara was once a mortal lady who suffered martyrdom. In one tale, a robber tries to rape Bahuchara, but she grabs his sword, slashes off her breasts, and dies. In another narrative, Bahuchara curses her husband, making his genitals fall off, and making him dress as a woman after she discovers him slipping off to the woods to indulge in homoerotic conduct. After becoming holy, legends connect Bahuchara to gender diversity.

One legend tells the story of a monarch who asked Bahuchara for a son. Bahuchara consented, but the prince became powerless as an adult. One night the prince had a dream in which Bahuchara told him to remove his genitalia, dress as a woman, and serve her. It is thought that Bahuchara will continue to choose weak persons and order them to act similarly. If they object, she punishes them by making them powerless for the following seven incarnations. This epic serves as the foundation for the Bahuchara Mata cult, whose adherents are obligated to self-castrate and practice celibacy.

The patron saint of eunuchs, transsexual individuals, and homoeroticism is Samba, the offspring of Krishna. Samba disguises himself as a woman in order to amuse and deceive others as well as make it easier for him to approach and seduce ladies. Samba, who is disguised as a woman, is cursed in the Mausala Purana after being asked about "her" alleged pregnancy. The curse causes Samba, who is still a boy, to give birth to an iron mortar and pestle.

Being out is not always simple, even if homosexuality may be accepted more and more depending on where you are and who you are with. For instance, it could be considerably simpler in urban centers like Delhi or Mumbai to be open about your gender identity or sexual orientation than it is in rural places. In the end, it's better to assess each circumstance and choose what you believe will make you feel the most comfortable. Remember that coming out and being out are two different things. We as a people have the responsibility to objectively accept people's values, especially values like love.

There are a lot of LGBTQIA+ groups in India that take part in advocacy, outreach, social events, support, and other activities. These groups may be useful resources for establishing a sense of belonging or for finding out more details regarding LGBTQIA+ problems in India. Our rich history dictates that we must accept everyone, no matter their gender, caste, color, creed, or who they love.

It's time to start being more accepting and to change stereotypes, prejudices, and social norms in order to fight against the evils of homophobia, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. With a long history of LGBTQ+ stories and traditions, the wider community of queer culture is deeply ingrained in India’s roots. Homophobia and Transphobia are colonial concepts that were instilled in our minds and we have the right to decolonize our country, starting with ourselves first.


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