Criminalizing culture

The criminalization of personal sexual practices under Indian law, most recently by the upholding of Section 377, points to the regressive and intolerant atmosphere of our times, especially in a country where two of the chief deities in the Hindu pantheon are uninhibited about their bisexual nature

Ratna Raman Delhi 

The Supreme Court’s overturning of a 2009 High Court ruling on Section 377, which had decriminalised a whole range of sexual practices falling outside normative heterosexuality, has come as a shocker for many. For Section 377 is a penal law in place since the 1860s, framed by 19th century administrators. National newspaper headlines that validate the liberality displayed currently by the British Government with regard to same-sex relations would do well to remember that this archaic law from our colonial past was bequeathed to India. The laws prohibiting “unnatural carnal intercourse” and the homophobic traditions which they espouse have their origins outside of Indian shores.

In India, in the 21st century, we have imbibed a long tradition of majoritarian politics that continues to exacerbate and generate an atmosphere of intolerance that the tumultuous 20th century, despite its modernism, agnosticism, freethinking and democratic traditions, failed to shake off in its entirety. It is an unfortunate reality that laws continue to be formulated on majoritarian practices and ignore the
rights of minorities.

In the case of laws sanctioning sexual activity, there is a continued presumption that all heterosexual interaction is normative. This assumption, once powered by theocratic religions, has seeped into conservative political practice the world over. Hierarchies and categories once formulated within the stranglehold of religion continue to revisit and warp human lives in new and modern formations. Despite the articulation of countless lesbian and gay writers and activists, and innumerable supporters from different walks of life, governments and legislation continue to be gripped by an inflexible Victorian morality.

Oddly enough, the ugliness, violence and power play at the heart of heterosexual relationships has been played out in the public realm for a very long time. The inability to effectively redress extreme distress faced by individuals in heterosexual relationships gone awry is sidestepped by subjecting practitioners of same-sex relationships to criminal scrutiny.

The recent verdict delivered by the apex court, the highest legal office in India, smacks of puritanism and extreme bigotry, besides displaying a skewered understanding of the time and place that we live in. By declaring alternative sexualities that do not conform to heterosexual norms as unnatural, the judgement has highlighted the affinity the apex court shares with someone like Baba Ramdev, who considers homosexuality a disease that he claims he can cure through yoga.

To add to the chaos, senior BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi have reportedly upheld the ruling of the Supreme Court of India, stating that unnatural acts cannot be condoned. This is a strange position for members of parliament in our democratic country to take. Rajnath Singh would do well to learn that at least two of the male gods in our pantheon are bisexual. Vishnu and Shiva have wives; Parvati is Vishnu’s sister who is given in marriage to Shiva. Notwithstanding marital status and interpersonal ties, at some point in their lengthy friendship, Vishnu and Shiva consummated their relationship. Their love engendered the magical birth of Kartikeya, or Muruga, a martial god who continues to be the object of mass adulation
and worship.

It is therefore unfortunate that our right-wing politicians refuse to learn from our liberal mythological traditions and choose to alienate themselves from the grassroots of desire. It is so much more liberating to see bisexuality as the ultimate human possibility. This would definitely explain why over several centuries, a percentage of men and women of different races, faiths and socio-economic classes have been consensual participants in same sex-relationships. Any doubts about such liaisons can be allayed if one observes communities of women and men staying at home, in hostels, or the barracks, time and again.

Homosexuality and lesbianism have been reviled historically for a rather long time in mainstream traditions outside India. Sodom and Gomorrah, ancient cities and purportedly centres of vice and homosexuality, were destroyed by brimstone and fire by a wrathful god, demonstrating that punitive measures were to be meted out to such-like.

This is not very difficult to understand given the inhibitions structuring sexuality in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Lust, one of the seven deadly sins, was to be guarded against diligently. Within the Catholic tradition, images of the mother and the virgin were both deified and reified, conception remained an immaculate act and crude carnality defined sexual interaction between heterosexuals. Heterosexual carnality was identifiably degenerate because it originated from animal instincts. With such corrosive contempt for acts of physicality available to the human body, amplified further by the unequal hierarchies posited between the male and female, no space could possibly accrue to same-sex practitioners.

 Such belief emanating from religious injunctions spills over into cultural practice and is recorded in literature. A case in point is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, in the 14th century. The reader is introduced to a Pardoner whom the narrator swears is certainly a “gelding or a mare” (castrated horse or effeminate). A world of physiognomic readings opens up where an effeminate pardoner and his compeer and partner, a summoner, sharing a dubious relationship, are part of a motley crowd on a pilgrimage. Both the Pardoner and the Summoner evoked disgust and suspicion from the petty officials of the church. Pardoners and summoners in the 14th century were unpopular figures who unhesitatingly fleeced and swindled, routinely duping the largely unlettered and credulous village populace of England. Their sexual deviance is meant to corroborate their moral depravity in no uncertain terms. Chaucer’s tale exposes the corruption within ecclesiastical circles but reinforces the ecclesiastical code by hinting that the bad guys are actually homosexuals whom the church condemns rather unequivocally. The friar, a corrupt, money-making lecher (but heterosexual) is actually projected in a far more attractive light.

The Canterbury Tales allow us to look at the response to homosexuality from the point of view of both religious practice and lay perception. Such perspective continued to pervade the spirit in which both attitudes and laws in 19th century Britain structured themselves. Prominent men of letters in the 19th and 20th centuries went to jail or lived in perpetual fear. Same- sex relationships among women were doubly silenced. While Freud created his proto-typical adult – the normative male desiring his mother and the female desiring her father – same-sex relationships continued to occupy gray territory.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando has a central character with a shifting gender identity. The fact that the novel was viewed as a historical fantasy (in which humans can live over a period of 400 years) spared Woolf the scathing attacks and court proceedings faced by her contemporary, Radclyffe Hall. Hall’s The Well of Loneliness dealt with female homosexuality and was published around the same time as Orlando in 1928. It elicited very hostile responses from the press, was subjected to an obscenity trial and all copies of the book were ordered to
be destroyed.

Doris Lessing’s Anna Wulf, in The Golden Notebook(1962) has a child from a marriage that is over. She lives in London and sublets her apartment to a young man as a tenant in order to supplement her income. The young man is gay and Anna is anxious that interacting with him might unfavourably affect her daughter’s understanding of real men. Provoked by the young tenant’s partner and illogically irritated by the latter, she asks him to vacate the apartment. This exchange, disheartening and homophobic as it is, Lessing would have us recognise, was the conventional response to deviant sexuality in 1950s Britain.

EM Forster anguishes over how, despite centuries of “carnal embracement”, man was nowhere near understanding man, in A Passage to India (1924). Forster’s Mauricespeaks tremulously and cautiously of same-sex friendships. Written well within the first 20 years of the 20th century, Maurice was revised and circulated only among friends. It was published posthumously in 1971, a year after Forster’s death, and even this was made possible because of the change in laws. Limited decriminalization came into effect from 1967 onwards, though more teeth continued to be added to LGBT rights well into the 21st century.

Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place(1982) is a disturbing collection of stories, exposing the gratuitous violence embedded in women’s lives in an unidentified urban town in North America. Solidarity is extended to the brutalised women in the narrative within the confines of the lesbian community at Brewster Place. In the United States, LGBT rights gained prominence only after the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in
New York.

At this point in our civilisational development, we have also conquered “nature“ and, in the process, subject ourselves to what our forefathers would definitely consider unnatural. We owe little allegiance to any of the traditional practices that were part of the world that our great-grandparents occupied and sanctioned. Our choice of professions, lifestyles, daily patterns of sleeping and eating have altered enormously. So also has our understanding of sexuality. Modern technology has greatly altered earlier notions of sexuality as being coterminous with procreation. As we have moved away from a prescriptive nature, we need to ensure that our laws, that evolve out of cultural practice, record this shift. Those who fear that same-sex parenting will damage future generations need to step back and look at how communities of women have reared and raised children of both sexes before the nuclear family made child rearing a lonely enterprise. Children benefit from the presence of sensitive, reasonable adults. The gender of the parent, again a cultural construct, is of very little real consequence.

In an era where pleasure and desire are modified and manufactured at will, India must take part in equalising and welcoming difference. In the supermarket that we all inhabit as individuals, sexual pleasure is an appetite and the act itself is primarily a personal choice. In the light of this discovery, the law has been amended and adultery, for instance, is no longer viewed as a criminal offence. To push the analogy further, if desire is after all yet another appetite, the consummation of desire is not very different from the consumption of food. No legislation can prevent anyone from eating any cuisine of his her choice, irrespective of whatever combination of food remains specific to the natal community. This is because food taboos have been relinquished for the most part in several communities. In the multiplicity of communities that we now participate in, it is important that we also evolve new codes instead of trying to breathe life into obsolete, repressive laws.

It is important that we celebrate difference and multiplicity and do this believing in diversity and choice as an integral aspect of human lives. Lives must be about personal choices and as long as these choices are consensual, gender is of little or no consequence. Hopefully, our appeal will be heard and Parliament will strike down this antediluvian Section.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014