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Reclaiming South Asian Queer Voices: The Legacy of Section 377

Written by Ibtisam Ahmed.

In 1860, the Crown implemented Section 377 in the British Raj, outlawing sodomy and immoral sexual acts. The ruling imposed a set of foreign values on a region where gender and sexuality had been conceptualised very loosely in the past. Since then, the queer community has faced a constant struggle against being branded “undesirable”, made even more complicated by the supposed need to fulfil neoliberal Western markers of success in the modern age.

Christian Moral Utopia

One of the main driving forces of British imperialism was its ideology of being a civilising mission. Drawing on the rhetoric of early settlers, colonialists planned on using Britain’s territorial superiority to impose British values on the colonies. A notable and oft-remembered example is politician Thomas Babington Macaulay and the impact of his Minute on Education, which resulted in the ingraining of the English language in the South Asian curriculum, an impact that lasts to this day.

Part of this ideological thrust of Empire manifested itself in the moral policing of desire. The Indian subcontinent was home to a variety of religions, but Anglican Christianity was not one of them before the missionary drive began under the British East India Company. When the Crown took over after the 1857 Mutiny, religious zeal had the potential to be formalised in the legal system, and this included legislation that defined what was acceptable – and what was illegal – when it came to private acts of intimacy.

Section 377 was born out of the aim to impose a set of Christian values in order to create a utopian good life for the locals. The initial aim was to outlaw all forms of intimacy that would not result in procreation, as these acts were seen as sinful. By criminalising such harmful interactions, the new penal code statute was created with the intent of salvation and redemption, leading to a more “civilised” and, ultimately, utopian society.

Evolution of Homophobia and Shaping the Other

Prior to the implementation of Section 377, sexuality was not rigidly defined. Subsequently, same-sex intimacy, while considered less ideal than married familial life, was not openly discriminated against. Indeed, there is strong historiographical evidence to support the existence of at least all-male relationships in Islamic literature, as well as mentions of both male and female homosexual love in Hindu texts like the Kama Sutra.

The acceptance, or at least tolerance, of such relationships was not understood in the same vein as modern LGBTQ+ rights and rhetoric. Based on archival documentation and queer historical narratives, it was the lack of defining queerness and sexuality that allowed its fluidity to be practised without prejudice. Barring the mention of all-male harems and female-on-female sexual recreation in late 18th and early 19th century court and religious writings, both in the Islamic and Hindu traditions, there is no indication that same-sex intimacy was commented on, positively or negatively, at all.

The additional open presence of gender fluidity in the form of the historic hijra community – a mix of intersex, transsexual and transgender individuals – meant that there was no socio-political moral policing of desire when it came to expression and identity. Instead, the focus was on respecting relationships and marriage vows; adultery was considered an offence, for instance, but sodomy in and of itself was not.

However, the establishment and enforcement of Section 377 resulted in same-sex intimacy being shaped as an undesirable “Other”. In the absence of a distinctly pro-queer narrative, homophobia was given the possibility to gain a firm foothold due to it being effectively legalised. While the hijra community also began to face deep discrimination as a result of the new ruling, this was counter-acted by having a tangible identity to begin with. (The hijra community does face its own challenges and prejudice, but not in the same way.)

Misguided Nationalism

One of the most successful pieces of imperial rhetoric when it came to demonising fluid sexuality was their imposition of “masculine” traits to military victories and “effeminate” traits to losses. Coming only three years after the end of the Mutiny, Section 377 went hand in hand with the notion of colonial masculine superiority being one of the reasons why the local rebellion was crushed. Indian culture, particularly in places like Bengal and the Punjab, were actively derided by colonial forces as being too feminine and, therefore, weak.

The success of imperial military policy, which was really down to a combination of superior armaments and, historically, the ability to sow dissent within the broader Indian ranks, served to reinforce the notion that imperial perceptions of society, including gender and sexuality, were therefore the correct points of view.

This had the unforeseen effect of shaping anti-colonial narratives to fit the colonial norms as well. By framing their arguments within the wider context of the dominant colonial rhetoric, nationalists hoped to provide what would be seen as reasonable arguments that could lead to a negotiated and peaceful Home Rule. This meant that some imperial narratives went unchallenged, especially if they had no formal opposition in a pre-colonial context.

Thus, Section 377 and the attached derision of supposedly “effeminate” behaviour became entrenched within the Indian psyche over the decades. Since the independence movement was aimed at self-determination for all Indians, there was no need to address social inequality within the British Raj’s borders. Unless a group’s or individual’s identity played a role in how the independence struggle was being shaped – in the way, for instance, religion came to the forefront due to the eventually successful calls for Partition – it was not taken into consideration.

The cause for fluid sexuality, therefore, became lost in the wider push towards freedom. Following independence from the Empire in 1947, it did not come back to the forefront due to immediate concerns of new-born nations facing the devastation of a botched Partition. Poverty, refugee rehabilitation and national unity were far more important.

The Flaw with Championing Neoliberal Queer Rights

A genuine push to repeal Section 377 and decriminalise homosexuality did not arise until decades after independence, during which the global political landscape had drastically changed. Queer emancipation came to be seen as a neoliberal Western movement, championed by nations that had exported formalised homophobia in the first place.

In South Asia, it was the educated urban middle and upper classes who took on this same call, relying on groups like the Naz Foundation (India) Trust and Boys of Bangladesh to champion the cause, either indirectly or directly. Ironically, their sternest opposition comes locally; after over a century of systemic legalised homophobia alongside the upsurge of LGBTQ+ rights in the West, South Asian nationalism and its adherents have come to view queer rights as being destructive influences that undermine proud local traditions.

It does not help that most LGBTQ+ groups in South Asia buy into dominant neoliberal narratives of empowerment and liberation in order to gain attention. This is best exemplified by how the Irish referendum and the US Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage received disproportionate media attention in South Asia, but the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Mozambique – a far more pertinent and historic decision – went virtually unremarked.

This has led to a frustratingly paradoxical situation where an imported value system has become so deeply embedded into the nationalist narrative that it has become one of the signifiers of true patriotism.

The queer rights movement would be much better served by engaging with pre-colonial traditional narratives instead of attempting to keep up with the West. This is not simply idealistic thinking – South Asia has remarkably progressive gender rights, such as the legal recognition of the third non-binary gender in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and the legalisation of transgender adoption in India, than most parts of the world. This is largely down to the historical visibility of the hijra community, which has not completely eradicated discrimination, but has certainly shaped a more conducive traditional narrative for queer rights.

If a similar strategy is adopted by the wider LGBTQ+ rights movement, in which the established acceptance of sexual fluidity in the region is given the same importance as Stonewall, it is possible to make significant gains in the march towards equality.

Ibtisam Ahmed is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, whose thesis examines the extent to which the British Empire can be studied as an attempt at political utopia. His talk on Section 377 and prescriptive utopias can be found on YouTube. Image credit: CC by Vinayak Das/Flickr.

Published inIndian subcontinentLGBT rights

3 Comments

  1. Jordan Jordan

    Excellent piece. Was not even aware of the origins of institutionalised homophobia, which goes to show exactly how little we learn of our past.

  2. Deep Blue Sea Deep Blue Sea

    There are a number of problematic arguments raised here.

    1. One is accepting “queer narratives” and literary evidence as acceptable sociological evidence of a time when it is not possible to draw opinions: queer narratives would be unreliable because of false nostalgia, and literary evidence would be flawed because it could be imaginary, aspirational, or metaphorical. Literature is rarely representative, and the chances of misunderstanding literary metaphor or of failing to detect an authorial liberty with facts is indeterminably high. Likewise, we cannot know the intent of texts such as Kama Sutra or Koka Shastra – are they satirical? Are they subversive? Are they prescriptive, or descriptive? Are they more than one of these categories, or some other category? I contend that we cannot know.

    My counter-proposition: It is not possible to determine whether the LGBT community was indeed accepted in eras referred to in the piece.

    2. The opposition to the so-called “neo-liberal” LGBT rights: What are “neo-liberal” LGBT rights? The fact that the American Hodges vs Obergefell case was received with joy and excitement follows almost trivially from the fact that the influence of American culture is nearly impossible to avoid in groups whose primary language is English – the sheer size of the American economy ensures that. The Irish gay rights victory was unique because it was achieved out of a democratic process and not judicial wrangling.
    I don’t know why the author wants to make this artificial distinction between gay rights and “neo-liberal” gay rights, without defining them except in the sense of their being situated in the US and the UK.

    The author also papers over the use of male-on-male rape of the vanquished among various cultures and the scriptural calumny heaped upon homosexual men and women. That was a glaring omission.

    • Sarika Sarika

      1. I don’t know if I fully agree with your counter-argument there; based on a lot of historiographical research, there was definitely a greater acceptance of queer communities than there is in modern South Asia.

      2. I think the point being raised here, if you follow up with the hyperlinks provided as well, is that the queer rights movement in South Asia has become an elite urban movement that does not provide an emancipatory model that would be more conducive for the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals living in rural areas in the region. I agree the link should have been stretched out more, but, in fairness, the blog does seem to have a conventional length and unpacking these concepts would need something akin to a thesis in length!

      3. Yes, the author does not mention them and perhaps they should have – but, looking at the model and methodology of work that they used in terms of sources and the overall argument being made (i.e., that traditional/local narratives would be better for the local movements), I think some important ground is covered. Particularly because not everyone is as well-versed in regionalised queer rights as you seem to be. (Not a dig, a genuine comment here on how well-informed you are, which is refreshing to see.)

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