Thursday, July 23, 2009

How natural is normal?by Nivedita Menon

India: Section 377: How natural is normal?by Nivedita Menon
[SACW January 1, 2004] The recent episode of a lesbian couple in Kerala having to seek court intervention to stop police persecution initiated by their parents, starkly underlines the fearsome question that lies unrecognized at the heart of the furore around Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code: Is it natural to be normal? Introduced into Indian statute by the British parliament in 1872, this section penalizes sexual activity "against the order of nature". So? A handful of perverts should worry. At most, the wider body of ubiquitous "human rights activists" who hold the absurd belief that as long as consenting adults are involved, sexual preferences are private matters from which the law should keep out. Should anyone else care?Well, here's bad news for normal society --"normal" sexuality is no private matter. The assumption is that "normal" sexual behaviour springs from nature, and that it has nothing to do with culture or history. But if we recognize that sexuality is located in culture, we have to deal with the uncomfortable idea that sexuality is a human construct, and not something that happens "naturally." Consider the possibility that rules of sexual conduct are as arbitrary as traffic rules, created by human societies to maintain a certain sort of order, and which could differ from place to place -- for example, you drive on the left in India and on the right in the USA. Further, let us say you question the sort of social order that traffic rules keep in place. Say you believe that traffic rules in Delhi are the product of a model of urban planning that privileges the rich and penalizes the poor, that this order encourages petrol-consuming private vehicles and discourages forms of transport that are energy-saving -- cycles, public transport, pedestrians. You would then question that model of the city that forces large numbers of inhabitants to travel long distances every day simply to get to school and work. You could debate the merits of traffic rules and urban planning on the grounds of convenience, equity and sustainability of natural resources -- at least, nobody could seriously argue that any set of traffic rules is natural.
Let us apply this argument to sexuality. First of all, if "normal" behaviour were so natural, it would not require such a vast network of controls to keep in place. Take some random examples. Item one - gendered dress codes. Imagine a bearded man in a skirt in a public place: why would this shake the very foundations of "normal" society? Unless "he" is recognizably a hijra, and that puts him on the margins of normal society in a different way. Just the wrong kind of cloth on the wrong body, and the very foundations of natural, normal sexual identity start to quake! Two - the disciplining of thought through schools, families, the media, education, religion. All telling you that desire for someone of the same sex is a sin, or insane, or criminal. Three, if all else fails - violent coercive measures to keep people heterosexual, from electric shock therapy to physical abuse to using the coercive apparatus of the state, as the parents in the Kerala incident did. Four ñ laws. Why would we need laws to maintain something that is natural? Are there laws forcing people to eat or sleep? But there is a law forcing people to have sex in a particular way!The point of real interest though, is that human beings do not in fact, live particularly "natural" lives. The whole purpose of civilization seems to be to move as far away from nature as possible. We clothe our naked bodies (indeed, the same people who condemn homosexuality as unnatural would insist that natural nudity be covered up). We cook raw food derived from nature, we build elaborate shelters from the natural elements. We use contraception (again, most of those who condemn homosexuality on the grounds that sex is only for procreation would not question the need for contraception). Clearly, equating "unnatural" with "immoral/wrong" is simply a way of suffocating debate.But the more important question is - what is the social order that the rules of "normal" sexual behaviour keep in place? Why is it so crucial to ensure that men have legitimate sex only with women? (Note the word
legitimate, because of course sex between people of the same sex is as old as human civilization). Why the need to ensure that women only have sex with the men they are married to (because again, everyone knows that the rules of chastity and monogamy are enforced strictly only for women). Remember the scene from the Hindi film Mrityudand in which the visibly pregnant Shabana is asked "yeh kiska bachha hai?" It is very evident that the baby is inside her body, that it is hers, but the absurd question makes absolute sense in a patriarchal society -- who is the father of this child, is what the question means. Whose caste does this child bear, to whose property can he lay claim? This brings us to the institution of the family that is at the core of the present extremely inequitable social order. A Delhi High Court judgement in 1984 ruled that the fundamental rights to equality and freedom have no place in the family. To bring constitutional law into the home, the learned judge ruled, is like "taking a bull into a china shop." And of course, he was absolutely right. The family in India is indeed premised on extreme inequality -- beginning with the wife changing her surname on marriage, to the property to which no sister has equal rights with her brother, to the sexual division of labour, which legitimizes the unpaid domestic labour of women. The rights to equality and freedom would certainly destroy the family as we know it.If families were only about material and emotional support structures, then any such group of people would be recognized as a family. Isn't it also more likely that humans experience sexual desire in a variety of ways, of which the heterosexual is only one? But the point precisely is that only the heterosexual, patriarchal family is permitted to exist. And this family is about the passing on of property and lineage through men. The "normality" that this requires is produced, maintained and rigorously policed by the state, laws and social institutions. It is far from being natural or private.
In short, section 377 does not refer to some queer people out there, whom normal people can gaze upon like anthropologists at a bizarre tribe. Section 377 is about the painful creation of Mr and Mrs Normal -- it is one of the nails holding in place the elaborate fiction that "normality" springs from nature.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Interviw with Amol Palekar

'Homophobia is most archaic and regressive'
Times of India, 17 July 2009, 12:04am IST

Amol Palekar's acclaimed films in Hindi, Marathi and English Daayra, Anaahat and Thaang (Quest) have focused on the stark subject of non-mainstream sexuality in India. His unconventional stance has made some viewers cringe and prompted some to ponder. He speaks to Ratnottama Sengupta : What inspired you to make three films exploring the different definitions of sexuality? In our society sexuality is taboo. If ever we talk about it, we avoid serious discussion on sexual orientation, preferences and choices. This closeted approach keeps us from educating ourselves or from knowing the existing reality. Ignorance, prejudices and phobias flourish then, and as film-maker i feel the need to address them. That's how i did Daayra (1996), Anaahat (2003) and Thaang/Quest (2006). They provoked viewers to think of a transgender existence, a woman's sexual desires or genuineness of a gay relationship. As they come out of the theatre they feel compelled to adopt the humanitarian angle. This changed perspective is a tiny ripple i triggered through my films. How do you react to the decriminalisation of homosexuality? The judgement in the Naz Foundation case is a path-breaking decision that all should welcome wholeheartedly. This proclamation of equality in treatment will help the marginalised sections of our society achieve freedom in various walks of life. Non-discrimination in employment, availability of home loans and healthcare insurance in same sex partnerships, changed definitions of family for adoption laws are a few instances where social and legal sanction to homosexuality will help. We are certainly marching towards more tolerant and sensitive life. What do you say to those opposing the judgement? The belief that non-procreative sex is a perversion and isn't sanctioned by any religion generates bias against homosexuality. It is then considered a social sin and a criminal act. But homophobia is most archaic and regressive. There's no scientific basis for the majority claim that same-sex relationships are 'unnatural'. I'm all for a compassionate social mind that offers sanctity and respect to gay and lesbian bonds. Given a choice, would you want your child to be a eunuch, or homosexual? This question itself projects a hang-up suffered by most of us. It also equates being a eunuch or hijra with homosexuality. Eunuch by birth is a sad accident that no parent will wish for, just as no one desires a child with physical handicap. However, how we accommodate eunuchs child or adult will reflect our maturity. Many eunuchs are victims of evil social and religious practices that further perpetrate their exploitation and roles. I'll have no problem whatsoever if my child is gay. I'll still be a very proud father of a wonderful human being.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Reality check! ANUJ KUMAR

The Hindu, Friday, July 10, 2009
Director Onir says Bollywood needs to be more sensitive towards the depiction of homosexuality.
Photo: R.V. Moorthy Straight talk Onir is now working on “Omar”.
Director Onir, who gave us a sensitive take on the issue of homosexuality in “My Brother…Nikhil” is happy with Delhi High Court’s recent judgment on Section 377, which has made consensual gay sex legal but at the same time he maintains that it is just a beginning. “We must not forget that the judgment is valid only for Delhi and that too will remain in force only if the Centre doesn’t appeal against the judgment in the Supreme Court. I hope it will not take such an insensitive step.”
Onir says he doesn’t expect more and more gay people coming out of the closet after the judgement. “It still remains a matter of personal choice. Also, it will take a long time for the social stigma to go.” As for Bollywood support is concerned, Onir shares he didn’t find difficulty in getting the finances for “My Brother…Nikhil” because he had like minded people like Sanjay Suri by his side. “If you remember the film was distributed by Yash Raj Films.”
However, as far as the portrayal of homosexuality is concerned, Onir feels it still leaves a lot to be desired and has done more harm than good “I don’t know if producers and directors want to play safe, but they have been perpetuating Bobby Darling as the only representative of the gay community.” What about Karan Johar’s “Dostana”? “Again the film catered to box office myths regarding the subject. What is so laughable about two men walking hand in hand? It was as insensitive as the jokes on Nepalese men or when women are ridiculed as just objects of desire. The film fraternity should behave with certain responsibility as such portrayals perpetuate stereotypes in the society and there should not be double standards in criticising indecent portrayal of women and homosexuals.”
Right message
He says the judgment has sent the right message but the real change has to come from the family level. “Here religious leaders have to play a crucial role because they still have a strong hold on society’s psyche.” They say it is against nature and the religious texts? “I don’t agree. Hinduism has no one book and we have references of Arjun dressing up like a woman in “Mahabharat” and temple architecture has ample depiction of people of same sex making love. For ages, Christianity didn’t accept that the Earth is round, but ultimately they had to. People should understand that homosexuality is a scientific truth and has been found in different species of animals and plants.”
Onir is now working on “Omar”. “It is one of the five tales in the new film I am working on. It talks about how gay people are harassed by the police. It is based on real life stories which I have developed with Humsafar Trust. Rahul Bose is expected to play one of the characters.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Homosexuality, Hinduism and Section 377

Homosexuality and Religion
An Encyclopedia - (ed.) J. Siker, Greenwood Press, 2007.
HINDUISM. Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religion, and Hindus constitute about one-sixth of the world’s population today. Hindu communities foster a wide range of philosophy and practice, and revere thousands of texts as sacred. There is a Hindu God and a story or variation of a story related to practically every activity, inclination, and way of life. Hindus consider this diversity expressive of divine abundance and everything in the universe a manifestation of divine energy. Every God and Goddess is seen as encompassing male, female, neuter, and all other possibilities, and every living creature as having divine potential. The simultaneity of unity and multiplicity is a basic Hindu premise. Variations in gender and sexuality have been discussed in Hindu texts for over two millennia; same-sex love flourished in precolonial India, without any extended history of persecution.
Like the erotic sculptures on ancient Hindu temples at Khajuraho and Konarak, sacred texts in Sanskrit constitute irrefutable evidence that the whole range of sexual behavior was known to ancient Hindus. When European Christians arrived in India, they were shocked by Hinduism, which they termed idolatrous, and by the range of sexual practices, including same-sex relations, which they labeled licentious. When the British colonized India they inscribed modern homophobia into education, law, and the polity. Homophobic trends that were marginal in premodern India thus became dominant in modern India. Indian nationalists, including Hindus, imbibed Victorian ideals of heterosexual monogamy and disowned indigenous traditions that contradicted those ideals. Ancient Hindu ascetic traditions see all desire, including sexual desire, as problematic because it causes beings to be trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth in the phenomenal world. While procreative sex, hedged around with many rules, is enjoined on householders, nonprocreative sex is disfavored. These ideas influence householder life, which is structured as a set of obligations. Many Hindu texts insist that everyone has a duty to marry and produce children, during the householder stage of life. This is countered in Hindu devotional practice and also philosophy and literature by an emphasis on the Gods as erotic beings, and Kama (desire) as one of the four normative aims of life. The earliest texts represent Kama as a universal principle of attraction, causing all movement and change. In later texts, he is the God of love, a beautiful youth, like the Greek Eros, who shoots irresistible arrows at beings, uniting them with those they are destined to love, regardless of social disparities. Thus, Krishna, incarnation of preserver God Vishnu, is worshiped with his beloved Radha, even though, in most traditions, each of them is married to another spouse.
Hindu law books, dating from the first to the fourth century CE, categorize ayoni or nonvaginal sex as impure. This category encompasses oral sex, manual sex, anal sex, sex with animals, masturbation, sex in the water or in a receptacle. But penances prescribed for same-sex acts are very light compared to penances for some types of heterosexual misconduct, such as adultery and rape. The Manusmriti exhorts a man who has sex with a man or a woman, in a cart pulled by a cow, or in water or by day to bathe with his clothes on. In the Arthashastra, the penalty for a man who has ayoni sex is a minor fine, also prescribed for stealing small items. Modern commentators wrongly read the Manusmriti’s more severe punishment of a woman’s manual penetration of a virgin as revelatory of that text’s antilesbian bias. In fact, the punishment is exactly the same for either a man or a woman who does this act, and is related not to the partners’ genders but to the virgin’s loss of virginity and hence of marriageable status.
The Manusmriti does not mention a woman penetrating a nonvirgin woman, and the Arthashastra prescribes a negligible fine for this act. The sacred epics and Puranas (compendia of stories of the Gods, dating from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries) seemingly contradict the law books; they depict Gods, sages, and heroes springing from ayoni sex. This is because, unlike the Christian category of sodomy, ayoni sex is not so much sinful or evil as forbidden or taboo. Like other taboos, it may be broken by special beings or in special contexts, and is broken in secret by ordinary beings too. Unlike sodomy, ayoni sex never became a major topic of debate or an unspeakable crime. Medieval Hindu texts narrate how the God Ayyappa was born of intercourse between the Gods Shiva and Vishnu when the latter temporarily took a female form. A number of fourteenth century texts in Sanskrit and Bengali also narrate how the hero, Bhagiratha, who brought the sacred river Ganga from heaven to earth, was miraculously born to two co-widows, who made love together with divine blessing.
The fourth century Kamasutra, also a sacred Hindu text, emphasizes pleasure and joy as aims of intercourse. It nonjudgmentally categorizes men who desire other men as a “third nature,” and describes in detail oral sex between men, also referring to long-term unions between men. Hindu medical texts dating from the first century AD provide a detailed taxonomy of gender and sexual variations, including different types of same-sex desire. Close same-sex friendships, in which friends live and die together or for one another, are celebrated in Hindu texts and socially approved in most Hindu communities as an essential element of the good life. As long as a man does his duty by marrying and having children, his intimate friendships are usually accepted and even integrated into the family. Women’s ability to maintain intimate friendships after marriage is more constricted.
Over the last two decades Indian newspapers have reported a series of same-sex weddings and same-sex joint suicides, most of them by female couples in small towns, most of them Hindu, and not connected to any gay movement. The weddings generally took place by Hindu rites, with some family support, while the suicides were the consequence of families forcibly separating lovers and pushing them into heterosexual marriage. These phenomena suggest the wide range of Hindu attitudes to homosexuality today, varying from community to community, and even family to family.
Modern Hindu ultraconservative organizations, like the Shiv Sena, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who aim to remake Hinduism as a militant nationalist religion intolerant of differences, declare that homosexuality is alien to Indian culture and tradition, and has been imported into the country from Euro-America or West Asia. In 1998, activists of these organizations violently attacked theaters showing the lesbian film Fire. The Indian government has retained the British antisodomy law, which is widely used by police and blackmailers to harass gay men and also to threaten women.
There is a gulf between these opinions and those of several modern Hindu spiritual teachers who draw on traditional concepts of the self as without gender, and emphasize the sameness of all desire, homosexual or heterosexual, which the aspirant must work through and transcend. Thus, when Swami Prabhavananda (1893–1976), founder of the Vedanta society in the United States, heard of Oscar Wilde’s conviction in the early twentieth century, he remarked, “Poor man. All lust is the same.” He advised his disciple Christopher Isherwood to see his lover “as the young Lord Krishna” (Isherwood 1980, 254).
Pioneering gay activist Ashok Row Kavi recounts that when he was studying at the Ramakrishna Mission, a monk told him that the Mission was not a place to run away from himself, and that he should live boldly, ignoring social prejudices, and testing his actions to see if he was hurting anyone. Inspired by this advice, Row Kavi went on to found the gay magazine Bombay Dost. In 2004, when Hindu ultraconservative leader K. Sudarshan denounced homosexuality, Row Kavi wrote an open letter to him in the press, identifying himself as “a faithful Hindu,” asking Sudarshan to read ancient Hindu texts, and pointing out that not homosexuality but rather modern homophobia is a Western import. Vedanta teacher, Swami Chinmayananda (1916–1993), when asked his opinion of homosexuality, replied, “There are many branches on the tree of life. Full stop. Next question” (Kumar 1996, 6–7).
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (born 1956), founder of the international movement, Art of Living, when asked about homosexuality, stated, “Every individual has both male and female in them. Sometimes one dominates, sometimes other, it is all fluid.” When asked about the high suicide rate amongst gay youth, tears came to his eyes and he responded, “Life is so precious. We need to educate everyone. Life is so much bigger. You are more than the body. You are the spirit. You are the untouched pure consciousness.” (Rupani 2003, 15).
In her 1977 book, The World of Homosexuals, mathematician Shakuntala Devi interviewed Srinivasa Raghavachariar, priest of the Vaishnava temple at Srirangam. He said that same-sex lovers must have been cross-sex lovers in a former life. The sex may change but the soul retains its attachments, hence the power of love impels these souls to seek one another. A Shaiva priest who performed the marriage of two women stated that, having studied Hindu scriptures, he had concluded, “Marriage is a union of spirits, and the spirit is not male or female” (Vanita 2005, 147).
Despite these enlightened opinions, there is little discussion of the issue in religious communities. Consequently, some teachers and most lay followers remain homophobic, which has driven many gay disciples out of religious communities and a few even to suicide. Swami Bodhananda, Vedanta master in the Saraswati lineage, and founder of the Sambodh Society, stated the following about same-sex unions: “We don’t look at the body or the memories; we always look at everyone as spirit. . . . I am not opposed to relationships or unions — people’s karma brings them together. I am sure spiritual persons will have no objection when two people come together. It’s a Christian idea that it is wrong. From a Hindu standpoint, there is nothing wrong because there is nothing against it in scripture . . . but it’s a social stigma. We have to face this issue now. . . . what is required is a debate in society” (Vanita 2005, 307).
The centuries’ long debate in Hindu society, somewhat suppressed in the colonial period and after, has now revived. When Hinduism Today the Swamis expressed a wide range of opinions, positive and negative; that they felt free to reporter Rajiv Malik, at the Kumbha Mela in Ujjain in 2004, asked several Hindu Swamis their opinion of same-sex marriage, differ with others in their own lineages (akharas), is evidence of the continuing liveliness of this debate, facilitated by the fact that Hinduism has no one hierarchy or leader. As Mahant Ram Puri, of Juna akhara, remarked, “We do not have a rule book in Hinduism.We have a hundred million authorities” (Malik, 2004).
Das Wilhelm, Amara. Tritiya Prakriti (People of the Third Sex): Understanding Homosexuality, Trans-gender Identity, and Intersex Conditions through Hinduism. Philadelphia, PA: XLibris Corporation,2004.
Isherwood, Christopher. My Guru and His Disciple. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Kavi, Ashok Row. “The Contract of Silence.” In Hoshang Merchant, ed., Yaraana: Gay Writingsfrom India. Delhi: Penguin, 1999.
Kumar, Arvind. “Interview with Jim Gilman.” Trikone, 11(3) (July 1996): 6–7.
Malik, Rajiv. “Discussions on Dharma.” Hinduism Today (October–December 2004): 30–31.
Rupani, Ankur. “Sexuality and Spirituality.” Trikone, 18(4) (2003): 15.
Sweet, Michael J. and Leonard Zwilling. “The First Medicalization: The Taxonomy and Etiology ofQueers in Classical Indian Medicine.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 3(4) (1993): 590–607.
Vanita, Ruth. Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage and its Antecedents in India. Delhi: Penguin India, 2005.
Vanita, Ruth, ed. Queering India. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Vanita, Ruth and Saleem Kidwai, eds. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History.New York: Palgrave, 2000.
Also read: Govt resolve to act on Section 377 hits Deoband hurdle and 377 steps.