India is home to over a billion people, a mix of ethnicities, religions and beliefs that might be quite unique in the developing world. Naturally, this extends to the sexual preferences as well. Despite the regressive, colonial-era law that criminalises homosexuality in India, India has a vibrant LGBT community. The acronym itself stands for ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender’, a spectrum of personal and sexual preferences that are, depending on your perspective, a natural and enriching part of our social fabric or a blight on Indian culture.
As such, if one refers to Hindu mythology, transegenderism is widely mentioned and practised. Both Vishnu and Shiva are shown to be in communion with their feminine side. In the epic Mahabharata we find Arjuna spending a year as a woman as a disguise. The Kamasutra covers homosexual sex as well as heterosexual, indicating that there was no stigma attached to the act at the time.
Despite this, in more recent times, the community had been marginalised and demonised, with efforts consistently made to push them to the fringes of society. Sadly, even when it appeared that some progress on the issue was being made, especially the celebrated verdict of the Delhi High Court which de-criminalised homesexuality, it was soon reversed by the Supreme court. Despite repeated efforts by the Lok Sabha member for Thiruvananthipuram, Dr Shashi Tharoor, to introduce a bill to de-criminalise homosexuality, the overwhelming majority in the Indian Parliament has always voted to retain the out-dated, existing law.
Taking into consideration the unfavourable socio-legal environment, it must be said that the community has made serious strides towards acceptance in recent years. The advent of the internet allowed the formation of communities for LGBT persons, reducing to some extent the ostracism faced by them. It also provides a support for younger homosexuals who are unaware or unable to comprehend what they are going through.
The media has also become more accepting of a variety of sexual preferences than before. Most English-language media supports a progressive agenda on the issue of equal rights for the LGBT community. In movies, especially, the portrayal of homosexuals has begun to show signs of improvement. Where once they were depicted as caricatures of obscenity and promiscuity – and some films still reinforce this stereotype – others have taken some effort to depict a more nuanced portrait.
On the ground, there have been Gay Pride marches in many of the major cities of India, especially in the period from 2008 to 2014, when, after the Supreme Court reversed the progress made by the lower court, there has again been an air of apprehension among the community.
Overall, the transgender community has a wider acceptance in India than Lesbians or Gays. Even on the political scene, the hijra community has been more open about their existence and participated in politics as well.
Over a period of time, one hopes that the LGBT community in India will be able to achieve the levels of acceptance that are seen in parts of the US and Western Europe. But it will no doubt be a long haul, after all, hatred of the ‘other’, of anyone who is different from the norm is well-entrenched in us, and the fear and dislike shown towards the LGBT community reflects this prejudice. Overcoming it will go a long way towards showing where we have reached as a society.