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India, the largest nation in South Asia, is extremely diverse culturally. Indian thought about sexuality and gender has been shaped by many factors, including religious and ethnic traditions. Historical evidence suggests considerable social acceptance of sexual diversity in ancient times, but India appears to be less tolerant today than it was in the past.

The Indian Flag
The Indian Flag

Popular Indian films (see Asian Film) have long offered glimpses of alternative sexualities, though Bollywood cinema is known for its caricatures of gays and lesbians and derisive treatment of gender nonconformity. In the 1990s, a number of independent queer Indian filmmakers began to challenge these conventions.

While Buddhism is a minority religion in India today, it originated there and is based on the Hindu religion, the most prominent religion in modern India.

The Hijras--men who dress and act like women--have been a presence in India for generations, maintaining a third-gender role that has become institutionalized through tradition.

Hinduism, the dominant religion of modern India, is no longer as tolerant of same-sex sexual relations as it seems to have been in the past.

Not only is sexuality celebrated in Indian art, but many of India's gods also consider gender to be a fluid affair, sometimes manifesting as androgynes and sometimes switching gender altogether.

Islam is the second largest religion in India. Despite religious prohibitions against same-sex sexual relationships, Islamic societies generally extend tolerance through a pattern of collective denial.

Perhaps the most enduring and influential gay partnership in film history, James Ivory (b. 1928) and Ismail Merchant
(b. 1936) are known for their visually sumptuous period pieces based on literary classics. Their relationship brings together diverse elements of English, American, and Indian culture.

Contemporary Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) earned an international reputation for paintings that are explicitly homosexual in theme, but that also address universal human needs.

Although the treatment of homosexuality is rare in South Asian literatures in either the ancient or the contemporary period, the South Asian diaspora has recently produced a number of gay and lesbian writers.


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