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social sciences

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-E  F-L  M-Z

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European Colonialism

European colonialism began with the Portuguese, ca 1500, and culminated with direct British rule of India in 1857. Not only did the British introduce anti-sodomy legislation, but Judeo-Christian social attitudes towards homoeroticism and gender variance as well.

Women who dressed in men's clothing and served as bodyguards and porters were noticed by English colonials prior to 1857, but disappeared with the decline of Indian court life. Male-male homoerotic poetry ceased to be published. Although some poetry discussing love between women, called rekhti, continued to be written in the late nineteenth century, it was eventually suppressed as well.

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India Today

Today, homosexual behavior in India consists primarily of acts performed with great discretion, with the partners usually adopting rigid sexual roles. Open, Western-style gayness is not something that has taken root in India, outside a few large cities.

The family is still the source of economic security, and many men and women who engage in homoerotic acts also marry because of parental pressure, economic necessity, and the need for children to provide geriatric care. As a result, exclusive same-sex relationships are rare in India.

The lack of a public social security system, poverty, and compulsory heterosexual marriage may indeed be the most oppressive aspects of everyday life in India for individuals who identify as glbtq. Consequently, those who do adopt a Westernized gay, lesbian, or transgendered identity often migrate to large Indian cities or live abroad as part of a larger, worldwide South Asian diaspora.

In Mumbai, Delhi, and other large cities, a small glbtq culture that includes bars, magazines, organized parties, support groups, and activist organizations (often organized around AIDS issues) has begun to emerge. This phenomenon, in addition to the appearance of gay and lesbian characters in contemporary Indian film and literature, as well as very recent developments in the Indian academy to incorporate Queer Studies, represents the beginnings of a civil rights movement within Indian society.

The recent ruling decriminalizing consensual homosexual activity, along with India's emergence as an economic powerhouse and a modern state, may well create more favorable conditions for glbtq activism.

It could be said that those who identify as bisexual or heterosexual have an easier time living in contemporary India than lesbians or gays, but such a statement risks enforcing Western categories in a multicultural, multiethnic country where sex, sexuality, and gender are often understood and lived very differently than in the West.

Even less categorizing terms--such as men who have sex with men or women who have sex with women--may deny the complexities of reality in India, where active/passive contrasts are still very strong and native terminology generally reflects the nuances of Indian life better than Western identities.

Walter D. Penrose, Jr.

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arts >> Overview:  Asian Film

The recent popularity of Asian films with English-language audiences has allowed Western audiences a glimpse of Asian gay and lesbian identities and gender ambiguities in high-profile queer films.

social sciences >> Overview:  Hinduism

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

arts >> Overview:  Indian Art

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.

social sciences >> Overview:  Islam

Despite religious prohibitions against same-sex sexual relationships, Islamic societies generally extend tolerance through a pattern of collective denial.

literature >> Overview:  South Asian Literatures: Diaspora

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

social sciences >> Hijras

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.


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Seabrook, Jeremy. Love in a Different Climate. London: Verso, 1999.

Sweet, Michael J., and Leonard Zwilling. "The First Medicalization: The Taxonomy and Etiology of Queerness in Classical Indian Medicine." Journal of the History of Sexuality 3:4 (1993): 590-607.

Thadani, Giti. Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India. London: Cassell, 1996.

Vanita, Ruth, ed. Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. New York: Routledge, 2002.

______, and Saleem Kidwai. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. New York: Routledge, 2000.


    Citation Information
    Author: Penrose, Jr., Walter D.  
    Entry Title: India  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated July 20, 2010  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
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    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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