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social sciences

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Modern India, the largest nation in South Asia, and one of the largest in the world, is an extremely diverse country--ethnically, linguistically, religiously, and culturally. Indian thought about sexuality and gender has been shaped by many factors, including religion and the influence of various ethnic groups. In the past, Indian thought towards same-sex eroticism and gender variance seems to have more tolerant than it is today.

Currently, the major religions of India are Hinduism and Islam. While Christianity is not a predominant religion in India today, Western thought derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition has left its mark on India through colonialism.

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Under British rule in 1860, was outlawed in India, and it remained so until a court ruling in 2009. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code condemned those who engage in sodomy to imprisonment of up to ten years or life. In practice, however, punishments tended to be less than this.

Over the years, the definition of sodomy provided by the code was challenged, but was established in a 1982 case as any act of non-coital sex. The law was not used to punish women engaging in lesbian sex, but it was used to threaten them.

At the end of the twentieth century, activists in the small glbtq equality movement began attempts to repeal the repressive law, which had a powerfully stigmatizing effect even though it was not widely enforced.

Finally, on July 3, 2009, the Delhi High Court issued a landmark ruling, which declared that "that treating relations between consenting adult homosexuals as a crime is a violation of basic human rights safeguarded under the Indian Constitution."

Announcement of the decision inspired celebratory rallies in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai and other major Indian cities. It was denounced by religious figures and groups, but others regarded it approvingly as evidence of India's movement toward modernization.

When the government subsequently declined to appeal the ruling, homosexuality was decriminalized throughout the vast nation.

Despite decriminalization, modern Indian attitudes towards remain, in many ways, a legacy of colonialism. There was never the same kind of organized, systematic persecution of homosexual behavior in pre-colonial India as there was in Medieval or Early-Modern Europe. Nevertheless, Indian societies have traditionally placed a strong emphasis on reproduction. Therefore, impotence, more than homoerotic behavior, has traditionally been a locus of shame for Indians.


Hijras, sometimes described as "neither man nor woman," have existed in India for centuries, though they were called by other names in the remote past. Many are men with passive homoerotic sexual proclivities who are ritually castrated; others are intersexed or otherwise impotent persons. They generally wear women's clothing and typically live in small communes.

The hijras maintain a third-gender role that has become institutionalized by tradition within Hindu and even Indo-Islamic communities. With the increasing Westernization of India, the plight of hijras has become more difficult, and they are increasingly dependent on prostitution for their livelihood.


Non-castrated, male-to-female transgendered jhankas or zenanas also practice prostitution in India. They are not hijras, though some aspire to become part of hijra communities.

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zoom in
Top: India and neighboring countries in 2004.
Center: A monk masturbates a man in this sculpture in the Temple of Visvanatha, Khajuraho, India (built ca 1000 C.E.).
Above: This sixteenth or seventeenth century painting depicts two men and a woman copulating.

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