India’s Legalization of Gay Sex is a Strike Against Colonialism

On September 6th, 2018, queer and trans communities around the globe woke to some world-changing news: due to a historic ruling in New Delhi, gay sex was no longer criminalized in India, as it had been for 157 years.

This ruling was also particularly impactful due to the history of the overturned section of India’s penal code. In 2009, it was overturned for the first time—but was then reinstated once more in 2013. As it stands now, this is a historic ruling, bringing the world one step closer to realizing equality.

Washington Post

Image as seen on The Washington Post

However, the overturning of this law is a step towards equality in more ways than one. Section 377 of the penal code was created under British colonial rule, making this a stand both for LGBTQ+ equality and for the long process of overturning colonial continuities.

As it turns out, the two have a great deal in common. Although anti-homosexuality laws came to many lands along with British imperialism, there is a great deal of evidence to support that in pre-colonial times, in many countries, queer and trans people were far more accepted than in Britain around the same time.

Take, for example, the hijra community in India. One of many such historical communities in that country, the hijra community has traditionally included transgender women, gay men, eunuchs, and intersex individuals. In the Ramayana, one of the foundational texts of Hinduism, the young prince Rama is exiled to a forest and instructs all the men and women offering to accompany him to turn back. The hijras, however, do not count themselves as either gender, and remain at the edge of the forest for the duration of his exile—an act rewarded by Rama that results in making the hijras symbolic of luck and good fortune throughout the country. The hijra community also prospered under Mughal rule in medieval India, with hijras often becoming political advisors, generals, or administrators.

Things began to change, however, once the British began to colonize the country. With a series of laws in the 19th century designed to criminalize the act of existing as hijra, the community of hijras began to lose their place in society. With public opinion changing to reflect that of the ruling power, the hijra community was, until very recently, shoved into the corners and recesses of society, trotted out only for punchlines or occasionally to sing and dance at weddings and christenings by those who still see them as emblematic of good fortune.

Similar is the story of the māhū of Hawaii. In pre-colonial times, the māhū were seen as a third gender—often people assigned male at birth who presented as feminine, but who straddled the male-female binary without adhering completely to either end. It was only once Christian missionaries arrived in the 1800s that the māhū, along with other aspects of Hawaiian culture, such as hula dancing, were criminalized and driven underground, with public opinion eventually conforming to the law.

Image by Kumu Hina as seen on Yes Magazine

The law repealed in India is, of course, a landmark case already. But the fact that gay sex is now decriminalized should be recognized as the twofold victory that it is: a stand against both general homophobia and the lingering, insidious effects of colonialism.