By CYNTHIA CHOCKALINGAM
After colonization, South Asia simply wanted to uphold the “norms” that the West had left behind, so South Asian communities abandoned parts of their own cultures and also did not followed the beginning of organized LGBTQ+ civil rights movements. in the late 1960s and early 70s.
The era of the 1970s/80s was also marked by waves of migration from South Asia to Great Britain. From the very beginning, South Asians have played a vital role in this movement. In 1988 the group Shakti was founded, representing South Asian lesbians/gays. That same year, a founding member of Shakti, DJ Ritu, also founded a club: Club Shakti, raising funds for the wider organization and providing a safe space for gay British South Asians.
In the United States, many South Asian American spaces were and are not safe or welcoming for LGBTQ+ people. The oldest South Asian LGBT magazine in the world, Trikone, was only founded in 1986.
I dispute that the acceptance of queer people is not “progressive” in South Asian history/culture; be part of this community has been Ordinary. Hinduism, born in the ancient South Asian culture, does not condemn LGBTQ+ people. Some scholars claim that Shikhandi in the Mahabharata is a transgender warrior. As a Bharatanatyam dancer, one of my favorite pieces is Ardhanari, representing Ardhanareeswara: half man/half woman, half Shiva/half Parvati.
Shapeshifting is a part of South Asian religions. The Lotus Sutra, an Indo-Buddhist scripture, tells the story of Avalokiteśvara, who is associated with Tara, the multifaceted female bodhisattva.
Even after homosexuality was made illegal, homosexuality was not limited to stereotypes. In Queen Empress v. Khairati of 1884, Naisargi N. Dave explains that Khairati was “clearly a habitual sodomite”. The verdict that found him guilty was overturned due to a lack of precise details: “time, place, … other people involved”, illustrating that even with colonization, South Asian culture is entrenched in challenging gender/sexuality stereotypes.
Source after source, much of ancient South Asian literature is steeped in queerness; it is difficult to separate and identify queerness; compiling all queer South Asian literature is difficult because there is so much.
A key LGBTQ+ group is the Hijra, an intersex/transgender identity that has existed for over 2,000 years. The Muslim rulers of the Mughal Empire were the patrons of Hijra. British colonization led to the criminalization of hijras, causing stigma despite their prominence.
This long history is complex with a complicated set of identities: more inside India than outside the nation, this is seen as a different gender – a third gender – because these are not men who become women or women who become men or confine themselves to a box of one gender in any way. They are neither male nor female; they are not moving to one either.
Despite the setbacks of the Hijras caused by the British, they gained some protections. As of 2007: Pant v. Nepal concluded that the third sex would be protected under the same decision that legalized same-sex marriage. In 2013, Bangladesh legally recognized people who identified as a third gender. The following year, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) decision against Union of India paved the way for legal recognition of the third gender; this meant that protections based on “sex” did not apply exclusively to the protection of biological characteristics, but also to self-perceived gender identity. Today, there are over half a million Hijras in South Asia.
Homosexuality in South Asian cultures cannot be denied. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the homophobia and discrimination clearly present in the culture today and for many centuries. As South Asian Americans, we “liberal” and “progressive” children often want to embrace the diversity and openness of our heritage; in this process, we cannot ignore the damage caused by our ancestors, families, and friends – and ourselves – who are causing damage to gay South Asians and South Asian Americans today.
It’s common to hear uncles and aunts tell us stories of intersex and transgender gods, but turn away from South Asian American LGBTQ+ individuals. We cannot embrace the commonplace of queer South Asians as a mere story; we must embrace it as part of our culture that will and should exist forever.
(Chockalingam is Civic Engagement Coordinator with SAN, Artesia, CA)