Seeing the Bollywood film yesterday transported me back to my travels in India. I remembered that coincidentally, there was an important (the first, I believe) gay pride march set for yesterday in Mumbai and I was curious to see how it went. When I got home I looked up the news accounts on the internet and did find mention of it, but I was a little surprised by the theme picked up by the majority of articles I was reading. Most of them talk about how these were demonstrations against the legacy of the British and their penal code (section 377) that outlawed homosexuality and is still in force to this day, and how they were basically calling on Britain to apologize for introducing this penal code. I have to admit to having been a bit bemused by this and so I sent an email to some of my friends in Mumbai to ask a few questions. Was this a tactic to get a greater majority of the Indian public to approve repeal of 377? Hating all things that represent British colonial rule, it would be an easier sell I suppose than simply accepting the right of people to be gay…?
My friend Alok responded by saying it is a strategy both to get greater media attention, and “to highlight that criminalization of same sex activity has no roots in Indian culture/history”.
I am sure that is true, but there are also many examples of politicians in India (and in many parts of the non western world) who blame the very existence of homosexuality itself on “western influence”, claiming it to be foreign to their culture. In both cases (saying homophobia or homosexuality is a foreign thing), there seems to be an attempt to deny any responsibility for the current climate according to one’s beliefs and tastes. I am sure it is more palatable to place the blame squarely outside of ourselves for those tendencies in our cultures of which we don’t approve, and that this is a world wide phenomenon. I asked my friend if he could then perhaps explain to me how India after independence managed to create a constitution and dismantle some of the legal system left by the British, yet still left in place (when it had the opportunity to do away with it) 377? Was it mere convenience?
My point is simply that it is too facile to lay Indian intolerance solely at British feet, no matter how tempting, and even though most definitely part of the reason. That is why I asked if it was a strategy, to make Indians feel that rejecting homophobia is rejecting something intrinsically British, and that this was an easier “sell”, and more patriotic. (Which is hogwash anyway. I don’t believe any nation to be “intrinsically” homophobic. Cultures change and grow into and out of their hatreds all the time. And I’m sure anyone would agree that Britain today is a far more hospitable place to be gay than India.)
The more I travel, the more places and cultures I see, the more of a universal humanist I become. There is a wonderous diversity of life and culture on this planet. And there are many awful systems of oppression in place that must be challenged. But the longer I live, the more I see the folly in assigning blame without action, and without looking in the mirror. There are unfortunately (and on occasion wonderfully) many many examples across cultures of the things that humans do to (and for the benefit of) other humans, and it is obvious that these are human tendencies that are located in our biological makeup. No culture has a monopoly on the truth or beauty, and cultures change enormously over time. One constant that I recognize with great sadness is the very widespread human desire to fear and hate and demonize that which is different or other. For me, humans are at our very best when we work to transcend these hatreds in our individual selves, our families, our social groups, our regions, our nations, and finally our world.