Same-Sex Weddings, Hindu Traditions, and Modern India

By Vanita, Ruth | Tikkun, July/August 2010 | Go to article overview

Same-Sex Weddings, Hindu Traditions, and Modern India


Vanita, Ruth, Tikkun


OVER THE LAST THREE DECADES, INDIAN NEWSPAPERS have reported same-sex weddings and joint suicides taking place all over the country, both in urban and rural areas. Most of the couples are non-English-speaking young women from lowerincome groups. Most of them are Hindus (not surprising since Hinduism is the majority religion in India); there have been a few Sikhs and Christians, and some interreligious as well as many inter-caste unions.

At first glance, this phenomenon might appear related to the push for gay marriage in the West, but in fact, it is not. None of these young women were connected to any movement for equality; most of them were not aware of terms like "gay" or 'lesbian." Many of them framed their desire to marry in terms drawn from traditional understandings of love and marriage, saying, for example, that they could not conceive of life without each other, and wanted to live and die together. The closest counterparts to these same-sex unions are heterosexual "love marriages" and joint suicides that are also regularly reported in the Indian press.

Modern Homophobia or Traditional Authoritarianism?

SAME-SEX DESIRE AND EVEN SEXUAL ACTIVITY HAVE BEEN represented and discussed in Indian literature for two millennia, often in a nonjudgmental and even celebratory manner, but a new virulent form of modern homophobia developed in India during the colonial period (more specifically after the decisive crushing of indigenous cultures, such as the urbane culture of Lucknow, following the revolt of 1857).

This homophobia was part of a more generalized attack on Indian sexual mores and practices undertaken by British missionaries as well as educationists. It is evident not only in the anti-sodomy law introduced by the British in the Indian Penal Code of 1860 (overturned by the Delhi High Court in 2009), but also in the deliberate heterosexualization of entire literary canons and genres (such as the Urdu ghazal, or love poem, which gendered both lover and beloved as male). Saleem Kidwai and I explored this extensively in Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History.

Most Indian nationalists internalized this homophobia and came to view homosexuality as an unspeakable crime, even as they also attacked polygamy, courtesan culture, matriliny, polyandry, and other institutions that were seen as opposed to heterosexual monogamous marriage. Prior to this, homosexuality had never been considered unspeakable in Indian texts or religions.

The new silence surrounding homosexuality is one reason modern institutions such as the police force and educational as well as religious organizations today typically respond to samesex unions with horror and even violence. However, I would argue that in contrast to these public institutions, most families respond to same-sex unions in the same authoritarian spirit with which they respond to disapproved heterosexual unions. Most Indian families tend to be suspicious of and resist love marriages of all kinds- not just cross-caste, cross-class, cross-religion, or international marriages but even eminently "suitable" marriages that they themselves might have arranged. The degree of resistance varies widely from family to family.

Female-female unions are always love unions. Hence families respond to them as they do to male-female love unions. Depending on family dynamics, the responses range from wholehearted acceptance to hesitant tolerance to virulent opposition. When female couples elope and marry in temples, their families often enlist the help of police to track them down and separate them. Such families usually invoke the law against abduction, which is also commonly used against eloping heterosexual couples.

The violent intervention of right-wing Hindu organizations has the effect of strengthening parental opposition and inhibiting traditional types of compromise. Thus, when nineteen-yearold Seeta attempted suicide by poisoning in Meerut in January 2006, because her bride, eighteen-year-old Vandana, whom she had married in a Shiva temple, had been locked up in her parental home, the local activists of two right-wing organizations-the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Association) and the Shiv Sena- held a rally outside the district magistrate's office. …

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