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June 19, 2013“I’m not a eunuch, I’m a homosexual! It’s not wrong to be a eunuch, and it’s not wrong to be gay!”

Hearing the lines above in the opening scene of “Bombay Talkies,” a recent film released as a tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema, brought to mind the frustrating paradox of life for LGBT people in India: (1) We’ve come a long way, (2) We have a long way to go, and, surprisingly, (3) the way things are for LGBT Indians now is not the way they always were (or always will be). This Take 5 examines the prospects for LGBT equality in five major areas of Indian society.

1) Religious, Social, and Political History

India is the land of the ancient Vedic scriptures, as well as epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and ancient texts like the Kama Sutra—many of which make reference to a variety of human sexual experiences, including homosexuality, union with ‘the divine,’ and polygamy. Even under the otherwise restrictive Mughal (Islamic) rule, literature and art celebrating same-sex love flourished. From the Rig Veda to modern mainstream Indian literature,  accounts of same-sex love have existed throughout India’s history. Given that religious opposition to homosexuality is a relatively modern phenomenon in India, it’s ironic that those who condemn homosexuality often claim to do so out of respect for religious tradition. 

2) The Law

Some scholars attribute current taboos to British influence. Spurred by Victorian prudishness, the British sought to impose the repressive laws of their country on what was at one time the colony of India. Enacted in 1860, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—a law derived from an older British anti-sodomy law—states, “Whoever voluntarily has…intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman, or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term, which may extend to ten years, and shall be liable to fine.” It was only in 2009 that the Delhi High Court in India decriminalised homosexual intercourse. Same-sex marriage is neither banned nor explicitly permitted by Indian law. Nevertheless, given that social taboos persist where the law is silent, same-sex weddings still tend to make the news.

3) Movies

One area in which attitudes towards LGBT people have slowly but certainly evolved is in Indian cinema, one of the binding forces of Indian culture. Cinema influences people’s mindsets—and, when it comes to LGBT people, Indian cinema has become increasingly inclusive. Although most depictions of LGBT people in the movies have been clichéd, cruel, and insulting under the guise of being funny, there have been a few notable departures, particularly in the realm of regional language and independent films by filmmakers such as the late Rituparno Ghosh. In paying tribute to Ghosh, Ashok Row Kavi (one of India’s first openly gay activists) has said that “his work was his activism.” This interview, which took place on the eve of the release of “Bombay Talkies,” addresses the evolution of Indian cinema in this regard and the challenges LGBT people still face.

4) Celebrities and Role Models

Speaking of those whose work is their activism, it hasn’t been until very recently that famous LGBT individuals have been “out” in public—especially in the worlds of entertainment or politics, where being oneself can still be career suicide. Given this reality, it’s worth noting a groundbreaking new effort to document the oral histories of well-known LGBT individuals, called “Project Bolo”. In the last decade or so, Indians have seen increasing support for LGBT equality from prominent public figures, from poets to entertainers to entrepreneurs, and even the occasional prince!

5) Business

In today’s competitive global market, it’s crucial to recruit, retain, develop, and promote the most talented individuals, regardless of their gender or sexual identity. Fortunately, Catalyst has created many resources to help build awareness and foster inclusion across contexts. However, in India, the first steps are often the biggest, such as fighting for an “other” category on forms where you indicate gender, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and establishing locally sensitive LGBT employee resource groups.

As awareness builds, laws change, LGBT people create forums to express themselves, and activism gives way to action, the future for LGBT equality in India has never looked brighter.

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For a closer look at women’s roles in various realms of Indian society, including the family, the workforce, and the economy, read Catalyst’s First Step: India Overview.