Male 'Homosexualities' In India & South Asia: Culture, sexualities, and identities: men who have sex with men in India.

By Shivananda Khan

Journal of Homosexuality
Vol 40 (2001)

This essay focuses on men who have sex with men, and gay men. This is because most of the research and analysis conducted so far by the Naz Foundation has been on the male to male sexual behaviors as a significant factor in STD/HIV transmission in India. This is a different matter than the construction of men's sexualities.

Prem is 26, married, and has a young son. He does not call himself homosexual; the word gay he doesn't understand, not having access to English. Nor does he see anything wrong with what he does. He is just "messing about." He remembers his first sexual experience with his uncle back in his home village. He was 12.

Mohammed, 42: "So when I am hot and don’t have enough money, then I know several men who I can have 'maasti' with. A lot of my friends do this." (Maasti is a Hindi term which means mischief and often has sexual overtones when it is used between young men.)

They don’t consider themselves as different. They know many men who enjoy sex with other men. They don't play husband and wife roles, thinking it rather silly as both are men. Neither read or speak English.

Who is gay in an Indian context? What is gay? Who is homosexual?

About three-quarters (72%) of truck drivers in North Pakistan who participated in a recent survey published in AIDS Analysis Asia admitted that they has sex with other males, while 76% stated that they had sex with female sex workers. Are these 72% gay? Homosexual? There is sufficient anecdotal evidence to indicate that in the other countries of the sub-continent, similar levels of male to male sexual behaviors exist as part of a broader sexual repertoire. Are these males bisexual?

In working with sexual health issues in India and in listening to the rhetoric of UNAIDS representatives, international donor agencies, the Indian medical profession, and many Western and Indian gay men, an assumption is often made that same-gender sexual behaviors must mean the person is a homosexual, or gay, while male to female sexual behavior must mean that the person is heterosexual.

In these discourses, procreative "heterosexuality" is seen as 'normal." While other behaviors are seen as perverse or foreign. However, these constructs seem to have little contemporary or historical validity in India (and even to some extent in the West). This reductionist ideology is a recent invention from the 19th century, which has consequently acted to reduce the rich diversity of alternate sexualities (Foucault, 1978; Weeks, 1986; Katz, 1995, Herdt, 1994).

Closer analysis of these debates seems to me to indicate a confusion among the terms sexual behavior, gender, identity formation, and cross-cultural validity, and within such confusion there may well be elements of neo-colonialism, racism, and Western imperialism (Khan, 1994c; Hyam, 1990).

I was interested to hear Dede Oetomo, a gay activist in Indonesia, say at the Vancouver International AIDS Conference in July 1996 that perhaps "importing" Western constructions of gay identities into Indonesia was creating a social tension whereby local homo-affectionalist and homo-social structures were being destroyed for the fear of being labeled "gay."

The debate on sexualities may even at times be perceived as a form of neo-colonialism whereby Western sexual ideologies have "invaded" Indian discourses on sexuality and identity by professionals, laypersons, "straights" or "gays," and whereby indigenous histories and cultures become invisible.

Much same-sex sexual behavior involves non-penetrative varieties, mutually indulged in frameworks of friendships and sexual play, while in other situations urgent sexual discharge and sexual "need" is the significant factor.

However, the denial of variation in history in many Western and Indian discourses had given rise to a prevailing construction of sexuality, where a "procreative and penetrative" sexual ideology is the only "sexuality" that is seen as relevant. Perversely, any other form is categorized as deviant and Western.

Opportunities like this are frequent and mean that significant amounts of male-male sexual behavior occur within family environments and networks, between male relatives and friends. But this is not seen as real sex! This is maasti, invisible and denied.

The following comment made to me by a man in New Delhi captures the context of much sexual expression in India: "Privacy? What privacy? I share a room with three older brothers, and I have sex with all of them."

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