The social construction of male homosexuality' in India: implications for HIV transmission and prevention

by S. Asthana and R. Oostvogels:

Published in 'Social Science & Medicine', vol 52(2001).


[Noted is that the western discourse on sexuality to be based on the] "heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy," [and that such perceptions do not necessarily apply in other cultures]. However, in many cultures, homosexuality is not recognized as a socially significant category and although male homosexual behavior is prevalent, it is not associated with a specific 'gay identity'.

[Although the concept of MSM (men having sex with men) has been used in the West], "In practice, however, MSM is often use interchangeably with that of 'gay men'."

Thus, whilst there was more social acceptance of alternative sexual natures in the 1970s and more space emerged for sexual minorities to live their lives without repression, gay men also became more sexually isolated. Due to the tendency to to associate male homosexuality with effeminacy, men who wished to preserve their masculine heterosexual self-image withdrew from homosexual circuits. Thus there was a decline in the proportion of men who had sex with men who were also involved in heterosexual relationships. The fact that the affirmation of one's homosexuality became the basis of positive social identification also contributed to the view that bisexuality was an illegitimate socio-sexual identity. The rejection of the effeminate stereotype was also part of the gay political agenda.

From the beginning, AIDS was associated with sexual deviance, heterosexuals who contracted HIV/AIDS being treated either as 'innocent victims' or as nominal queers (citing Goldin, 1994; Patton, 1994)

…the Indian system differs from the Latin American form of patriarchy which, in addition to defining a passive, self sacrificing and dutiful role for women, represses femininity in men and promotes aggressive manliness (Almaguer, 1993; Lancaster, 1995).

First, the status of women in marriage and the norms and traditions controlling their behavior so clearly establish male superiority that Indian men do not have to strongly assert their masculine characteristics in order to be thought of as 'male'. Second, the social position of men in influenced by their caste position. These factors may in part explain why there is no need for a system such as Latin American Machismo to provide a means of structuring power relations between men.

...providing that a man does not adopt an alternative gender identity, he may engage in 'homosexual' activity without compromising his masculinity…the taboo on pre- or extra-marital sex for women is more strictly enforced than the taboo on homosexuality.

However, due to the social distances between the sexes, men who also seek sexual fulfillment in relations with other men. Indian culture is highly homosocial and displays of affection, body contact and the sharing of beds between men is socially acceptable (Kahn, 1994) This creates opportunities for sexual contact, though sexual behavior in this context is rarely seen as real sex, but as play. Much of this same-sex sexual activity begins in adolescence between school friends and within family environments and is non-penetrative.

Young men who cultivate such relationships do not consider themselves to be 'homosexual' but conceive their behavior in terms of sexual desire, opportunity and pleasure… Given the constant expectation that a man will eventually marry and produce sons, he can enter in same-sex sexual relations without challenging his masculine sense of self… Even effeminate men who have a strong desire for receiving penetrative sex are likely to consider their role as husbands and especially fathers to be more important than their self-identification than their homosexual behavior.

Thus, to be receptive in homosexual encounters does not necessarily denote loss of manhood. Nor does it imply passivity and a subordinate class. This aspect of male-male sexual relations in India differs markedly from other contexts such as Latin America (Parker, 1991; Almaguer, 1993). And the Middle East (Tapinc, 1992) where active / passive and dominant / subordinate meaning are associated with sex role. Instead, emphasis is placed on giving and receiving pleasure. This allows for a greater equality of status between partners.

The principal method in the research was therefore participant observations, first covert then revealed. A team of three researchers was formed, all of whom had a background in social science. [The various categories of men who engage in same-sex sexual activities in so-called "sexual circuits" in Madras are given.

As with Indian men and women, a social distance exists between masculine- and feminine-identified MSM and it is difficult to envisage a fundamental change in these arrangements - e.g. the development of more reciprocal social and sexual relations. It is therefore highly unlikely that a collective 'gay' consciousness and solidarity can be achieved in the Indian context. Indeed, care should be taken in assuming that an incipient 'gay movement' already exists in the country (Drucker, 1996).

[Of all the categories of MSM}… Double deckers also represent the only category of MSM in Madras for whom North American/West European model of gay activism may have some meaning.

There is thus a pressing need for more research on the ways in which the sexuality and sexual conduct of MSM vary cross-culturally. For some 20 years, social construction theory has set an example of how such research could proceed (Vance, 1991). For most part, however, this perspective has been elaborated in debates on gay and lesbian politics or in historical studies of sexuality and relatively little work exists which applies constructionist approaches to the study of HIV/AIDS. We hope that this paper has demonstrated that, if appropriate and effective HIV interventions are to be developed, more attention should be paid to the socio-cultural context and organization of sexuality and sexual activity.

Among the educated middle classes, there is a small, but growing, movement of people whose sense of personal identity is separate from that of their family, kin group, and community and who are beginning to create new forms of sexual identity. Many of these may well call themselves lesbians, gay men, homosexuals, bisexuals, and even heterosexuals. In the main, these evolving and emerging identities are arising with the growth of urban, industrialized, and commercial cultures (including the Internet) , concomitant with which is a rising sense of individuality, personal privacy, and private space.

This cultural change appears to be associated with the development of nuclear family lifestyles, the expansion of education, and the power of the English-speaking middle-classes to access Western literature and to make more choices about their lives. It is mostly people from these backgrounds who meet, socialize, discuss and debate (usually in English) issues of sexual identities and "coming out." Gay activism in India is growing and has begin to challenge laws which criminalize homosexuality and which were inherited from the British Raj. It remains to be seen whether these emerging identities will reflect (or perhaps imitate) Western constructions and whether those who adopt these identities will attempt to live these out within Indian cultures, or whether differing identities will be constructed.

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