Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Reading about the lesbian marriage of two tribal women from Orissa is encouraging. Encouraging because hopefully, incidents like these may help to dispel the misguided thought about homosexuality being a "Western" phenomenon from the minds of our people and leaders. Surely these tribal women in their upbringing were relatively exempt from "Western" influences. Such incidents, along with the recent observations of homosexuality in animals may hammer home the point about it being a biological phenomenon, and not an 'abnormal' one.

In the bonobo monkey, not only is sex itself an activity that is as commonly and casually practised as lice picking, but homosexual relations and especially female-female sex are in fact routine. Some researchers think that this is a social device, helping to mollify tensions when a food source is found for example. I can easily think of homosexual conduct and sex in general as tension-releasing phenomena that could help to keep animals from killing each other over territory or mates in certain situations. In fact, human beings certainly engage in sex for relaxation, so why can't monkeys do it? After all, living in the wild could not be any less taxing that working a nine to six job and supporting a family.

However, I don't see laws about homsexuality in India changing soon. As usual, the homosexuality prohibiting law is 145 years old and enforced by British authorities. The hypocrisy of laws against homosexuality in Britain itself is not subtle. Many famous British intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th century were homosexuals, some in and others out of the closet, but mostly in. E M Forster, Christopher Isherwood, W H Auden, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alan Turing are prominent examples. The infamous British 1930s communist spy ring that smuggled atomic secrets consisted of brilliant men, most of whom were homosexuals. There are doubt thats G H Hardy may have had homosexual inclinations, but this contention has never been validated. Even with such a distinguished sampling, British laws against homosexuality were both unsparingly strict and exceedingly embarrassing to the accused. Even in the late 1950s, Alan Turing was asked to undertake an embarrassing regimen of hormones- treatment that led to the growth of breasts- to "correct" his sexual inclination. The despondent Turing took his own life partly as a result of this. If the British could not take a second look at their shameful laws even so late and even when it came to such distinguished and important citizens, I wouldn't be surprised if Indian laws remain rigid for a long time. In fact, I am waiting for an Indian intellectual or public figure to come out of the closet; perhaps then the government will be shocked in realising the 'normal' nature of the phenomenon.

In hindsight, it should not be very surprising. Based on extraordinarily detailed sexual histories of men and women, Alfred Kinsey constructed his scale, where the distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality was continuous and not discrete. 'Pure' heterosexuality was assigned a value of 0, 'pure' homosexuality a value of 5. Upon detailed statistical surveying Kinsey found that a substantial number of people fell midway on 3 or even on 4. The number may be higher because people may have lied about their homosexual experiences. A surprisingly high number of people recalled at least one homosexual experience, perceptible and subtle if not explicit.

The point is that if one looks at sex from the point of view of establishing bonding and not just reproduction, then the occasional development of homosexuality may not be that surprising. In the bonobo, sex seems to be a common reconciliatory stance. I agree that it may take a few more generations before we emotionally come to terms with homosexuality, but condemning homosexuality as 'abnormal' or 'Western' is no different than the treatment of slaves a long time ago with the contention that they are 'only one fourth human'. Just as that presumption was an insult to basic human dignity, so is the draconian and undignified treatment of homosexual men and women. As we gain more knowledge about the evolutionary biology of homosexuality, perhaps science can again help to restore social dignity and tolerance.


Anonymous Anirudh said...

I agree. But is all homosexuality biological? Are people not homosexual out of choice? Have people done any research in this area? It doesn't matter, of course, whether you're homosexual because you were born that way or out of choice- the laws are draconian anyway- but I'm curious.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

It's a tricky question. But there is increasing evidence that it can definitely be genetically predetermined. The question is tricky not because of arguments about whether it can be innate or not, but only because of doubts about the relative contribution of the ever debated "nature and nurture".

2:24 PM  

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