top of page

Queer in India: History, Tradition, Acceptance and What Went Wrong

Updated: May 23

Eight in ten Indians identify as Hindu; it is the hegemonic religion of the nation. Hinduism has a long tradition of gender fluidity and non-conformity in gender representation and being in the faith, sacred texts and beliefs. It is a tradition contradictory to the conservatism much of the LGBTQ+ community is met with today.

Hinduism has a bigender God, Ardhanarishvara, who is constructed of two halves: Shiva, the male, and Parvati, the female. Additionally, the supreme God, Brahman, is represented as a genderless being. In Hinduism, Brahman is understood as the 'Ultimate Reality', which Hindus must comprehend through the deities and how those deities affect the world. Its multiplicity requires godlessness; it is not as simple as having a male or female divinity. Furthermore, powerful beliefs circulate around a third gender of ancient Hindu origin. The third gender most commonly refers to the Hijras - although several groups hold this third gender status. Hijra are typically people who are born male but look and dress in traditionally feminine ways. They are considered to be neither entirely male nor entirely female, thus giving form to the third gender, which could be called a non-binary gender position. Besides these mentioned, there are many other figures who are queer or gender non-conforming in the faith.

The Hijra are part of a long and well-held tradition; their gender non-conformity is sacred. Hijras are said to remove themselves from conventional wider society and instead group together in their own communities, where they undergo secretive lessons at the hands of their assigned teacher or guru. In private, the guru will teach the Hijra, now referred to as the disciple or Chela, the ways of their life and their role. Their sacrifice, giving up procreative abilities, is said to grant the power to perform blessings or, at times, curses. 

At times of great significance or celebration, including weddings and births, the Hijra are often called upon. They are expected to dance and sing while blessing those involved and their households. Such blessings include hope for good health, a long life, fertility and prosperity. The power bestowed on the Hijras means that they may attend events uninvited. At times such as these, the families, fearful of curses, pay the Hijras a sum for their services. 

The fluidity innate to the figures of the Hindu faith and exemplified by Hijra is essential to understand in the context of the LGBTQ+ community, specifically when understanding the lives of transgender individuals in India. Trans people are often referred to as the Hijra even if they personally subscribe to a binary gender personality and not a third gender position.

Within the Hijra, transgender people hold an elevated and even revered status. Such beliefs are usually confined to the personal sphere of the home, but this is not always the case. In public spaces such as the professional workplace, the transgender and larger LGBTQ+ community are ostracised by a colonial legacy which does not pattern onto traditional representation of the community. They are met with conservatism and religious views which do not reflect the traditions of Hinduism. The juxtapositions between the treatment of transgender and gender-non-conforming people between the public and private spheres highlight a cultural tension in India. Long-standing religious and cultural beliefs often encourage acceptance, even reverement, but are met by modern-day conservatism and post-colonial concepts of professionalism, which maintain and increase their marginalisation.

In 'A Passage To India' by E.M. Forster, the author portrays same-sex relations in India in the shadow of British colonialism, articulating its impact on sexuality and queer sex. Forster insinuates that in certain arenas, India was considered to be a relative 'safe-haven' for homosexual men as same-sex intercourse was permitted, not punished. Of course, there are intricacies in the stormy sea that the Indian religions, diverse and complex as they are. However, the poignant message of this text is there is a long historical acceptance within India of queer life and queer love. It, along with the religious tradition, paints a picture of acceptance and perhaps even the embracing of LGBTQ+ people. There is a deep history here, and it goes back centuries, even to what is perhaps the most famous book of India's spiritual and religious history, the ancient Sanskrit text, the Kama Sutra. 

Accepted and celebrated sexuality and intimacy is everywhere in the Kama Sutra. The book encompasses the erotic, the sexual and the emotional webs that interlink to create a fulfilling, intimate life. The idea of fulfilment through every facet of human life is a core aim of the text, and that includes sexual fulfilment. The Kama Sutra constructs a sexual life which is built around pleasure as opposed to procreation. The theme of recreation over procreation is emphasised when homosexual sex, relations and intimacies are explored and portrayed in the Kama Sutra alongside literature and artistic carvings. Queer love has always had a home in India, so why is that changing? 

Its rich history and culture see veins of Indian society, mythology, culture and history recognise and celebrate homosexuality, gender non-conformity, and the LGBTQ+ community. Why has this changed so drastically, so quickly? What is the fundamental influence that has transformed broader Indian mindsets and society from elastic, fluid and liberal to contained, conservative and conventional? 

This history, culture and mentality were dissolved when the British came. Their colonial project deemed queer Indian life antithetical to British values, and this queerphobia reverberates to this day. Around the halls of Parliament and the streets of India attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community are changing, for better and for worse.

Image: USAID

148 views0 comments


bottom of page