Saturday, May 09, 2009

Some notes on Homosexuality

(Updated Below); Update II
I first read of homosexuality when I was in 8th std. There were American and British novels at home; written by Frederick Forsyth; Jeffrey Archer and other trumpets of the glory of the West. Some of the male characters showed a predilection for other males. When I first read the word "Homosexual" somehow I understood its meaning.
You see, one of the kids in the neighborhood (he was 2 years younger than me) was known to make advances on my friends. This was in Tirunelveli, and I bet he was not "converted" into homosexuality by anyone. In fact I doubt if he knew the term. There was no Tamil equivalent then (now there is - ஓரினச் சேர்க்கை ).
We used to harass him a little bit; but we all knew that homosexuality was taboo.
At that point of time, people just pretended that homosexuals exist only in the West. Homosexuality burst into public consciousness following the rapid spread of AIDS. AIDS was thought (incorrectly) to spread primarily through homosexual contact - so much that a friend thought it was unique to homosexuals. Of course, it was not unique to gay people. It was a virus that spread through unsafe sex, or sharing needles or a hundred other ways.
But when AIDS started spreading, there were advocacy groups who came on television and they openly talked about being homosexual. They advised tolerance for homosexuality in society. I believe that primary reason why AIDS patients are reviled in India is because of the association with homosexuality.
During this period, I got hold of a book based on popular psychology. It was one of the books such as "I'm OK; You're OK". It had lots of information about sexual behavior and variations. I have always believed that knowledge is the true key to fighting fear; reading that book has since made me more aware of the variety of sexual behavior common among humans and consider it normal.

Some Terminology
1. Homosexuals are not the "Third Gender" (Moonram Paal). They are not physically varied from general males or females.
2. The people we call "eunuchs", Napumsak (in Sanskrit) or "Aravaaani" (அரவாணி ) in Tamil are humans born with slightly different genetic make up. They MAY have both male and female sexual organs (hermaphrodites) or some other genetic difference. There is an ongoing fight for their rights and dignity.
(In Tamil Nadu they call themselves "Aravaani" because they trace their history from the oral story of "Aravaan", a warrior character in the Mahabharatha. An important part of the narrative of such marginalized and oppressed groups is their myths and legends. We will look at a few about Homosexuality later))
3. Transexuals are people who have a desperate wish to belong to the opposite sex. They are typically called as men trapped in a woman's body or women trapped in a man's body. In the West, transexuals actually have the option of undergoing medical procedure to change from a woman to a man or vice versa.
(Again, the Mahabharatha story of Shikandi - reborn from a woman to a man for revenge - can be taken to be a reference to a transexual.)
4. Cross-dressers are men or women who prefer to dress like the opposite sex. Men who dress in skirts (called "drag" in American popular culture) is an example. Cross-dressers NEED NOT be homosexuals. That is, even though some men may like to dress in women's clothes, they may not be attracted to other men.
5. Bi-sexuals are people who are attracted to males and females - their own sex and the opposite sex. Psychologists believe that bisexuality is very common, but it is concealed.
6. Finally, homosexuals are general males and females who feel sexually attracted to their own sex. In Western popular culture male homosexuals are called gays and female homosexuals are called lesbians. There are several derogatory terms for gays and lesbians in English. I won't list them here.

Homosexuality has NOTHING to do with child molestation or incest. There are people among us who somehow feel like having sex with children. They are called pedophiles and it is a horrid crime. Psychologists can try and cure pedophilia but Homosexuality is not a disease.
In popular culture, some of the worst offences on homosexuality are committed by comparing homosexuals with pedophiles or people who have sex with animals. Please note that homosexuality is consenting sex between two adults - that is, both the partners agree to have sex.

Homosexuality and the Fight for Equal Rights
In modern times, homosexuals in the West have been leading a more open lifestyle and have been demanding equal rights in society such as the right to marry and adopt children. We have to remember that even in the 1950's homosexuality was punished in the UK and USA (although they have forgotten all about that and use gay rights as a convenient beating stick on countries like Iran). Alan Turing, the founder of Computer Science and the main cryptographer who broke the German Enigma cipher machine was gay. He was punished by an English court to take medicine to "cure" homosexuality and he ended up committing suicide by taking Cyanide.

Why is homosexuality so reviled? It is "abnormal" in the mainstream's thinking and it involves sex. But there are also religious reasons in the West.

The Biblical sanction against homosexuality
The Book of Genesis in the Bible describes the story of Abraham. At the time of Abraham, there were two cities in Palestine called Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to have been involved in several acts of sexual deviancy. The Abrahamic God gets angry at this and plans to destroy both cities. He informs Abraham about this impending destruction.
Abraham remembers that his cousin Lot lives in Sodom and therefore begs the God to protect his life. God agrees and a couple of angels turn up like ordinary men at Lot's house in Sodom.
Unfortunately, the deviant people of Sodom had seen the angels and they demand from Lot that the men be handed over (presumably for raping them). Lot manages the situation. He is warned by the angels to flee the city of Sodom and not to look back.
Lot gets out of Sodom and across the plains towards the Sea of Galilee, as clouds gather above Sodom to inflict God's punishment. With him are his wife, and two daughters. His wife, curious as to what is happening behind her to Sodom, turns back and immediately becomes a pillar of salt. (Even now, near the Sea of Galilee there are several salt pillars and tourists are informed that one of them can be Lot's wife).
The acts in which the people of Sodom engaged are collectively called "Sodomy". They are identified with homosexuality. The laws of several states in the USA prohibit Sodomy, because of such Biblical sanction. The Indian Penal Code forbids Sodomy - that is homosexuality is a CRIME, still, in India. Although the law is hardly enforced.

Other Arguments Against Homosexuality
The "abnormality" of homosexuality has prompted it as a assault against society's basic structure. For example, Homosexual marriage is portrayed as an assault on heterosexual marriage. The gay lifestyle is thought to be hedonistic. As I said above, people (ex- Rick Santorum ex-Senator PA) have compared homosexuality to sex with beasts or with children. The idea that our kids will choose homosexuality or will become homosexuals is a potent fear for some people.
These fears are caused by sexual repression, and religious superstition. Psychologists believe that strong homophobia (fear of homosexuals) may be caused by repressed homosexuality itself (ex- Senator Larry Craig of USA sponsored several anti-homosexual resolutions, but was found to have solicited and had sex with men in airport restrooms).

The Arguments for Homosexual rights
What are the equal rights that the gay community demand in the West and in India?
They want the anti-Sodomy laws repealed.
They want awareness of homosexuality in society so that "hate-crimes" against them stop (remember the guy burnt to death in a Chennai suburb for having AIDS?)
They want to be not discriminated against in jobs (that is even if someone is openly gay, he/she should not be fired for that reason.)
They want to be able to serve in the military or police
They want their marriages (between a guy and another guy or a woman and another woman) recognized in courts so that benefits and property rights follow.
They want to be able to adopt children.

It is clear that in the West homosexuality is rapidly gaining social tolerance and equal rights will eventually be theirs. Most younger people are tolerant of different lifestyles. In India, there is a long way to go - even women have not reached a tolerable lifestyle here.

Some of the arguments made by homosexuals to be considered as part of society are interesting:
The "Hardwired" argument
One strand of homosexual advocates have tried to present homosexuality as a genetic difference. Thus, they argue, homosexuals cannot help being gay; it is hardwired in their brains.
As a proof they have tried to show some scientific work. The religious community has hit back with other scientific work and at this point it is a stalemate.
I personally believe this argument may make homosexuality acceptable in people's minds; but I don't agree with the thrust of it. Hardwired or not, even if it is a matter of choice, society HAS to give equal rights to gay people. Who cares if it is in the genetic code or not? The private lives of adult humans are not the business of laws.

By the way, interestingly, as a part of this argument, gay rights advocates also point to the fact that homosexuality exists in the animal kingdom - dogs can be homosexual; and zookeepers have known homosexual animals for some time. For example, Baboons are said to be 50% gay.

The Historical Argument
The oldest surviving epic in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is a classy Sumerian poem compiled around 1700BC and has miraculously survived and has more miraculously been translated.

I will quote a few classic lines from the debate on Death in this epic. Nothing to do with the subject of this essay, but these are thoughts of people who existed 4000 years back:
But man's life is short, at any moment
it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.
The handsome young man, the lovely young woman -
in their prime, death comes and drags them away.
Though no one has seen death's face or heard
death's voice, suddenly, savagely, death
destroys us, all of us, old or young.
And yet we build houses, make contracts, brothers
divide their inheritance, conflicts occur -
as though this human life lasted forever.
The river rises, flows over its banks
and carries us all away like mayflies
floating downstream: they stare at the sun,
then all at once there is nothing.

-- Gilgamesh, a New English version. Stephen Mitchell. Free Press Publishers

Gilgamesh talks about a very close, extraordinary friendship between the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and a savage in the forest, Enkidu. Several of the descriptions of their friendship sound like a homosexual relationship. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh dresses him in a bride's veil.
Homosexual rights advocates claim of a historical tradition of homosexuality being accepted in society. They point to Greek and Roman societies and their literature points to accepted homosexuality.
Further along, Leonardo DaVinci, one of the greatest Renaissance men was said to be homosexual.
These arguments legitimise homosexuality and try to detach it from the biblical context.

In several ways, the thrust of these arguments is a demonstration of human rights - that society shall not take away the natural rights of humans. I think it is time for a repeal of the Sodomy laws in India and some education about alternative lifestyles.

Update I
I missed clarifying a few common misconceptions about homosexuals.
1. Psychologists say that many "straight" men and women have a few homosexual fantasies. This does NOT mean they are gay.
2. You do not become a homosexual because you had a domineering father. This belief, common in evangelical circles, is a myth.
3. Homosexual men need not be impotent. Impotence has nothing to do with straightness or gayness.
4. The converse too - if someone is impotent it does not mean they are homosexual or even feminine.
5. Homosexual men need not be feminine acting or feminine thinking. Homosexual women need not be masculine.

Update II
I know I am digressing too much here, but I am unable to resist.
The Epic of Gilgamesh has meaning for Indian readers. The character, Enkidu, who becomes Gilgamesh's friend, is found as a savage in the forest. He is said to be born the son of Goddess Aruru. When Gilgamesh hears about this formidable savage, he asks a guide to contact Shamhat, a priestess of Ishtar in his city (Uruk). The priestesses of Ishtar are described very similar to Devadasis, being available to any man, having dedicated their bodies to the goddess.
The guide takes Shamhat to meet and seduce Enkidu into coming back to Uruk. Shamhat reaches the forest and observes Enkidu. He has never seen a woman and is smitten byher. She then convinces him to leave the forest and go with her to Uruk.
This story must be familiar to Malayalam movie watchers. This is the story of the movie "Vaishali". Vaishali is based on the legend of Rishyasrunga described in the Ramayana.
The kingdom of Anga has not had rain for a long time. The King is advised to perform a yaga (fire worship). The yaga has to be performed by a man who has not known a woman. The sages advise the king to get Rishyasrunga, son of the Rishi Vibhandhaka and the celestial dancer Menaka. He was born in the forest and brought up by his father without contact of any woman.
The King of Anga sends a delegation of Devadasis, to seduce Rishyasrunga and bring him back. They go and accomplish the task.

See any similarity? Isn't this amazing? The Sumerian legend had obviously spread around and influenced the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharatha, both of which contain this legend. The original Sumerian poems, which were written much before the epic was compiled, were from around 2500BC.

1 comment:

Pedda said...

Your update II was most interesting. There are several cross cultural stories like that, but I always wonder are they the same stories that got migrated with cultural exchange or are they mere coincidences. By the latter part, I mean, every culture is rich in literature and produces enormous volumes of epics and legends over a period of time. There are bound to be similarities in stories. Good post.