Moving Away, Not Forward

Monday, October 1, 2018 - 6:26pm

Akanksha Sahay

Akanksha Sahay Buy this photo
Michigan in Color

When so much of my news is disseminated into 20-word summaries with a link to an article as I scroll through my social media, it is really easy to remain distanced from the impact of current events. In fact, on Sept. 6, 2018, it took at least four posts about the same thing for me to realize what monumental change had just occurred — the Indian Supreme Court declared Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to be unconstitutional. In the sea of comments, there seemed to be this notion that India was finally modernizing like Western countries, but that was not the truth — India was and is still in the process of decolonization. It’s not moving forward, rather, it’s moving away from white colonial ideals.

As an Indian American born in the United States, my experience with LGBTQ issues at a personal and policy level has been decidedly complex. I grew up in California in a time when Proposition 22 in 2000 and Proposition 8 in 2008 caused huge controversy over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. It wasn’t really an issue discussed at home — my parents grew up in India, where gay sex was criminalized. It was illegal to be gay. My experiences in school, especially through my involvement in social justice groups, made it clear that this way of thinking was unfair. And though my parents might have been conservative, even my father would have argued that due to the civil rights attributed to marriage, everyone had a right to marry whom they wished. On the other hand, I also knew my parents would be deeply uncomfortable if I came out as queer.

The biggest complexity, however, came from my religion. My family practiced Hinduism. I didn’t practice it religiously, but Hinduism was about more than rituals and festivals. It was about philosophy and ethics. The religious text I was most familiar with (because there are several in Hinduism), is the Bhagavad Gita — the speech Lord Krishna gave to Arjuna when his commitment to justice wavered in the face of having to fight his family. And not once in the entire text, did it mention that “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman.”  In fact, Hindu mythology didn’t simply ignore queerness, the myths included it. There were stories of Vishnu, one of the primary deities, taking on a female appearance and engaging in relationships with male deities who knew his original form. When my culture was filled with stories that were not heteronormative, it was difficult to reconcile what I read with what I saw being practiced.

It wouldn’t be until college that I’d learn what Section 377 was and from where it came. Before the British colonized India, there was a vibrant queer history. It wasn’t the norm, but it wasn’t considered against nature either. To see my mother country stuck in the white supremacist ideals of a bygone age was frustrating and painful. It was shameful to know that a place I considered vital to my heritage was also considered so backward. I wanted India to be better, and yet I could understand that as an oppressed people, how difficult it was to unlearn these bigoted views.

When I saw people celebrating the repeal of Section 377 as a move toward Western ideology, I was angered. This didn’t acknowledge that Section 377 wasn’t an Indian ideology but a Western one in the first place. Yes, we live in the 21st century and LGBTQ rights should be a given and not a constant struggle, but India only gained independence 70 years ago.

It takes time to undo societal norms. There’s certainly more to be done for LGBTQ rights women’s rights and lower caste rights in India. But with the new verdict, India has taken one more step towards embracing its roots and culture.

So, in the end, I did hit the love button on that Buzzfeed India post and every other time it came up in my newsfeed. And each time I clicked it, I felt pretty damn proud to be brown.