Decolonising Sexuality

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Words || Mariah Hanna

On September 6th, 2018 India’s Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that said gay sex is no longer a criminal offence, and that discriminating against someone based on sexual orientation is a violation of rights. LGBTQI+ groups and allies have joined in rejoicing the historic decision, and many have taken to Twitter to comment on the event. Many have praised the decision as a pathway for other nations to follow in the West’s progressive footsteps. While this is a nice idea, it’s not entirely correct. A more accurate statement would be that this is the path to other nations returning to their historical and cultural roots, pre-colonialism.

It’s become a terrible trait of the West that it seems to conveniently forget the black mark that colonialism has left in the collective cultural memory of the colonised countries. As with most unflattering history, the narrative of where India’s stringent sodomy laws and homophobia came from has been erased, leading to the common but extremely incorrect assumption that homophobia is a universal and naturally occurring phenomenon. In fact, homophobia is a lasting stain of the colonial era – from Africa to India, it’s a reminder of the oppressive ruling of Western colonialists that rewrote entire cultural histories.

Before the British invasion of India, gender, homosexuality, and transgenderism were treated as fluid and without shame in Hindu myths with stories of gods who would change sexual partners, and even change their own gender. While India has always had a rich and diverse history without any single reading of Hinduism, even in the most conservative regions, sexuality and same-sex relations were socially common, and not only accepted, but embraced. With Western colonialism came strict anti-gay laws as imposed by the Christian faith that informed British laws. These laws were not only devastating and oppressive to LGBTQI+ people, but they effectively worked to whitewash the entire collective memory of the Indian and Hindu culture. By imposing anti-gay laws, there was an implicit message that India’s previous accepting view of sexuality was a reflection of the country’s need for reform, painting Indian people as primitive and in need of saving.

You can trace a similar narrative through the history of many African nations. Cultures that once saw sexuality and gender as fluid suddenly imposed severe penalties for anyone who did not conform to cis heterosexuality. Tribes that had once addressed some women with male titles, or allowed them to perform roles outside of the strictly ‘female’, became oppressive and male-centric. With the introduction of European law came the criminalisation of homosexuality, and with it has come irreparable social damage. Through demonising the traditional African interpretation of sexuality, like so many other intrinsically cultural things, African history and heritage were lost, making way for a whiter re-telling that consistently downplays the still lasting effects of colonialism.

India has decriminalised homosexuality, but that doesn’t mean the discrimination that has become so entrenched in the culture will be wiped away. It’s become part of the new collective conscience, and it’s a reminder that should never be forgotten: we can purport the narrative that colonialism is a thing of the past, but there are continuing, real-world aftershocks that are still being felt. Years after these nations have claimed their independence, they are still under the unyielding grip of colonial rule. Thirty-six of the fifty-two Commonwealth Member States criminalise same-sex activity to this very day.

So while India’s law reform is certainly a cause for celebration and a huge win for equality, it is so important that we, the West, never forget where homophobia was born from. The effects of colonialism in every vein of social history need to forever be remembered, because if we forget, we forget the stolen history of post-colonial nations.

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