A History of Queer India

In honor of LGBTQ History Month, Miss//Miss wanted compiled their research to make a timeline of queer representation, discrimination, eraser, celebration and activism in India. Throughout our research we were unable to find a single comprehensive timeline, and so we made one for ourselves and others to reference. This timeline is in no way complete, but it offers a view of the general movements and textures of queerness from ancient to modern India.  

Let’s begin anciently…

600 BCE
The Sushruta Samhita, a Hindu medical text, defines three kinds of homosexual men, the kumbikha, or passive/receiving partner, and the asekya, or men who give pleasure to other men, and male-to-female transfolk, known as sandha. There is also reference to two women, both married to the same dead king, who in an effort to proliferate his seed make love with each other and become pregnant. The child, without male seed in his composition, is born without bones, as a lump of flesh. Nonetheless, lesbian conception is a possibility in the Sushruta Samhita.

400 BCE-400 CE
Sangam Literature (300BCE-300CE) of Southern India mentions pedi, as a name for male-to-female transfolk, as well as a story about the love and loyalty between two kings, as well as between King Peri and the poet, Kabilar.

Narada Smriti is composed around 400 CE and mentions fourteen types of pandas, or men who are impotent with women. Men who perform sex acts with other men are known as mukhebhaga, and are prohibited from marrying women.

The Kama Sutra (4th century) describes homosexual practices, as well as emotional bonds and trust, and establishes a spectrum of sex and gender types. Third gender individuals, known as tritiya-prakritri are also described. Descriptions include the way they dress, act and their professions. In the second part, in the eighth chapter, there are detailed the practices of svairini, or “independent women,” who enjoy the company of other women like themselves. Svairini are said to refuse husbands and to have relations in their own home or in the homes of other svairini.

7th Century
Arab and Persian trading communities from South Arabia and the Persian Gulf begin settling on the Gujarat coast. The first Muslim mosques in India are constructed, marking the beginning of Islam in India. Not only was Islam more allowing of gender-bending at this point in history, but the assimilation of Islam into Indian culture, (which, during this period, recognized gender/sex spectrums) created space for gender-bending in Indo-Islam, as long as patriarchal norms were retained.

900-1130 AD
Construction of the Hindu and Jain Khajuraho Temples that depict, in thousands of sculptures, the passion and eroticism of all sexual orientations, positions and acts. Many sculptures and temples depicting the multiplicity and possibility of eroticism were made before, during and after Khajuraho, extending into the 14th century, including the Mithunas of the Konark Sun Temple, the Markandeshwar Temple, Ranakpur Jain Temple, Padawali Temple, Bhoramdeo and the Osian Temples.

11th Century
Sanskrit story, “Kathasaritsagara,” examines the attraction between a female narrator and a married woman, noting that it is a relationship between swayamvara sakhis, or “self-chosen female friends.” The term swayamvara, is usually used to refer to the process of a woman choosing a groom from a selection of suitors.

12th Century
The ghazal, a poetic form, is introduced to South Asia from North Africa and the Middle East. The ghazal is thematically focused on ultimate, spiritual, unrequited and unrelenting love. Written by men, in the voice of men, the object of the lover’s gaze can be a man or woman, thus often leading to tropes rendering homosexual desires. In the late nineteenth century, the ghazal is attacked by colonists and nationalists; as a result, edits are made in translations to erase the presence of homoeroticism, and there is a shift away from male-male gaze, to a primarily heterosexual gaze in the poems.

The Jayamangala, a famous commentary on the Kama Sutra, is composed and stands as a proponent of homosexual union, noting that, “Citizens with this kind of homosexual inclination, who renounce women and can do without them willingly because they love one another, get married together, bound by a deep and trusting friendship.” The text also says that “A woman known for her independence, with no sexual bars, and acting as she wishes, is called svairini. She makes love with her own kind. She strokes her partner at the point of union, which she kisses.”

17th Century
The British come to India under the auspices of the trading association, the British East Indian Company.

The British East Indian Company shifts from a trading company into a territorial sovereign. Intermingling with Indians socially, sexually and otherwise is considered a mode of strengthening the British position in India and is encouraged.

Muddupalani, a poet, dancer and devadasi  (girl who dedicates her life to the worship of a temple or diety), writes Radhika-santvanam, or translated, “The Appeasement of Radha,” an erotic epic poem composed of 584 poems in four sections. The poem was written in a traditional genre, srngara-kavya that depicts the love between Radha and Krishna, and was thereby written in the traditional rasa, or aesthetic (literally translates to “flavor”) of Sringara, or erotic and romantic love. The poem focuses on the erotic desires Radha has for Krishna (which are depicted both as fantasy and as advice she gives to Krishna’s bride, preparing her for lovemaking with Krishna). Muddupalani boldly claims female sexuality, emphasizing erotic desires Radha has for Krishna. The text is lusty and voracious and empowering of female sexuality and desire. It is also articulate and is a prime example of the traditional poetic form. The poem was celebrated in Andhra Pradesh, where is was composed. When a fully-translated edition of the poem (which had been edited and re-edited by Brits and Indians) was published in 1910, it was banned in India.

The first British Supreme court was established in India in Calcutta, followed by a string of other courts in other cities. The British slowly establish their law over Indian state and city judicial systems.

Late 18th Century
The rekhti, an Urdu feminist poetic form is developed in Uttar Pradesh. Though written by men, the form uses women’s voices to discuss women’s lives and perspectives (as perceived by men, of course). The rekhti frequently inspects sexual desires and urges between women, employing terms like dogana, a word used to denote a woman’s self-chosen female friend, and chapti a term denoting the rubbing and clinging of female-to-female intercourse.

The British established British criminal and civil law as primary in all of India. The Law Commission, led by the British, was founded to author the laws and was supposedly informed by Brahman scriptures and scriptural experts as well as the traditional laws of Hindus and Muslims, but the commission of laws simply replicated British law, with a few exceptions.

Seeing as how there were nearly no British women in the Indian colony, British men had been known to intermingle with Indian women. Whereas previously this intermingling was seen as a way to strengthen the army and British presence, in the 1850’s the interracial unions and offspring really began to bother the Brits. In an effort of Eugenics, to keep the British sexually, socially and racially pure, the British started a purity campaign, which brought a few British women overseas and encouraged British men to stay away from Indian women. But the few women who sailed over were not enough to satiate the entire army. This led to men either exhibiting the utmost purity and becoming mentally and emotionally unstable, or resulted in men finding sexual outlets in underground and often unsafe ways, leading to VD’s, which also weakened the Army. Many of the men also participated in homosexuality among themselves, which was believed by the British to dampen masculine heat and dominance, thus negatively affecting colonialization. In an effort to curb mental instability, VD’s and homosexuality, the British established state-regulated brothels, called lal bazaars, for Army men (Indian men could use them in the morning when the Army was busy parading and monitoring Indian bazaars and streets). The Indian women who worked there were mistreated and abused by the British, and, over the next decade, inequality between the races came out of the woodwork in horrific ways.

Indians rose against British rule in The Sepoy Mutiny, resulting in Queen Victoria gaining complete and direct control over India, proclaiming herself the “Empress of India.” The British Raj establishes itself as rulers of India, initiating severe colonialization, implementing British laws and customs into every aspect of Indian life, and surreptitiously creating systematic racial and religious hierarchies and discriminations. Due to the uprising, intermingling policies that were considered strengthening during the early colonization of the 17th century, are reversed. Indians are now seen as lesser than, and intermingling with them is considered socially and otherwise impure.

Indian Penal Code is passed, drawing on British (meaning Protestant), Muslim and Hindu codes, as well as the Code Napoleon, effectively placing all Indian into one of two categories: Hindus were subject to laws of the Manusmriti and Muslims to the Quran. But all were first and foremost subject to British Law.

VD’s spreading to army wives back home in Britain, results in The Contagious Disease Act, crafted by a Christian feminist purity campaign. The Act targets all unproductive sex acts, especially the activities of lal bazaars. Ironically, the purity campaign worked against the brothels (shutting them down beginning in the 1880s), but increased homosexual activity among the troops. The Brits feared that the troops were at risk of engaging in deeper evils than prostitution and were effectively turning into Sodom and Gomorrah. A popular cure for homosexuality, for both British and Indians, was to send the homo to rehabilitation visits with female prostitutes.

October 6th, 1860
The Indian Law Commission introduces Section 377, an antisodomy statute, into the existing Indian Penal Code.

Excerpted, it reads: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life [or shorter term up to ten years and a fine]…”

Section 377 is used to make homosexuality (of any gender) illegal.

Lal bazaars are suspended and prostitution is made illegal by the Contagious Disease Act.

Homosexuality is deemed an “Oriental vice,” by the Brits who point to the occurrence of homoeroticism in the ghazal and other ancient scripture and art. Homosexuality becomes a point of cultural and racial blame—while the Brits blame India as a whole, Hindus claim homosexuality was introduced to India by Muslims coming to India on trade routes in the 7th century, and Muslims insist that, upon arrival, they quashed existing homosexuality in India.

The gazals of the late nineteenth century no longer portray homoerotic desire between men.

After being edited, re-edited and translated 3 times since 1887 by Indian and British scholars, Muddupalani’s Radhika-santvanam or, “The Appeasement of Radha,” (see 1757) is banned by the British Raj for indecency.

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement and practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience, sends his devotees on a “sexual cleansing” of the country wherein they are asked to desecrate and destroy ancient Indian artifacts from the 11th-14th centuries, such as temple sculptures and paintings, that depict erotic acts. He is especially encouraging of the effacement of homoerotic acts, suggesting the erasure of breasts to masculinize women in lesbian depictions; this includes not only the erasure in paintings, but also the physical lopping-off of breasts from sculpture. In an effort to promote his anti-colonialist sentiment, Gandhi openly suggests that the desecration had been done by Europeans.

In 1936, Gandhi writes about homosexuality: “I venture to suggest that this is a most dangerous doctrine to preach anywhere. If it somehow or other gains the stamp of respectability, it will be the rage amongst boys and girls to satisfy their urge among members of their own sex.”

Publication of Panday Bechan Sharma Ugra’s short story collection, Chocolate, in India. Despite Ugra’s claims that the collection was meant to denounce homosexuality, most readers found it, and continue to find it, to be a positive representation of male homosexual relationships.

Gay historian and Indologist, Alain Danielou, photographs Khajuraho and other temples, with the intention of gathering evidence of homoerotic images that were facing desecration by M. Gandhi devotees. Together with his close friend and Tamil poet, Rabindranath Tagore, the two protested and temporarily stopped the desecration. However, the effacement was reinstated under India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru who, though friends with Danielou, was angered by his exhibit of the photographs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Danielou’s archive of images provides evidence that erasure of homoeroticism did indeed occur.

Ismat Chughati’s short story, “Lihaaf,” (“The Quilt”) is published in Adab-i-Latif, an Urdu literary journal. The story is sexually suggestive and explores themes of domestic lesbianism. In 1944, Chughati was asked to apologize for the work after being brought to trial for obscenity. Though the story is suggestive of both female and male homoeroticism, the Lahore government charged Chughati (in George the Sixth versus Ismat Chughati) with obscenity having to do only and specifically with female homoeroticism. This gesture points to the ways that autonomous female desires and sexuality were seen as more of a threat to the nation-state than autonomous male desire and sexuality. Chughati never apologizes and, in fact, wins the case by pointing out that the story contains no obscene words nor does it describe or suggest any sexual acts. The 1996 film, Fire, by Deepa Mehta, is loosely based on “Lihaff.”

The ban on Muddupalani’s Radhika-santvanam (see 1910) is lifted.

July 18, 1947
India gains independence from the British. M. Gandhi and his devotees are cited as preeminent forces in gaining independence through nonviolent civil disobedience. In early 1948, Gandhi was tragically assassinated by a Hindu Nationalist.

Britain repeals antisodomy laws from the British Penal Code, making consensual homosexual intercourse legal in G.B. The Indian Penal Code retains the Victorian era Section 377.

Ratan Mia and Abdul Nur are sentenced for an indefinite amount of time for homosexual activities. In 1988, after being in prison for seven years, their third appeal reduces their sentence to seven days of hard labor. Reason for all judgements regarding the case are unclear.

AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), or AIDS Anti-Discrimination Movement, is founded as India’s first AIDS activist movement.

Two police women, Leela and Urmila are married and consequently chastised by the police force, discharged of their duties for “inappropriate behavior,” and inundated with media attention. The incident and its torturous representation by/in the media was said to be a surreptitious signal to deter lesbians from pursuing relationships and coming out of the closet in India.

From 1987-1989 The Delhi Group met for informal gatherings, or “single women’s nights,” in members’ homes to discuss compulsive heterosexuality and to bond over their identification as “women who love women.”

“Gender Jam: Case of Curious Marriage,” published in India Today, reports that female-born Tarunlata underwent a sex change in 1987 to become a man, Tarunkumar, in order to marry Lila Chavda. Tarunkumar’s family was apparently aware of the sex-change but did not make it known to Lila’s father, Muljibhai, who, when he found out, filed a case to make the marriage void. Muljibhai won the case. The couple who told reporters that they were “emotionally attached to each other,” continued to live together in Tarunkumar’s mother’s home.

Bombay Dost, a gay magazine based in Bombay, is founded by Ashok Row Kavi, a gay rights activist and writer.

From the late 80’s on, lesbian pact-suicides involving girls between the ages of 14-18 become increasingly frequent, especially in rural and poor areas where young girls face the social pressures of, often arranged, marriage at the age of 18. Their love is invisible, as they are often observed to simply be very close friends. The incidents are identified as lesbian pact suicides because of evidence which often includes statements given by close friends of the girls as well as love notes and suicide notes that indicates the emotional bond and love between the girls and their shared fear of having to be separated by marriage.

Sakhi is founded in New Delhi by Giti Thadani, a renowned lesbian activist, thinker and writer known as India’s first open lesbian. From 1991-1997, Thadani announced the opening of Sakhi in a number of gay publications, including Bombay Dost. Thadani’s objective with Sakhi was to give women the opportunity to identify themselves as lesbian with other lesbians. Within weeks of the advertisements, letters from women identifying themselves as lesbian or as desiring women started pouring in to Sakhi, whose staff of four answered each letter. Through letter writing, Sakhi connected women, establishing the first national-reaching lesbian network.

ABVA publishes a report, “Less than Gay,” in which the group advocates for LGBTQ civil rights, including same-sex marriage and parenting, as well as the decriminalization of homosexuality by repealing Section 377.

After a decade of fighting, The All India Hijra Kalyan Sabha, got voting rights for hijras, India’s transgender community of ritual practitioners who are socially ostracized and marginalized. After getting the right to vote, hijras were recognized as a “third sex” by the government.

The first case to overturn Section 377 was filed by ABVA, which pressed the courts to reconsider the ban on condom distribution. ABVA’s case claimed that Section 377 prohibited the distribution of much-needed condoms to people of all sexual orientations, especially in prisons where AIDS and HIV were widespread. ABVA lost the case to the argument that distributing condoms would promote homosexuality.

Good As You (GAY), an LGBTQ activist organization, is founded in Bangalore. GAY provides legal services, support groups, and activities for LBGTQ folk.

Indo-Canadian filmmaker, Deepa Mehta’s Hindi film, Fire, is released in India with cuts made by the Censor Board. The stunning black and white film is loosely based off Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 short story, “Lihaaf” (“The Quilt”; see 1942) and depicts the lesbian love affair between two Hindu sisters-in-law, living in their husbands’ (who are brothers) family home. Meeta’s lesbian lovers are named Radha and Sita. The name Radha references the lusting, sexually-empowered character by the same name in Muddupalani’s 18th century erotic epic poem, Radhika-santvanam (see 1947). The name Sita comes from the love story of Sita and Rama (who’s earthly avatar is Krishna, whom Radha, in Muddupalani’s epic, lusts after) in the Hindu epic, Ramayana, wherein Sita walks through fire to prove her chastity. Mehta’s Sita, a lesbian, also walks through fire to be with Radha in the final drama of the film, suggesting too closely for many Hindus, the sacred figure of Sita from the Ramayana. The parallel aligning sacred Sita with Sita the lesbian urges the Indian Censor Board to request Mehta change “Sita” to “Nita” in the film.

Attracting a similarly reactionary outrage as Chughati’s short story, “Lihaaf” in 1944, when Fire is edited and released in December 1996, Hindu nationalists attack a Bombay theater and a Delhi theater featuring the film on December 2nd and 3rd, respectively, by breaking windows and setting fires. On the 4th in Calcutta, a similar riot escalates but is halted by the audience and theater personnel. Hindu Nationalists informally ban the film in India for “religious insensitivity.” On December 7th, Mehta leads a candlelight protest in Delhi calling for freedom of expression. On December 12th, opponents of the film strip down to their underwear in front of one of the film’s actors, Dilip Mehta’s, home and are arrested. On December 18th, the film was back in theaters, without riots. Three years later, the film was re-released without cuts made by the Censor Board, and the name “Sita,” is reinstated.

Also this year, Kali and Munni are the first hijras to run for elected political positions. Both lost, but in 1998 Shabnam Mausi was the first ever elected transgendered/hijra mayor in India (and was later elected to the Legislative Assembly in 2002), and in 1999 another hijra, Kamla Jaan, was also elected mayor.

Sangini, a help line and support group for lesbians and women exploring their sexuality, is founded in New Delhi.

Humrahi, a support group for gay and bisexual men, is founded in New Delhi.

CALERI (Campaign for Lesbian Rights) is founded in New Delhi.

Calcutta’s gay support group, Counsel Club organizes the first Pride Parade in South Asia.

LGBT-India, a Yahoo group is established and becomes a common way for middle-class queers to network.

Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India edited by Ashwini Sukthankar is published by Penguin Books in India. The book is a collection of first-hand lesbian accounts, including first loves and sexual experiences, coming out stories, acceptance narratives and more.

The Naz Foundation, an AIDS activist group founded in 1994, petitioned the court to revise Section 377 to exclude acts of consensual private sex from its purview. The petition sparked controversy between feminists and lesbians and gay men, as part of Naz’s position was that the government should have no domain in private, domestic spaces. Lesbians and feminists felt that this kind of domestic isolation would put many women, already largely isolated from the public sphere, at risk for domestic abuse and would lessen the ability to punish perpetrators of domestic violence. Petition pending…

PRISM (People for the Rights of Indian Sexual Minorities),and activist and study group, is founded in New Delhi.

The Ministry of Home Affairs Affidavit supports the retention of Section 377, stating that criminal law must reflect public morality and that Indian society disapproves of homosexuality.

Delhi High Court rejects Naz’s petition, stating that as an HIV/AIDS organization, the matter of Section 377 and decriminalizing homosexuality did not affect them and was therefore not within their scope to petition. Naz challenges to rejection and is rejected again.

A survey of Hindu swamis, or priests, notes that most oppose Hindu-sanctified homosexual marriage, but a few have performed such unions, arguing that love is the result of attachments from previous births and that marriage, as a union of spirit, is transcendental to gender.

Naz files another appeal and the Supreme Court orders that the High Court to consider the case on its merits.

BP Singhal intervened by stating that homosexuality is against Indian culture and that Section 377 should remain intact.

Voices Against 377 stated that Section 377 violates the fundamental human rights of LGBTQ persons.

Bangalore, Delhi and Bombay organize LGBTQ Pride Parades and events.


Naz foundation petition judgment is delivered. The Delhi High Court ruled in favor of the petition, thereby decriminalizing consensual same-sex relations between adults. The judgement is immediately followed by sixteen Special Leave Petitions filed in the Supreme Court to challenge the ruling. Thirty interventions to the sixteen challenges were filed to the Supreme Court by parents of LGBTQ folk, law academics and mental health professionals.

WHaQ! (We are Here and Queer!), a small collective of queer women, is founded in Bangalore. From 2009-2014 the collective was facilitated by activist, Mari Mendes, WHaQ aims to organize support groups, activities and events for lesbian, bi and queer identified women.

Chennai, Bhubaneswar and Ahmedabad organize LGBTQ Pride Parades and events.

Goa, a Tamil film by Venkat Prabhu, is released. The comedic film portrays gay couples in love. It is the first Tamil film to represent same-sex relationships.

Pune organizes LGBTQ Pride Parade and events.

Popular Indian soap opera, Maryada: Lekin Kab Tak features a plot line involving a gay couple.

Kerala organizes an LGBTQ Pride Parade and events.

Asia’s first Genderqueer Pride Parade is organized in Madurai.

The Supreme Court overturns the Delhi High Court’s 2009 decision to revise Section 377, thereby re-criminalizing homosexuality in India.

India’s first queer radio channel, Qradio-Out and Proud, is launched. The channel features talk shows, music and debates, and runs 24-7.

Supreme Court refuses Naz’s petition to review and reconsider the 2013 ruling but agrees to hear four curative petitions by Naz and other intervention movements in open court.

The Supreme Court recognizes the need for hijra civil rights and welfare, establishing funding and assistance with job placement, skill development, education opportunities, legal aid, pensions, free housing programs and unemployment aid. In Tamil Nadu and Kerela, hijras can access free Sex Reassignment Surgery (male to female only) in government hospitals.

Guwahti, Cochin, Baroda organize LGBTQ Pride Parades and events.

India’s first lesbian and bi-women match-making service, Wonderful Things Happen, is founded.

Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment (MINGLE) organizes the first LGBT youth leadership summit in India.

Maya for Women, a feminist and queer women’s NGO is founded in Bangalore India by WHaQ! M4W focuses its efforts on all women’s right to choice and fulfillment and creates satellite groups including a sports league, a youth group, and social activities.

Orange City LGBT Pride March is held in Nagpur.

Amour, an LGBTIQ platform is established to help queer folk find companions.

Pink Pages, an LGBTQ online magazine founded in 2009, launches its first print issue.

In February, the Supreme Court orders a re-examination of Section 377.

In June, the Supreme Court says it will not re-examine the petition to strike down Section 377.

India abstains from a vote at the UN Hunan Rights Council on the issue of appointing an independent expert to report on the nature, cause and extent of discrimination faced by LGBT people globally. The abstention from India focuses attention on India’s next move regarding Section 377, which is currently in place, making homosexual relations illegal. Many citizens criticize the abstention saying that it goes against the gestures of a progressing, modern India.Bangalore, Delhi and Bombay organize LGBTQ Pride Parades and events.

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