Gay sex in India is an offense punishable by a prison term of up to 10 years. The are laws are based on British laws that date back to Victorian times. They are rarely enforced and have been under review by Indian courts. Court case challenging the laws banning homosexuality have been held up in courts for a long time.

The “Bombay Dost” is India's first and only publication for gays and lesbians. In June 2003 a gay parade was held in Calcutta. Only about a hundred people took part. Many of the onlookers were not amused or sympathetic to the pleas of the participants for more acceptance for sexual minorities.

Caves in the Vindhya Hill region of Mardya Pradesh, dating back to 2000 B.C., show harpists with erect penises playing before dancers performing homosexual acts. Some Hindu gods are bisexual. The transvestites that work in the red light district of Bombay reportedly cater mostly to Sikhs. Two thousand hijras (eunuchs) work on Eunuch Lane. Dressed in short black leather skirts or saris, they are virtually indistinguishable from the female prostitutes, except many are extremely beautiful.

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Heterosexual acts, the only socially acceptable sexual expression, is based primarily on the much wider contact and more common relationships between males and females in society. The family is promoted as the early valid social unit. Although homosexuals existed even in ancient India, they never attained social approval in any section of the Indian population. There was a reference to such practices in the Kamasutra, written by Vatsyayana more than 1,500 years ago and long admired as an extraordinary analytic treatise on sex and love. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

“Very little is known about the current practice of male or female homosexuality in India. Homosexuality is slowly gaining acceptance, in part due to the efforts of one or two organized groups in metro cities that are affiliated with a couple of activist homosexual groups connected to international bodies of gays. A regular voice of one organization, and of its homosexual members, is published in Bombay, titled Bombay Dost, or “Bombay Friend.” Gender-conflicted persons are generally regarded as homosexuals. Traditional Indian society did not provide for special gender roles. In the case of transsexuals, it is not possible to alter one’s birth certificate to change the sex designated at birth. */

“Savara and Shridhar (1992) reported that 12 percent of unmarried men and 8 percent of married men reported that their first sexual experience was with another man and most of them had it before they were 20 years of age. About two fifths of them had a homosexual experience with one or two persons, while over a fifth had such experiences with more than ten persons. In their homosexual acts, only 21 percent of them had used condoms. Ahmed (1992), in his study of truck drivers, found that 15 percent of them admitted previous homosexual experience. Parasuraman et al. (1992), from a study in Madras, found that 3 percent of the homosexuals earned their livings as dancers and/or sex workers. It is further reported in this study that most of the men were between the ages of 21 and 30, and took both active and passive roles in unprotected anal and oral intercourse.” */

Lesbians in India

The gay sex laws in India apply only to men. There are no laws against lesbian sex. Even so there are few "out" lesbians in India. Until 1992, when a French publisher broke the custom, all translations of Kama Sutra omitted the ninth chapter of lovemaking between women.

One lesbian couple that had been friends since childhood eloped and were married in a Hindu ceremony and then threatened to kill themselves if their parents did not accept them. The father of one the women called their union an “unnatural liaison” and said the couple “should either be sent to jail or have some action taken against them.” The couple was detained by police but a judge ordered them released because they had not broken any laws. [Source: The Times of London]

One Indian lesbian activist told the Independent, "India is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of compulsory heterosexuality. The whole social culture is so embedded in getting married—children, the extended family, grandchildren—that if you reject that there is a whole policy of insidious exclusion."

Gay-Themed Films in India

Once-avoided topics such as lesbian love are now commonly featured in Indian films. Deepa Mehta, the highly-regarded Indian-born, Canada-based film director is best known for her trilogy: “Fire”, “Earth”, and “Water”, each of which dealt with a controversial topic that was once considered taboo. “Fire” (1996) is a film about two sister-in-laws, trapped in loveless marriage and ignored by their husbands, who seek intimacy with each other and have a lesbian relationship. Although the lesbianism received a lot of press, the films was more about alienation and loneliness and how women deal with it.

“Fire” was the target of attacks by Hindu extremists. About 20 women in the Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena attacked the Regal movie theater in Delhi, which was showing film, and broke widows and doors with sticks and terrorized the audience. Mehta received death threats. One member of Shiv Sena said, "If women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse. Reproduction of human beings will stop."

In the spring of 2005, “My Brother Nikhil”, a film about a gay man’s relationship with his family after contacting AIDS, drew modest audiences in Bombay. What was remarkable was that such a film was allowed to be shown at all and that it didn’t draw angry protests. The low budget film nevertheless addressed its subject matter very carefully. There was no kissing or even hints of sex.

Eunuchs in India

India is one of the last places in the world you can find eunuchs. Known as “hijras”, they wear saris and make-up and continue to thrive because Indians believe that because they can not procreate themselves they can make others fertile. They make money by showing up at weddings and birth celebrations and demanding money to give a blessing to ensure that women will give birth in the future. Hijara is an Urdu word that mean “impotent.’ [Source: Jan McGirk, the Independent]

Eunuchs are found mostly in northern India. Their numbers are hard to determine. Some say there are 100,000 eunuchs in Delhi alone and perhaps 1 million nationwide. Other say there are only 50,000 hijras living throughout India, predominantly in cities of the north. Some Eunuchs request to be counted as females. Some are natural hermaphrodites. Most undergo a painful operation in which all or part of their genitals is removed, in some cases with a single cut. The wound is allowed to bleed "to let the male energy spill out before it is cauterized with a burning iron”.

Eunuchs are part caste, part religious cult and part social groups. They are culturally defined as either “neither men nor women” or men who have become women. Known for their outrageous behavior, they occupy a place so low in the caste system they can act any way they want without suffering any consequences because they have nothing to lose. Some eunuchs are quite attractive but are instantly recognizable as not being women. Often it is their masculine jaw and heavy make-up that gives them away. Other times it is their exaggerated walk.

As described by anthropologist Serena Nanda, hijras are distinct from ordinary male homosexuals (known as zenana , woman, or anmarad , un-man), who retain their identity as males and continue to live in ordinary society. Most hijras derive from a middle- or lower-status Hindu or Muslim background and have experienced male impotency or effeminacy. A few originally had ambiguous or hermaphroditic sexual organs.*

Eunuch History and Religion

Eunuchs have been around a long time. They are mentioned in ancient Hindu texts, including the epic “Mahabharata”. In the Mughal era they served as harem keepers for the Mughal rulers as they also did in imperial China and Ottoman Turkey. Many aspects of eunuch life come from Islam and many of the most important ones were Muslims. Indian hijra differ from traditional Muslim eunuchs who did not dress like women and were not sexually active nor and didn’t have a religious function.

Eunuchs have a special places in Hinduism because of the are believed to have the combined power of men and women. They identify with Shiva, a sexually ambivalent figure, and Bahuchara Mata, a version of the India mother goddess. Their homes generally have shrines to these deities. One of the most popular forms fo Shiva is Ardanarisvara, or half-man/half-woman, which represents Shiva united with his “shakti” (female creative power). The Kama Sutra describes how to have sex with one. A hijra undergoes a surgical emasculation in which he is transformed from an impotent male into a potentially powerful new person. Like Shiva — attributed with breaking off his phallus and throwing it to earth, thereby extending his sexual power to the universe (recognized in Hindu worship of the lingam) — the emasculated hijra has the power to bless others with fertility. Hijras are also united in the worship of the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata and are believed to be sources of the goddess’s power. One of their religious roles is to perform as mediums for female goddesses, hence their role at weddings.

Eunuch Operation

As young boys many future eunuchs were abandoned or sold by their families to a sex cult; the boys were taken into the jungle, where a priest cut off their genitals in a ceremony called nirvana. The priest then folded back a strip of flesh to create an artificial vagina. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

The operation to removes the genitals has remained unchanged through the centuries. It most cases the entire genitalia are removed with one cut and no anesthesia. The eunuch is held down firmly while it is done and is expected to walk around for an hour or so after it is done. Only then at the wounds attended to, often with a mixture of herbs, mustard oil and cow dung. The mortality rate is said to be very low.

The emasculation operation is viewed as rebirth from a an impotent male to a potent hijra who is linked with Shiva and the mother goddess. There is a particular association with impotency, Hijras believe that any impotent man who does not become a eunuch will be born impotent for the next seven future births. The operation is performed by a hijra called a “midwife”: who does the deed after receiving a sanction from the mother goddess. Afterwards the new hijra undergoes a period of restriction that is similar to the one woman goes through after she gives birth, After a 40-day period of isolation, the new hijra is dressed up as a bride and taken in a procession to a body of water and given a ritual bath to symbolize purity in the eyes of the goddess.

Eunuch Community

Many eunuch are village misfits who join willingly. Some have been kidnapped. Infants whose sex is ambiguous at birth can be claimed by eunuchs. One eunuch told the Independent he/she joined when he was eight. "If a boy walks up with a sway, it gets noticed. Eventually everyone mistreats him, and the only place he belongs is with “hijras”."

Eunuchs are organized into communities made of gurus and “chelas” (disciples). The guru can be viewed as their, mother and/or husband. The chelas are regarded as the guru’s dependents and are supposed to be loyal, faithful, obedient and show respect and give the guru some of their earnings. Changing gurus is a big deal. The chela are like sisters. Guru-chela units are organized into groups that resemble clans. A gurus passes down his wealth to the chelas like a father to sons. Gurus maintain control by providing or taking away opportunities to work. The worst punishment is be banished from a community. Young eunuchs say they feel a sense of belonging for the first time when they join a “hijra” community. They are trained by other eunuchs and live in way that is more structured than the gay lifestyle. Eunuch gurus recruit, train and auction their trainees. A particularly lovely dancer can fetch up to $3,000.

Eunuch Life

Hijras generally voluntarily leave their families of birth, renounce male sexuality, and assume a female identity, name, and dress. When eunuchs are admitted to hospital, doctors are not sure whether to place in them in the male ward or the female ward. On censuses they are listed as male. something that makes many eunuchs furious.

The hijra community functions much like a caste. They have communal households; newly formed fictive kinship bonds, marriage-like arrangements; and seven nationwide "houses," or symbolic descent groups, with regional and national leaders, and a council. There is a hierarchy of gurus and disciples, with expulsion from the community a possible punishment for failure to obey group rules. Thus, although living on the margins of society, hijras are empowered by their special relationship with their goddess and each other and occupy an accepted and meaningful place in India's social world. [Source: Library of Congress]

The most basic social unit for hijra is the household. It is typically made up five to 15 people under a guru or house manager, The members are more or less permanent, plus visitors and short term guest, often hijra from other places. All members of the household are expected to contribute economically except those who are are too old and they do domestic chores.

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Characteristically, according the Walter Williams (1986, 258-259), hijra are bitchy like American gay drag-queens - heterosexual transvestites are rarely or never bitchy. Insistent and bad-tempered, they wear no underwear and lift their skirts to expose themselves to the embarrassed guests if not paid. They tend to complain and frequently make demands on others in public, such as demanding (rather than politely asking) rich women for their clothes on the street (Weinrich 1987, 96). [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

Eunuchs Jobs

Groups of hijras go about together, dancing and singing at the homes of new baby boys, blessing them with virility and the ability to continue the family line. Hijras are also attributed with the power to bring rain in times of drought. Hijras receive alms and respect for their powers, yet they are also ridiculed and abused because of their unusual sexual condition and because some act as male prostitutes. [Source: Library of Congress]

Eunuchs have traditionally earned money by collecting alms, receiving payments for blessing newborn males and serving at temples of their goddess. Some work as dancers and perform at stag parties, at college functions or in films. They also work as servants and run public bathhouses When they beg on the streets or in shops, their activity is regulated by a hijra hierarchy. They are pretty much denied conventional jobs. Security guards generally don’t even let them near an office that accept applications.

In a typical hijra marriage or childbirth performance, a eunuch dances and sings, accompanied by a two-sided drum, and provides a blessing for the child or the couple in the name of the mother goddess. In return the eunuch is given a “badhai”, a traditional gift of cash, sweets, cloth and grains. Eunuchs are regarded as “absorbers” of bad luck, which in turn, protect their customers. Mothers like them because they are believed to absorb any homosexual tendencies their children might have. To maintain their monopoly on their traditional trades they denounce “frauds” and “fakes” who imitate them making loud public gestures and chase them away using physical force if necessary.

Eunuch performance symbolize fertility and ate burlesques of female behavior. They often act in ways that women are not permitted at act: making sexual innuendoes, using, rough, course language and teasing and making fun of anybody in sight. There are often set songs and comedy routines. One famous routine features the hijra something on the difficulties of each stage of pregnancy. The hijra insects eh baby’s genitals, If a baby is born a hermaphrodite it is widely believed that the hijra will claim him-her then and there.

Many eunuchs work as prostitutes and rely on that job for the large part of their income. They usually work in a brothel under a house manager or “madam,” who takes part of the prostitute’s earnings and provides food, shelter and protection from police and unruly customers. Many turn to prostitution because demand for their traditional services has declined.

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Their societal role, and means of making a livelihood, involves providing entertainment at weddings and other festivals, sometimes uninvited but always expecting to be paid. They may also engage in sexual activity with men for money or to satisfy their own sexual desires. The most commonly used technique of the hijras is the anal-intercourse passive role without the use of condoms. Eunuchs are generally more ready to perform high-risk sex than female prostitutes, and some Indian men believe they can’t contract HIV from them (Friedman 1996:14). Two thousand hijras work on Eunuch Lane in Bombay. Dressed in short black leather skirts or saris, they are virtually indistinguishable from the female prostitutes, except many are extremely beautiful. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

Discrimination and Disgust Towards Eunuchs

Eunuchs have faced oppression and discrimination for centuries. Owners of shops of other business often say. "We don't allow their kind in here." When they get in they are told, "Out, you disease-ridden whore" or are threatened to be hit with sandals. One eunuch told the Independent, "People always shove us around."

Eunuchs are generally reviled by ordinary Indians. They are known for shouting insults at passersby on the streets and at guest of parties that are paid to appear at. Eunuchs are believed to have the power to invoke dangerous hexes and curses. They also are believed to possess the power to curse people with sterility or bad fortune.

One of the greatest fears that people have is that a eunuch will lift his clothes and expose his mutilated genitals. At wedding parties, if eunuchs don't receive what they think they should get paid they sometimes threaten to make a ruckus full of invective insults and lift their saris above their thighs. Most people pay immediately to avoid being "taunted with scarred genitals."

There are stereotypes within the eunuch community: bitchy queens notorious for their cruelty; clever businessmen who provide for the group; and elders who are nursed by greedy sycophants who claim their property. Eunuchs also have a reputation for kidnapping children and forcing them to become prostitutes or eunuchs. If a child is born with any kind of deformity to their genitalia, eunuchs will demand that child be handed over to them when they are 12 or 13.

Advances by Eunuchs

A number of eunuch have ran for political office. In 2002, an eunuch was elected mayor of the city of Katni in in Uttar Pradesh. Explaining how this could happen the head of the local chamber of commerce was quoted as saying, “People here were just fed up, they said, ‘Sure, let’s have a eunuch.” Eunuches have also been elected to the state legislature in Madhya Pradesh Some Indians have voted for them because they are regarded as being less corrupt than ordinary politicians.

Eunuch held a huge convention in Uttar Pradesh in 2001. There has been some discussion of forming a political party to represent them.

The Tampriya Creations design house has hired eunuch as runway models. One eunuch was even allowed to compete in a beauty contests. A prominent Bombay eunuch told the Observer, “All we want is to be tarted like human beings and do all the normal things.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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