Posts Tagged ‘Current Affairs’

377 ways to differ

10 July 2009

Recent judgement of the Delhi High Court striking down some portions of IPC section 377 that legally prohibited gay sex has set many tongues wagging. It is but natural. Unlike contentious issues of runaway fiscal deficits, nuclear energy safety, global warming, aging populations, collapsing urban transport, garbage disposal, & kindred such issues thrown up by the march of human civilization that affect the quality of life of everyone but are best left to ‘experts‘; sex is a topic most feel a mastery over & everyone has a opinion. It is a dearly held & fervidly defended opinion. Other topics that aroused such mass appeal in recent past were terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Communal strife in various places, reservations in education & jobs, son of the soil agitations, etc. A common thread that runs through all these is a sense of imminent alarm caused by fear for life, values, or of loss of entitlements & livelihood. No one then bothers to gather facts or seek reports or expert advice, but everyone has a position borne out of righteous & rightful conviction. While such mass participation is welcome, mass hysteria is best avoided. Unfortunately, battle lines are already drawn, between those who oppose, numerically I suspect numerous, and those who support Delhi high court judgement. Polarization is so complete that no middle ground or gray shades of viewpoints are either conceived or admitted into discourse. Those who support same-sex cause while they themselves have opposite-sex orientation do it from the premise of liberal-ethics that demands tolerance towards views or behaviours not in agreement with their own morals, tastes or aesthetics. Or sometimes simply they don’t care so long as it does not impinge on their freedom or way of life. Those who oppose same-sex orientation converge from varied perspectives conditioned by value system, incipient or inarticulate fears, law & order considerations, or such other premises. It would be a good starting point to review some of these issues to know what exactly is at stake. Hopefully, it would soften the positions & abate the contempt and bitterness directed at the ‘other.

Govindacharya, a former BJP ideologue, today has reportedly said that India has always lived with homosexuality. It is a heartening admission from a person of ‘Hindutva tradition’, since such phenomena are often viewed as recent corrupting imports from the West. Recall the story of Vishnu assuming a charming feminine form of Vishwamohini to gain advantage for the Devs in their ongoing tussle with the Asurs for supremacy. An unforeseen event was the infatuation of Vishwamohini for Bikshadan (form assumed by Mahadev), which ultimately results in consummation & their union is celebrated with a birth of a son named Hariharputra. If one removes the adornment of mythology it is an unabashed mention of homo-sexuality. Incest, a more outrageous instance of immoral conduct, has also found mention in our mythology where Brahma lusts for his daughter Saraswati. Greeks, who have documented history prolifically unlike Indians, have left numerous notes on same-sex liaisons. In male union, the active or insertive role was called Erastes, while passive or acceptor role was named Eromenos or Paidika. In fact, erastes was considered a model of ultimate masculinity. Plato, in the Symposium, argues for an army to be comprised of same-sex lovers. Presumably because they would gravitate into a close knit fighting force with strong bonds of love & loyalty. Apparently Thebes did form such a regiment, the Sacred Band of Thebes (follow this link for a history of homo-sexuality in Europe & Middle East), formed of 500 soldiers, who were renowned in the ancient world for their valour in battle. It must therefore be concluded that whether homosexuals were tolerated or persecuted, they have been around in all climes & times since the historic times and by sensible extrapolation always.

Once antiquity & ubiquity of homosexuality is established, the attention may now be turned to other variants of perceived or perpetrated distortions. Vyalar Ravi, a central cabinet minister, has reportedly yesterday branded homosexuality as elitist phenomenon. If his position is informed by all the hype generated by mainstream media in the wake of the high court judgement, then I am afraid it would appear justified by the overwhelming prominence given to all the high society couples & celebrities. But he would appear a poor & hasty judge if that is his sole database. But his is a classical sample of how middleclass – that upholder of virtue & values for the entire society – informs its own position invariably. Such amoral behaviour it contends is either the preserve of dregs of society – the lower class that behaves like animals in their ignorance & moral lassitude – or of the high society – who are drunk on their power & wealth into stupefaction. One it looks down upon & the other it envies but holds in contempt. It is true that poor, especially those staying in urban slums in inhuman conditions & in intrusive proximity due to high population density, have little time to contemplate virtues & ethics and be bound by them in their daily struggle for existence. Rich don’t care for such niceties because they can afford to do so in their exclusive domains safely tucked away from the rest of humanity. Both lower & upper classes may thus openly display ‘aberrant‘ behaviour albeit for different reasons. Take other instances of social taboos such as extra marital relations, live in relationships or polyandry/ polygamy that are equally repugnant to middle class. While poor may use it as survival strategies, rich are unencumbered by these mores. Rigidity of middle class in these matters and fears of severe strictures or of even being ostracized from the community keeps its members in check & drives such indulgences underground. The fact that these are not seen doesn’t mean they don’t happen. Even when these come to the notice of family or close relations, these instances remain in wraps for fear of loss of face & social standing for the entire group. Visibility therefore can never be taken as a criterion for prevalence of a particular behaviour or its absence.

When geography, race, social strata etc. are out of the way as hindrances for free permeation of homosexuality, the attitude that it only happens to them not to us (we or they, them or us, remember this exclusivist paradigm of George Bush & the harm it did?) looses it moorings & is orphaned hopelessly. Once this is realized & accepted, naturally next question to ask is why does homosexuality occur? Baba Ramdev believes & contends that it is a disease & can be cured. Today he has become Brand Ramdev and whole industry & institution have sprung around him. His runaway success as a pranayam & yoga teacher has probably lead him to believe that he can pontificate (monarchical view of intelligence) on any subject that catches his fancy & same will go down well with his constituency (I think the latter point is true). Yet he has a point that needs answering. How do we know like AIDs homosexuality is not some Acquired Sexual Disorientation syndrome (ASDs)! Or some psychiatric conditions like psychosis or neurosis! Large swathes of society have such repugnance & deep mistrust of homosexuality that these objections need to be addressed in any serious dialogue to dispel ignorance & preconceived notions. Let us take AIDs first. Since its discovery among humans the proportion of individuals affected by it has shown great variance depending upon the prevalence of risk factors in a particular community and the degree of success enjoyed by the preventive measures in the same community. Like in any dynamic system percentage of cases shows variation over time as well as geography depending upon the interplay of various variables responsible for it. On the contrary, homosexuality has shown stable expression over comparatively longer time period and across cultures & regions in terms of percentage prevalence in varied populations. Therefore physiologically speaking it doesn’t seem to be infective or contagious. Homosexuals enjoy same level of health or risks as their heterosexual counterparts in a community provided standards of hygiene & precautions observed are pari passu.

From the psychological perspective the jury is still out on this issue. It is noteworthy here that Ramdev has apparently relied upon the opinion of some Spanish psychologist in his appeal before the court. However, an overwhelming majority of psychologists doesn’t hold it to be a mental disorder. This appears to be a reasonable conclusion as homosexuals are as normal, responsible, enterprising, creative, successful, deceptive, violent, dull or antisocial as their heterosexual brothers are from the same community. But for their sexual orientation, there won’t be much to differentiate between the two. In fact because of social repression & taboo homosexuals often have to be discreet & circumspect in arranging their conduct & others are then none the wiser about their sexual preferences & treat homosexuals as one of them. This should convince most that majoritarian view of psychologists has merit. A curious case to compare here is how left handedness was viewed through the ages. Throughout history left handedness was considered as negative. The Latin word for left is ‘Sinister‘. Other connotations associated with it were: “clumsy, awkward, unlucky, insincere, evil, malicious, and so on.” Most societies are biased towards right handedness & left handedness is often severely corrected in childhood. It would be anachronistic today if someone were to term it a disease. It may be noted in passing that in ancient times in combat & in some sports even today it bestows an advantage.

It is time to see if biology has some insights to share. In species where choice for propagation & future survival is made in favour of sexual reproduction that presupposes heterosexuality (barring hermaphrodites), emergence of homosexuality certainly appears to be purposeless. But there are other characteristics that appear purposeless. Take the case for example of left hemisphere of the brain controlling the right side of the body and vice versa. Many explanations have been proffered, but none are satisfactory & the issue is still wide open. Natural selection operates on variations produced by mutations. Most mutations are pernicious to the organism concerned & die out with the organism in which they manifest. Some however endow advantage to the individuals in whom they manifest & they survive well in competition and through reproductive success pass it onto progeny. In time such individuals come to dominate the population & those traits get established in the specie. Some other traits may neither be pernicious nor beneficial, but if they occur in conjunction with beneficial traits then they may survive piggyback & consequently get established in the population along with the beneficial ones. Thus they are there by virtue of company they keep, no more. Presence of same sex preference may be a similar phenomenon. Though this answer is benign, the original question is not. “What causes homosexuality?” Way it is framed is a loaded question as it presupposes, like in case of any disease, that it calls for prevention and cure. Secondly it presumes that heterosexuality is a ‘natural’ evolutionary consequence of reproductive advantage & since overwhelming majority practices it, it is well understood as well. Why do we study gravity then since everybody experiences it? Obviously what occurs commonly or is practised commonly is experienced but not necessarily understood. So even why & how heterosexuality occurs needs to be studied & understood? Recent approaches in biology have suggested that biological variables, such as genes, prenatal hormones, and brain neuro-anatomy, do code for sexual orientation, homo as well as hetero. Others contend that biological variables do not code for sexual orientation per se but for childhood temperaments that influence a child’s preferences for sex-typical or sex-atypical activities. These preferences in turn influence how a child may view same sex peers & opposite sex peers. A child that views opposite sex peers as exotic grows to be erotically sensitive to them and conversely grows to be erotically sensitive to same sex peers if it views them as exotic. This theory is called ‘exotic to erotic‘. Though contending theories exist, all converge on one point : theory must explain both homosexuality & heterosexuality.

Those who have travelled thus far only have to contend with fears of apocalypse now or breakdown of human civilization as we know or more accurately perceive. One Suresh Kumar Kaushal in his petition challenging the high court order has reportedly contended that even animals don’t indulge in such activities. This is patently false as there is documented same-sex behaviour in many species from primates to penguins. This comes as a shock to many because what occurs in nature is natural & therefore its inexorable conclusion that homosexuality is natural. We have already travelled beyond this and this need not arrest us here. An interesting extension however I am tempted to follow. Some are horrified that decriminalizing homosexuality today may tomorrow ratchet up demands for legalizing sex with individuals of other species – where even homo or hetero distinction becomes irrelevant. They may be comforted that their thoughts have already been anticipated by ancient civilizations as evidenced in the story of Minotaur & Ashvamedh yajna. Ashvamedh yagna had the following aim : “Sex magic featured in a number of Vedic rituals, most significantly in the Asvamedha Yajna, where the ritual culminated with the chief queen lying with the dead horse in a simulated sexual act; clearly a fertility rite intended to safeguard and increase the kingdom’s productivity and martial prowess.” It is tempting to speculate who a she-goat would choose: a man longingly gazing at her as mutton on hoofs or another amorously imagining uniting with her. A she goat is likely to put up with at worst a small inconvenience resulting from the dalliance of the latter rather than embracing death with the former. Since such tendencies have always existed, there is no cause of alarm that our society will breakup. We must get over this paranoia & become robust in our self conception. One is now ready to face that small band of self proclaimed defenders of morality & virtue in public life. Almost invariably they are misinformed bigots totally unacquainted with spirit of enquiry or scholarship and are alien to humility & doubt. Like all wrong doers they are energetic rabble-rousers who work their ways by frightening the populace. Either it happens through ignorance, but substantially their acts are informed by hidden agendas. If this piece raises doubts & leads to critically examining one’s position, then it serves its purpose. There are many ways we may differ or choose to differ, but it may be done civilly & studiedly.