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Shattered Hegemonies: Queerness in Precolonial India

By: Sai Siddhaye

Just as glass, which we perceive as a solid mass, is actually an amorphous substance somewhere in between solid and liquid, culture is also ever-fluid, and actions from centuries ago still sent shock waves to our contemporary lives. As glass slowly shifts and flows over time, human cultures also flow and adapt, yet both will be unrecognizable when shattered by a traumatic force. This traumatic force, of course, is imperialism. Colonization has irreparably changed indigenous cultures worldwide, both erasing and rewriting traditional practices and beliefs. With this in consideration, trying to understand these practices becomes more complex, because the context within which they evolved no longer exists. This holds especially true in discourse about sexuality and gender. Many cultures which may appear binaristic or heteronormative today certainly weren’t so hundreds of years ago. Indeed, Foucault claimed that sexuality-based identity categories were a 19th century European construction, and did not exist prior to that. If this is true, then the political vilification of certain identity categories relies on a Eurocentric and imperialist ideology. 

Let’s put this in the context of postcolonial South Asia. The figure of “the homosexual” is pivotal for many discussions of what is “quintissentially Indian”, as modern Indian culture strongly enforces hegemonic masculinity and heteronormative values that erase queerness in any form. Contemporary India–particularly Hindu nationalist theory–frames same-sex attraction and sexuality as a Western import, a regrettable product of globalization that has only recently stopped being criminal under the law (though of course it is still socially illicit). Such a characterization, of course, is far from the case; queerness has existed in South Asia for centuries, and it was an accepted part of human sexuality and pleasure before the colonial era. We can see evidence of queerness not only in South Asian languages but also in religious and historical texts and monuments. Though ‘queer’ is a modern term, it is the closest umbrella term we have to describe nonnormative sexuality. From here on out, I will be speaking about what is known today as India, but it is important to understand that the hard borders and land disputes are also a part of the legacy of the British Raj; South Asia is incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse, and the political distinction between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is a modern concept conceived during decolonization. 

Many Indian scholars have studied the queer history of India and Hinduism, the most notable of whom are Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, and Rohit Dasgupta. They have written several books and articles about their research, including Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History by Vanita and Kidwai, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society by Vanita, and Digital Queer Cultures in India: Politics, Intimacies and Belonging by Dasgupta. Their studies cover a wide variety of topics, and provide an approximate timeline during which queer attraction can be analyzed.

Medieval India, according to Vanita and Kidwai, is most easily studied through the theology that was present at the time. Hindu deities were treated as genderfluid and andrygynous beings; the reincarnation of godly avatars meant that Hindu deities occupied many different bodies that were male, female, and intersex. Vatsyana’s Kamasutra, which–unlike its public perception in America–was something of a guide for spiritual life, even describes queer sexual acts purely for pleasure. Many other ancient texts also feature intimate same-sex relationships, both sexual and asexual in nature. In the Mahabharata, for example, Krishna and Arjuna are said to have a bond of friendship that goes beyond marriage or procreation, and their friendship is a very important aspect of this epic. Krishna states that “Arjuna is more important to him than wives, children or kinsmen- there can be many spouses and sons but there is only one Arjuna, without whom he cannot live”. Though the nature of this relationship is not stated, the close intimacy between these two men implies that the modern hegemonic standards of masculine friendships–and the distinction between platonic and romantic relationships–were not expected at the time. In the Kritivasa Ramayana, the sage Bhagiratha is said to be born from the sexual union of two women, blessed by the divine sanction of the god Shankar. The variance in sexuality and gender in ancient texts and understanding of divinity suggest that sexual fluidity was also not culturally taboo at the time. 

This fluidity in intimacy is also present within the languages of India. The term ‘sahki’ in Sanskrit-derived languages translates to one’s close friend, yet the space the term occupies within devotional poetry describes a relationship that is much more intimate and sapphic than simply a friendly onlooker, and ancient paintings of heroines often eroticized their female friends. Because this role between friend and lover has no place in the Western cosmology, it is difficult to translate into American culture.

Many religious monuments and sites that depict same-sex eroticism still exist to this day. Konarak Temple in Odisha, for example, is a temple for the Hindu sun god Surya. This temple includes carvings and statues that depicts erotic scenes, which are sometimes queer in nature. This temple also harbors many images of group sex, suggesting that nonnormative sexual configurations was not uncommon, and that the patriarchal nuclear family did not play as big a role in Indian culture as it did today. The Khajuraho Monuments are a series of Hindu and Jain temples also depict same-sex eroticism, particularly among women. These temples indicate that in Medieval India, sexuality was seen as a spiritual practice, and queer attraction was not shunned in the religious tradition. As Dasgupta said, “Hinduism is content to allow opposites to confront each other without resolution, which provides a space for non-normative sexualities and same sex desires to exist”. 

This acceptance of fluidity, however, did not continue after colonial interaction began to occur. In the 1700s, Britain–driven by a Victorian obsession with ‘purity’–prompted policies that regulated sexuality. This was driven in part by the large number of British men who, while in the Indian colonies, would have homosexual encounters with Indian men. Homosexuality was painted as an “oriental vice” and Indian culture demonized as “backwards”. This also seems to have been a justification for the further expansion of British imperial rule; claiming to civilize otherwise “savage” indigenous people has been a long-standing excuse for enacting colonial violence. Thus bore the rise of the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1861, which made homosexuality illegal under punishment of incarceration for life. It criminalized queerness and forced any queer relationships, whether homosexual or simply nonnormative in nature, underground. This hypocritical and archaic law was only repealed in 2018, after centuries of damage to Indian culture and people. Section 377 also allowed colonial leaders to outlaw certain texts that they deemed ‘deviant’, which included some Hindu and Perso-Arabic tales and epics; such censorship allowed Britain to dictate what kind of masculinity was socially acceptable, and which actions were effeminate and therefore criminal.

Dasgupta states in Digital Queer Cultures in India that  “the normalisation of heterosexual identity is a part of the processes of colonial modernity”. This includes the centuries in which the British Raj rewrote the cultural rules for masculinity and sexuality, which bore the violent heteronormativity present in India today. This is especially ironic if we analyze the pinkwashing strategies that the Global North uses to depict the Global South as unaccepting and homophobic. The cultural vilification of queerness in India is a product of colonial occupation, and denying the material impact of the British Raj on queer people in India falls into the same branch of imperialist ideology that Britain utilized to enact violence in the first place.

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Beyond the Binary

By: Sai Siddhaye

This January, Senate Bill 201 failed its first vote in the California Senate. This bill would have banned cosmetic genital surgery on intersex infants until the age of six, and would have been an important protection of bodily autonomy for a community that has been mistreated for decades. This alone demonstrates how little intersex people are included in decisions of their own health and legal rights. Intersex people make up a non-negligible portion of the global population, yet are rarely acknowledged in conversations about sex and sexual health. In our binary-oriented culture, there is little space for nonconformity of any kind. Discourse surrounding gender and sex often hinge on biological essentialism, and frame the world as biologically male and biologically female. Though these arguments are usually targeting trans and nonbinary identities, they also fail to create a space for intersex people, and therefore ignore the role that biology and genetics actually play in the development of sex characteristics. Over the course of the past century, intersex people have been one of the many marginalized groups who have been violently mistreated by the healthcare and legal systems; to understand the harm that has been done, we must learn the history of intersex discrimination and what intersex people themselves have been fighting for. 

In the 1960s, a psychologist named Dr. John Money developed the theory that individual gender comes from a process of socialization. This challenged earlier European beliefs about gender and sex being indistinguishable, and was extremely controversial. However, Dr. Money’s separating of gender and sex was not necessarily a precursor to the way that gender and sex are viewed now. Today, separating gender and sex can be interpreted as a subversion of bioessential gender constructs, but it was not always this way. Dr. Money’s ideas about how gender is socially constructed was not a rejection of gender constructs and roles, but rather was a way to impose hegemonic ideas of masculinity and femininity on people to change their gender  and further alienate gender nonconforming people. Separating sex and gender, therefore, was a way for Dr. Money to stabilize the idea of a sex binary. The deeply problematic nature of his theories came to light in the case of David Reimer. David, born as Bruce Reimer, suffered damage to his penis as an infant, and was subsequently raised as a girl under the forceful guidance of Dr. Money. Reimer underwent genital surgery and hormone replacement therapy–as was very common for intersex infants or children with genital abnormalities–and was never told of his medical history. Despite his change in sex, his own gender identity did not change, and Reimer suffered from intense gender dysphoria and depression, eventually committing suicide after multiple previous attempts. The consequences that Reimer faced as a result of Dr. Money’s intervention demonstrates the importance of having autonomy over one’s own body, and how gender and sex are far more complex than what we understand. 

Intersex is tied to transness medically and socially because of the implications of gender nonconformity that it produces. Dysphoria has become a precursor to access trans health, even though transness and intersex can exist without medical intervention; dysphoria is a product of socially imposed bioessential ideology, not an inherent indicator of transness. This is why trans and intersex activists have been fighting for the right to choose what to do with their own bodies for decades. The Intersex Society of North America was founded in the 1990s as a source of community for intersex people, as well as a tool to advocate for people who have been harmed by the healthcare system. Though it closed its doors in 2008, their website remains as a resource and their work is being carried on by interACT. Many intersex activists have been highly involved with educating people about intersex lives and how to support them. Mani Mitchell created the documentary Intersexion, which discusses the ways that social stigma, a lack of resources, and violent medical practices makes it very difficult for intersex people to retain their bodily autonomy, and why they are worse off because of it. This documentary also features others involved in intersex activism, including Hida Viloria and Tiger Devore, who describe how genital surgeries negatively impacted their health with long-term effects. One huge takeaway is this: many intersex people do not want cosmetic genital surgery. It infringes on their autonomy and imposes on them a sex binary that does not exist. 

This brings us back to California Senate Bill 201. This bill would have prohibited medically unnecessary cosmetic genital surgeries on children until they could provide informed consent, allowing them to choose what to do with their own bodies. Not only would it have preserved the bodily autonomy of intersex children, but it would have also given them the option to live outside of the imposed sex binary. This bill sparked controversy, and uncovered the practice of addressing parents’ distress by performing surgery on their infant. It was introduced in 2019, and rejected by the California Senate on January 13, 2020. This loss demonstrates how little the general public knows about intersex issues, health, and experiences; as bodily autonomy continues to be politicized and argued, intersex health must be advocated for just as much as women’s health and reproductive rights. Until everyone can choose what to do with their own bodies, the fight continues. 

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On the Basis of Sex Testing

By: Sai Siddhaye

On the Basis of Sex Testing

Let’s face it–women have never been treated fairly in athletic competitions. But discrimination doesn’t stop at underfunded programs and unsavory jokes; sex verification in sports may be the most invasive and misogynistic practice in the books, and stems from the bigotry that insulates global institutions. Sex testing refers to the practice of verifying the biological sex of an athlete–usually a female athlete–to ensure fair competition. It demonstrates a societal lack of understanding of sexual variation and draws on archaic knowledge gained through brutality and dehumanization. Though it has been protested time and time again, the International Association of Athletics Federation, or IAAF, has continued to perform tests that contradict the scientific understanding of sex.

Breaking Down the Sex Binary

The notion of a sex binary is quite antiquated, though nobody would guess that based on the way Western culture addresses it. Sex is, in fact, a spectrum rather than a binary. The intersex population makes up about 2% of the global population, suggesting that ambiguous sexual characteristics fall on a scale of genetic variation rather than mutation. The way sexual characteristics develop comes down to a cascade of events; chromosomes program gonads, gonads release hormones, and hormones change bodily processes and external features. There may be variation in any of these steps, which means that many sex characteristics can be changed, erased, or appear independently in different combinations. These mix-and-match sex configurations are common, and cannot be squeezed into a binary. In fact, there are so many known chromosomal combinations outside of XX and XY that many people reach maturity without even knowing their chromosomes are not the standard pairings. So why are we taught that sex means either male or female? Though this may be because of the large number of people whose sexual characteristics do fall into a binary, social stigma and sexual policing are mostly to blame. Like the gender binary, the sex binary has been socially constructed in ways that actively harm nonnormative gender and sex expression. Though scientific research does not support a strict sex binary, social and geopolitical factors continue to exclude intersex people from the picture, and even go so far as to exclude cis people with nonnormative gender presentations as well. If the sex binary does not hold up under scrutiny, why is it enforced by the IAAF?

The History of Racialized Sex Categories

If the sex binary has come under question in recent years, it is worth learning about where it came from in the first place. In the 1800s, the study of comparative sexual anatomy began to rise in significance; this twisted form of racial science examined African women’s bodies in thorough and extremely invasive detail. Racial scientists mapped sexual and racial differences among these women–using descriptions like “irregular” and “poorly developed”– and concluded that African women must be less evolved than white women because their bodies appeared to be different from those of white women. Their belief that evolutionary progress was marked by growing differences in sexual anatomy, while false, also constructed basis on which to judge the categorical and visible differences in bodies. It also allowed them to make judgements about morality and sexual behavior solely based on racialized characteristics. The deeply racist ideas that contributed to modern understanding of the sex binary has not yet been purged from our culture, however; sex testing clearly demonstrates how far we still need to go.

Sex Testing’s Contentious Past

The basis for the practice of sex testing is simple enough–the IAAF wants to keep competitions fair. But is it fair to put athletes–mostly women–under intense and cruel scrutiny for naturally occurring body characteristics? Sex testing has been in practice since the Cold War, and the criteria for categorizing sex have been constantly changing. In 1966, a panel of doctors would examine female athletes’ bodies and genitalia to determine their sex in so-called “nude parades”, a process very reminiscent of racial scientists’ methods. From 1967 to 2011, chromosome testing became the standard measurement of sex, and barred many women, like the Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska, from competition. In 2011, however, the current measurement of sex–testosterone level tests–became the new standard. The IAAF has claimed there is a significant correlation between testosterone levels and performance. This is not untrue, but it is not the only indicator of performance; many other naturally occurring characteristics, like heart size and lung capacity, which are not regulated or policed by the IAAF, also have significant ties to performance. Michael Phelps is idolized for his Marfan Syndrome, which makes his limbs, hands, and feet longer than normal and ideal for swimming. But Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter, became the first victim of the new sex test. Her naturally high levels of testosterone, which exceeded the 10 nmol/L limit, barred her from competition. Though she won her appeal, in 2018, the IAAF later lowered the testosterone limit to 5nmol/L for certain Olympic events. This is when Caster Semenya, the top runner of the 2016 Olympics, came into the picture. She did not pass the new test and lost her appeal; she was told she would have to take drugs with harmful side effects to lower her naturally high level of testosterone if she wanted to continue competing. To clarify, Semenya has identified herself as a cis woman, and is not intersex or transgender, as many media outlets have been writing. Semenya has gained a massive amount of support, but it is worth analyzing why she was targeted for testing in the first place. 

Why Is This Discriminatory?

The list of people who qualify to compete changes depending on which test is administered. That is an immediate clue that biological sex is more complicated than the IAAF has acknowledged. The list of people who have been barred by testosterone testing is overwhelmingly Black and brown. Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui, the other top runners in the Rio Olympics, have also been barred by the testosterone limit. This is no surprise; the current IAAF policy states that only athletes who are ‘suspicious’ must undergo sex testing, which means nonwhite, high performing athletes from the Global South are disproportionately targeted because they may not fit Eurocentric ideas of femininity and provide threatening competition to white, traditionally feminine athletes. It is also unclear what effect race has had on determining the average testosterone limit–if the so-called average is based on European hormonal makeup, this automatically puts nonwhite athletes at a disadvantage. Furthermore, if testing is done based on suspicion, then butch or masculine gender expression is also put under scrutiny, even if the athlete in question is still a cis woman. Men are not subjected to sex testing, and are not barred from competition if their testosterone levels are higher or lower than average. Trans people have also been barred from competition in different ways depending on their gender; transfeminine people are restricted if their testosterone levels exceed a certain limit, but transmasculine people are not, which makes sex testing an inherently misogynistic and transmisogynistic practice.

Because of the way that history and geopolitics has constructed the sex binary and sex discrimination, it is clear how discriminatory and dehumanizing sex testing is on the basis of race, gender, and queerness. Until the IAAF can find a better way to regulate separated competition without policing naturally occurring aspects of women’s bodies, sex testing should be removed from the contemporary realm of athletics.