Expert Knowledge on Homosexuality in Post-Colonial India and its Relationship with Queer Activism in Contemporary India.

This summer I had set out to expand on my previous research on the history of sexual science in post-colonial and contemporary India. I decided to focus on two broad areas in order to do so. I concentrated on the role of the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) in my previous blog post and argued that the FPAI was not only an organization which was at forefront of the contraception and family planning program in post-colonial India but was one of the earliest organizations pursuing sexuality related research as well providing sexual counselling especially in the 1970s and 80s. The present blog concentrates on the second theme on my research agenda which was to explore knowledge generated on homosexuality during this period.

One of my earliest findings was that extensive research on homosexuality in India was relatively rare before the onset of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Even the FPAI archives hardly make any mention of homosexuality up until they start producing pamphlets on disseminating information on HIV AIDS prevention and even then, the predominant audience of such messaging was the heterosexual couple. In order to further expand my sources, I looked at the archives of a few medical and psychological journals published in post-colonial India.

Before the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377, a clause of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalized all non-heteronormative sexual acts in September 2018, the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) put out a statement in the month of July that year stating that it was time to stop looking at homosexuality as a mental illness and also stating there was no scientific evidence for any treatment that could “cure” homosexuality. I looked into the archives of the Indian Journal of Psychiatry (IJP), which is the official journal of the IPS and up until the mid-1980s, there were numerous research articles published in the journal outlining “case-studies” of homosexuals (mostly male) in an attempt to understand the cause of their homosexual identity. There were also articles that suggested “behavior-modification” techniques induced by “classical electrical aversion” and “positive conditioning” methods in order to change the sexual orientation of these patients. Most of the “patients” as mentioned in the articles were those who were distressed by their homosexual inclinations and had sought treatment. It is important however to contextualize this information against the backdrop of situations (even in present day India) where parents/family/kin compel LGBTQIA individuals to seek psychiatric treatment to cure their homosexuality. One particular study which seemed bizarre even against the standards of psychiatrists suggesting electro-convulsive therapy to “cure” homosexuals, was called “Draw a Person Test in Two Male Homosexuals” published in 1973. It was based on a diagnostic model that gauged the personality of patients by reading their drawings of figures. In the case of this study, the authors, K.P. Sreedhar and A.V.Rao (both possessing illustrious post graduate degrees in psychiatry with Rao being a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatry, UK) concluded that the patient through their drawings had swapped features of the male and female figures and  had drawn the male figure with “full lips” which indicated “oral sexual character” of the patient (see figures below).

The Article outlining the “Draw a Person Test in Two Male Homosexuals”
The figures drawn by the patient and mentioned in the article.

Despite such prejudicial ideals about homosexuality and the eventual clarification of the IPS about its position on homosexuality, there has been no serious attempt to understand how expert knowledge on sexuality went into perpetuating sexual stigma on sexual minorities and women. This in sharp contrast to several studies done on the American Psychological Association’s (APA) historical classification of homosexuality which was removed as a mental illness by the APA in 1973. Research has shown how queer activism in the US influenced the decision of the APA to drop homosexuality from the diagnostic manual of mental illness. It has also been shown that knowledge sharing and policy formulation during the initial HIV AIDs pandemics was shaped as much by medical and scientific experts as gay activists. The earliest instance of a sex-positive study of homosexuality in India, which featured not only male but also female and trans experiences was the “Less than Gay” report published by the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodi Andolan (ABVA) in 1991. The ABVA was founded in 1988 as an organization to prevent the discrimination of HIV AIDS patients who at this point were mostly prostitutes and MSM (men who had sex with men). Both marginalized groups experienced police violence and extortion as well bullying and wider stigmatization. ABVA’s 1991 report was one of the earliest research studies assessing the medical, legal and popular attitudes to homosexuality in India, highlighted gay rights as human rights and also suggesting the possibility of coalescing a wider gay rights movement in India. It filed the earliest legal case against Section 377 of the IPC. The ABVA and the Less than Gay report in particular is reckoned by several contemporary India queer activists as providing an initiation for them in the realm of queer activism in India.

India: A year after Section 377: Recapping how the law was struck down —  Equal Eyes
“Less than Gay” Report published by the ABVA (1991)

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About Arnav Bhattacharya

I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. My dissertation tentatively titled, "Making Sex Scientific: A History of Sexology in Modern India(1880-1960)" explores the history of sexual science in India, particularly exploring the ways in which sexual science interacted with medicine, public health, and hygiene and, sex education to formulate the sexual identities and experiences of modern Indians. More generally I am broadly interested in the history of South Asia, colonialism, nationalism, medicine, gender, and the global history of sexual science.