Hinduism and Homosexuality: Essays
June 22, 2003 – San Francisco Chronicle
Being gay and Hindu may win Pakistani DJ asylum in the United States
by Dave Ford
A tall bamboo plant towers over low chairs festooned with cushions made of maroon and purple Indian fabric and inset with tiny mirrors. Daylight seeps through two ceiling skylights. A couch and more plants complete the living room decor in the San Francisco flat of popular psychedelic-trance DJ Keshav Jiwnani. He shares the former storefront space in the Inner Mission with three roommates and a friendly black-and-white cat named Sersha. On the room’s perimeter, wooden ladders lead to small lofts. In Jiwnani’s, an altar holds small statues of Hindu deities and polished stones that friends have given him. Two Pioneer CDJ-100 CD players and a mixer sit on a table. Jiwnani spends the bulk of his time in the flat. “My home is my nest, my palace, my sanctuary,” he says.
Perhaps not for long, however. While Jiwnani has lived half of his 34 years in the United States, all of those illegally and the past six in San Francisco – “I feel accepted here,” he says – he faces deportation to his native Pakistan. The United States government’s post-Sept. 11 crackdown on undocumented immigrants may return Jiwnani to the predominantly Muslim country where, as a child and teenager, he was repeatedly brutalized by peers and police for being gay and Hindu.
Jiwnani has applied for political asylum in the United States based on a reasonable expectation of the persecution he’d face if returned to Pakistan, according to his lawyer, Robert B. Jobe of San Francisco, who says asylum applications are judged on persecution in one or more of five categories: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. “If applicants can establish past persecution, the court must presume that there is a reasonable possibility that the applicant will suffer persecution,” if returned to the native country, Jobe says. Jiwnani is arguing that his history of discrimination suggests the likelihood of future maltreatment in Pakistan. “If I go back, it’s the end of me,” says Jiwnani.
His sister, Dawn Tuvell, 47, who lives in Concord with her husband, Chris, and their two teenage daughters, considers his possible deportation “so horrible, I don’t even want to think about it. … They would stone him. They would shoot him. … I’m scared he would be killed.” Tuvell remembers Jiwnani as a chubby, happy child who often entertained the family by dressing in his mother’s scarves and dancing to music. But he grew sickly, and was often hospitalized with malaria, typhoid fever and the mumps. At age 4 he contracted acute thrombocytopenic purpura, a blood disorder characterized by a low platelet count that results in extensive bleeding. An infusion from his mother, Duru Jiwnani, saved him. Still, says Tuvell, “He never gained weight after that.”
Now, at 5 feet 8 inches and a scant 110 pounds (up from 98 a month or so ago), his leanness is less the result of illness than of an appetite lost to the worry of possible deportation. His body appears to be wasting away into the safety of invisibility.
Pakistan, Jiwnani’s homeland, comprises nearly 804,000 square miles of desert and mountains bordering India, China, Afghanistan and Iran. It was formed in 1947 by partition as a Muslim homeland apart from mostly Hindu India. Currently, religious tensions simmer there between Muslims and Hindus. The latter make up about 1 percent of the country’s nearly 143 million inhabitants.
Islam sees Allah as the creator of the universe. The prophet Mohammad is believed to have recorded Allah’s revelations in the Koran, which became codified as Shariah a century after the prophet’s death in 632.
Hinduism, by contrast, is multi-deistic and pantheistic. The universe itself is considered a divine entity. Through prayer, meditation and the practice of yoga, humans can achieve enlightenment beyond samsara, the endless cycle of birth, existence and death.
Jiwnani’s family traces its roots to Pakistan’s Sind province. His grandfather, Mansukhdas Bodaram, was a grain import-export merchant who also owned a cotton-ginning factory in the city of Karachi under the martial law rule of president Mohammad Ayub Khan. He was wealthy by Pakistani standards: Tuvell recalls that as a child, she had servants, her own credit card and a driver. But the family’s fortunes took a dive in 1972, the year after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became Pakistan’s president and prime minister.
In attempting to fulfill his promise to introduce “Islamic socialism,” he and his supporters targeted wealthy non-Muslims. “Overnight, literally, they came and seized our land and locked up our cotton gin,” Tuvell says, adding that her grandfather and grand-uncle were jailed and the family’s assets frozen. “We had to live off our mother’s savings account.”
Jiwnani was born Feb. 25, 1969, a birthday he shares with the late Beatle George Harrison, also a musician and practicing Hindu. He recalls his family living in a six-unit apartment complex occupied by three other Hindu families. Muslim neighbors often showed hostility. Groups of teen and adult men would gather outside the building, throw stones and call names. “I had people say to me, ‘Go back to India,’ and ‘You have 1,000 gods’ and ‘You pray to cows,'” he says.
But what was happening without was as nothing compared to within. For two years beginning at age 7, Jiwnani was regularly set upon sexually by a 14-year-old family acquaintance, whose threats included slicing off Jiwnani’s penis if he told anyone. Similar molestations happened with a relative and a friend of his brother’s. Multiple academic studies have shown that the effects of such abuse include depression, sleep disturbance, dissociation, hypersexualization, impaired personal relations and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
At 11, Jiwnani watched friends ogle pornography. The boys were attracted to the women, but Jiwnani “was more interested in the boys.” They wanted him, too, but only for unreciprocated sexual favors. “They’d make fun of me because I’d do it,” he says. “They always wanted more. I didn’t know any better.”
Sex between boys, he adds, is “huge” in the Pakistani culture, but shameful. The boys, perhaps compensating, attacked Jiwnani with religious slurs spoken in Urdu, the country’s official language. When Jiwnani was 15 he arrived one day at the prestigious private school he’d been attending since childhood to find longtime friends snickering at or ignoring him. At lunch a friend told Jiwnani word had spread he was gay. Jiwnani soon realized a boy with whom he’d had assignations had “told the other boys I had a crush on him. It was my word against his – and come on, who’s the fag here?”
Horrified, Jiwnani found himself vomiting in class. He later told the truth to a teacher whom he trusted. “She said I was going straight to hell, and that I’d better beg forgiveness from Allah – and she knew I was Hindu.” Weeks later, as the term ended in December 1984, Jiwnani was expelled from the school, purportedly for poor grades.
Although Jiwnani sees his story as no different from those of some gay American teens, “I happened to live in a religiously oppressive country where you can get killed for it.” That may only be a legal exaggeration. Section 377 of Pakistan’s penal code criminalizes “carnal knowledge of any man against the order of nature,” with a penalty of two years to life in prison and a possible 100 lashes of a whip – the last a nod to Shariah.
More than 70 countries worldwide completely ban homosexuality, but those with the death penalty – Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the republic of Chechnya, and Yemen – are predominately Muslim. “I sought out gay sex,” Jiwnani says now.
“But I had very precarious sex that put me in danger.” Around the time that his school expelled him, Jiwnani, depressed, sexually curious and without resources, asked taxi drivers on his street where gay men gathered. One of the drivers propositioned him. Subsequent encounters found the man threatening to expose Jiwnani if the boy didn’t perform on him – and pay him. Jiwnani took money from his mother’s purse. Five or six times, the man raped him. One day, the man confronted Jiwnani outside the boy’s home; frightened, Jiwnani brought him into his bedroom and acquiesced to sex. Duru, Jiwnani’s mother, arrived home and asked what was going on. The man knocked her over as he ran from the house. Jiwnani tearfully explained that the man had been raping and blackmailing him for more than a month. Duru responded by beating him, saying he had shamed the family.
Tuvell saw Jiwnani shortly after the confrontation. She said he had been crying and his face was swollen. “My mom would hit him with stuff in her hands – whatever she could find,” she says. A few months later, Jiwnani was caught by Karachi police with a man in Hill Park, where some men sought anonymous sex. Jiwnani was held overnight. The next day, in return for Jiwnani’s release, a police officer accepted Tuvell’s bribe of 5,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly $87 at current exchange rates).
This is not unusual, according to authors Stephen O. Murray and Badruddin Khan. In a chapter on Pakistan in “Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality,” they write: “Police recurrently take money and/or sex from those they know to be involved in same-sex sex (commercial or not).” But blackmail threats paled next to more pointed ones. Says Tuvell, “[The officer] told me if he ever found KJ in that position again, I’d never even find his body. I know that happens. In the Muslim culture it’s an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The animosity stays there not just for the life of the person, but for generations.”
Jiwnani fled Pakistan for the United States on Dec. 23, 1986, at 17. He lived with his sister, Dawn,at Tustin Marine Base in Orange County. Her husband Chris, then a Marine demolition expert, was deployed to Japan. Jiwnani finished high school and attended community college. He found a youth group at a lesbian and gay center, where, for the first time, he met gay peers. “I didn’t feel they wanted me for physical reasons – there were no ulterior motives,” he says. “They were just people like me, and we could become friends.”
In 1989, Jiwnani learned his mother was to visit the United States. After the taxi driver incident, he’d promised to “reform.” He panicked and married a friend. His wife submitted a spousal petition to allow Jiwnani to apply for a visa, but the marriage lasted only a few months and was annulled, nixing that citizenship avenue for Jiwnani. After bouncing around the country, Jiwnani followed Chris, Dawn and his two nieces to Seattle. When Dawn visited their cancer-stricken father back home for six months, Jiwnani helped Chris with the girls. “He took care of them,” Dawn says. “I think he’s paid me back for all the years I took care of him.”
On Sept. 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, a “special registration” program was announced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, recently renamed the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services under the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Sharon Rummery, the director for public affairs at the San Francisco offices of the BCIS, says males already in the United States on temporary visas, over age 16 and from 25 predominantly Arab or Muslim countries, were required by the program to register their presence at local BCIS offices. Some with expired visas were detained in a city or county jail with special areas for them apart from criminals. “We might hold them a little while to assure that they’re not on the master terror list,” Rummery says, referring to the government’s tally of those known to have committed terrorist acts or their allies.
One government official with close knowledge of immigration issues, who asked not to be named, says approximately 7.5 million people live illegally in the United States: About 40 percent, or three million, are in California. The official said their presence “has an impact” – positive and negative – on the U.S. environment and economy. Says Jiwnani of the “special registration” program: “I kept hearing about it on TV, thinking it could never be me, and the next thing I know, it’s me.”
Of the roughly 83,000 men seen, about 13,130 cases, Jiwnani’s among them, were referred to immigration judges. On July 3, 2003 Jiwnani will go before the court to get a date for his removal hearing – his only defense, according to Jobe, is an application for asylum. Jiwnani’s case has caught the attention of Bay Area politicians, artists and alternative media. More than 1,000 people have signed a petition in his support, and he has received 250 letters of support from individuals and rights organizations.
San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano says the U.S. government’s position is out of touch with most Americans’ views of gay rights and immigration: “We’re supposed to be the enlightened country, but we are – the INS particularly – not thinking twice about sending someone back to a life- threatening situation.” Jiwnani professes surprise at his heightened profile. “Who knew I was going to turn into a focal point for gay rights and asylum?” Still, he says he’s wary of having his life splashed about the media. That’s not surprising for a person in his situation, according to Dusty Araujo, the asylum coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). He says gay people seeking asylum may have difficulty talking openly about homosexuality. Coming from an oppressive regime, they may not trust government officials – including U.S. immigration officers.
Unlike those seeking asylum in other categories, gays, lesbians and transgenders may be wary about sharing intimate information with lawyers, may not even identify as gay or may be in the process of accepting it about themselves. “I think that’s one of the fundamental differences between any of the other reasons and sexual orientation,” Araujo says. “It’s a very private issue.”
In addition, gay people from other countries coming to America may lack both social support and specific knowledge that the United States allows them to seek asylum based on persecution for their membership in a particular social group, according to Jon Davidson, senior counsel for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a 30-year-old nonprofit public interest legal organization. “A lot of gay people in other countries are basically on their own, so they’re less likely to have information that asylum might be available to them,” he says.
The “social group” provision, originally a part of the post-World War II U. N. Convention related to the treatment of refugees, found its way into American law with the enactment of the Refugee Act in 1980. In 1989 an immigration judge for the first time granted asylum to a gay man, who was from Cuba. A year later the decision was upheld by the Board of Immigration Appeals. In 1994, then-Attorney General Janet Reno judged the Board’s decision to be a legal precedent, allowing lesbians and gay men to be seen as a “social group,” Davidson says. Statistics are scarce on the number of successful asylum cases in the United States based on persecution for sexual orientation, experts say. Cases are confidential, and may be won or lost for a number of reasons.
More to the point, IGLHRC program associate Sara Moore says her group may not hear about a case conclusion until long after it’s complete, making tracking difficult. Since the group’s Asylum Program started in 1993, she says, “the group can point to 24 known successful cases that we’ve participated in, that were won based on sexual orientation and, usually, something else.” Twenty-two of those cases involved men, and two involved transgender people.
In 1997, a new immigration law required those applying for asylum to do so within one year of their arrival in the United States. There are two exceptions: changed circumstances in the law, and extraordinary circumstances – events or factors directly related to the failure to meet the one-year deadline. (Jiwnani has missed that by about 13 years.) Jobe plans to argue that because of the relentless trauma Jiwnani suffered as a child and teen, he was fundamentally incapable of dealing with asylum issues for fear of dredging up past psychological traumas. Jobe acknowledges that the argument may not fly, but notes that all asylum applicants are automatically considered for what is called a “withholding of removal.”
To qualify, an applicant must prove not possible, but probable future persecution. If successful, he or she cannot be deported to the country of origin as long as it remains unsafe, although the United States can find a third country for the applicant to reside in. Such people who remain here can work, but cannot apply for a green card nor travel. If married, they cannot bring their spouse and children here, a separation Jobe terms “monstrous.” Jiwnani is likely to be granted a withholding, Jobe says.
But, he adds, “If conditions improved in Pakistan to where it was safe, they’d send him home.” Pakistan was one of five Muslim countries responsible in late April for delaying what would have been an historic vote by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. A resolution put forth by Brazil, titled “Human Rights and Sexual Orientation,” called for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the U.N. definition of discrimination. On behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Pakistan told commission members in a memo that the resolution would be “a direct insult to the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world.”
A complication in Muslim countries is the application of Shariah. Faisal Alam, 25, is the founder of Al-Fatiha, a 4-year-old Washington, D.C., group for gay Muslims. He says Shariah interpretations vary from country to country and center on political and cultural biases. “In fact, there isn’t one country in the world that follows Islamic Shariah as it’s supposed to be,” he says. It calls for 100 whip lashings for male same-sex sex.
For a married man having sex with another man, the penalty is death by stoning. “Pakistan has never, to my knowledge, executed anyone [for being gay], because their interpretation of the law is really following on British sodomy laws that were implemented after partition,” he says. The United States had already sent clear signals it would abstain from voting on the Brazil resolution at the U.N., which the commission voted to table until next year’s convention.
At an April 25 daily State Department press briefing, spokesman Richard Boucher said, “As a general matter, in the United States, different aspects of the issues raised in this resolution are addressed by officials at the federal, state and local levels of government,” which is an odd statement considering the resolution would have had global, not just national, implications. Such a position is perhaps not surprising. In making a public case for the war on Iraq, the Bush administration last spring suggested more than once the U.N. had become “irrelevant.”
The U.S. response to the U.N. sexual orientation resolution likely pleased America’s conservative Christian Republican base and tacitly hinted at support for Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, with which the U.S. finds itself in friendly, if tense, relations. To some, this may suggest delicacy in any U.S. consideration of asylum or immigration cases such as Jiwnani’s: To accept his claim that he’d be persecuted by the Pakistani government would implicitly acknowledge the homophobia of the country’s laws.
Greg Gagne, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review in Washington, D.C., rebuts the notion. He says the cases are based on particulars such as country conditions, witness testimony, the individual’s testimony, case law and precedents. The system, he says, “stays fairly well insulated from those kinds of [political] shifts.” Jobe, Jiwnani’s lawyer, demurs. “They’re insulated – to a degree,” he says.
In April 1997, Jiwnani moved to San Francisco and immersed himself in the local trance music scene. He made a name DJ’ing at local clubs and for numerous large gay events (he will be at the Tantra Trance Stage at the post-Pride Parade festivities at Civic Center next Sunday). His specialty, psy-trance, is a form of electronica heavily influenced by Middle Eastern music.
John Wood, a legal analyst for the San Francisco Late Night Coalition, says the goal is “to help people, through the music and the dancing, achieve states of joyousness and sometimes realization.” The irony of Jiwnani, who has lived through sexual abuse, beatings, social ostracism and international dislocation, creating healing music for dancing masses is not lost on Wood. “KJ is sensitive and almost a bit frail in his way, ” he says. “He’s healthy within the milieu that he’s in, but one could see how this trauma would affect him strongly.” Jiwnani says music saved him in adolescence. For him, segueing songs together to create a seamless listening and dancing experience is “just like a river going into the ocean, just like the flow of life: Everything mixes together to form a day. Each song is like each person, but with our daily interactions we all create one song.” When dancing, he says, “We’re all connected to that frequency.”
In the same way, Jiwnani hopes to remain connected to San Francisco. With his future on hold – plans include starting a record label, studying herbal medicine and finding a boyfriend (“I’m available,” he says with a laugh) – he plans to enjoy the city. “I’ve been made to feel this is my home,” he says, adding, “And, if people want me to stay here, then what’s the problem?”
Tuvell says that if Jiwnani was allowed to stay, it would let him “know he can be who he is and not have people kicking him or making fun of him.” She adds, incredulously, “And you want to send him back to be facing the hatred there [in Pakistan], and why? What for? They’re sending him back to be killed.” Though he knows he is not fighting a completely losing battle, Jiwnani sometimes seems dislocated into ephemerality. He doesn’t always answer the phone; sometimes his answering machine is full, preventing callers from leaving messages. “I left Pakistan after living there 17 years, only to leave to come here, only to feel like it’s not my home,” he says.
“So where is my home? You know? I’m living on planet Earth.” Friends and DJing aside, his is, in many ways, not much of a life: “My immune system is weak. I can’t put the weight back on. I forget to eat. Sometimes I even forget to breathe.”
E-mail Dave Ford at email@example.com.
April 27, 2008 – bclocalnews.com
Gay Sikhs: ‘You’re not alone’
by Paula Carlson – Surrey North Delta Leader
Amar Sangha was a 14-year-old Frank Hurt honour roll student with a dilemma. He was attracted to men, but he wanted to like women. Putting aside his adolescent crushes on Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth and actor Michael J. Fox, he began seeing a psychiatrist with the hope of becoming “straight.” It didn’t work. After three years, the counselling sessions came to an end, and Sangha began to accept who he was: a homosexual.
Twenty years later, in a home in North Delta, Sangha sits next to his mother Jaspal, who is wearing a sunny yellow sari in honour of recent Vaisakhi celebrations. The brightly coloured material matches the matriarch’s opinion of her son – the middle one of three. Calling Amar “a precious gift from God,” Jaspal accepts her boy as he is. In keeping with her religion – Sikhism – Jaspal believes all human beings are created equal and no one should harbour animosity against another. She acknowledges not everyone thinks the same way.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent in my community believe (homosexuality) is a choice,” she says, including Amar’s father. Some have stronger words than that. Late last year, Balwant Singh Gill, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Surrey, condemned gay relationships as “unnatural,” saying, “I hate homosexuality.” He later apologized for the comment. As for Jaspal, she knew her son Amar was different from the beginning. As a young child, he loved to hang out with the female members of the family, enjoyed playing with a doll house and took an unusual interest in saris. But instead of being shunned by his mother and extended family members – including a grandfather who pointed out his grandson’s “uniqueness” early on – Amar was encouraged to be himself.
Still, by his early teens, perhaps sensing the socially difficult road ahead, Amar tried to deny his sexuality. Although he confided in his mother, Amar didn’t officially “come out” until college, where he learned about the many homosexuals in history – among them Michelangelo and Alexander the Great. “I learned about famous people who were gay… I met other gay people who were happy,” Amar says of his turning point. Now stable in his own life, Amar is focusing his attention on others. A social worker who has advocated for several gay pride organizations, Amar, 36, has started Sher Vancouver – a support and social networking organization specifically for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersex (GLBTI) Sikhs and their families. He believes it is the first of its kind in the Lower Mainland.
Two other gay groups offer support for members – Trikone Vancouver (for South Asians) and Salaam Vancouver (for Muslims) – but not family members. Amar says Sher Vancouver takes its name from the Persian word for “lion,” a common word in the Punjab. Male orthodox Sikhs adopt the name Singh, and female Sikhs take on the name Kaur, which mean lion and lionness, respectively, in Sanskrit. Since launching the group April 6, Amar has signed up 33 members – mostly men, but a few women as well. He says the quick response is proof of the need. Citing the “one in 10 rule,” in which some researchers estimate that 10 per cent of the general population is homosexual, Amar believes there are thousands of gay Sikhs in the Surrey-North Delta area.
He knows of some who have been forced into marriages and lead a secret double life – dancing in gay clubs at night, and sadly, sometimes bringing sexually-transmitted diseases home. “This should not be happening,” he says. Amar’s other motivation for starting Sher is youth. He does not want them to feel as alone as he did in high school, when he didn’t know another gay soul – let alone a gay South Asian soul.
Twenty-one-year-old Surrey resident Ash, (who asked that his last name not be used), admits his younger years as a gay teen were pretty “miserable.” He never felt accepted at Sikh temples, where others would whisper about him and stare. Ash doesn’t blame his religion; Sikhism teaches tolerance and equality, and the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book) does not mention homosexuality. “I guess I blame the culture,” he says. Sikh families have high expectations for traditional marriages and children.
Not Jaspal, who says she is proud of Amar for trying to make a difference, adding she has supported him from the beginning, long before she fully understood what his sexual orientation really meant. Laughing, she says: “I once thought gay was happy.” Judging from the smile on her son’s face, it still is.
To get involved with Sher Vancouver, email Amar Sangha at firstname.lastname@example.org Ash is hoping to have the first gay Sikh float in Vancouver’s Pride Parade in August – complete with bhangra dancers. If you can offer sponsorship or other support, email Sangha.
April 2009 – Pukaar
Asian countries urged to address HIV and AIDS in MSM
A sharp rise in HIV infections could be looming among men who have sex with men in Asia unless they are given better access to health services, says experts Widespread adherence to colonial laws against sodomy, along with political and social denial of homosexuality, mean that Asia has been caught unawares by a rapid rise in HIV/AIDS cases among men who have sex with men (MSM).
“We’re really in for big trouble. I think there is still time to do something but we’ve got to do it quickly”, Frits van Griensven, chief of behavioural research at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s regional office in Bangkok, told a meeting jointly held by WHO, UN Development Programme, and UNAIDS in Hong Kong last week to find ways to deal with the problem.
Their primary conclusion was that there is a “paucity of information and several knowledge gaps” due to lack of surveillance but the research that has been done indicates “widespread HIV transmission throughout the region where MSM and TG [trans gender] appear increasingly and disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic”.
08 April 2009 – New Statesman
Vaishnavism and homosexuality
by Amara Das Wilhelm
In the second of our series on faith and homosexuality, we take a look at the all-inclusiveness and compassion preached by Vaishnavism
Approximately two-thirds of all Hindus are Vaishnavas and, like other world religions, Vaishnava sects have recently been called upon to address traditional positions on homosexuality and gender differences. For readers who are unfamiliar with Vaishnavism, the faith is essentially monotheistic; adherents worship a supreme, transcendent God with unlimited names such as Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Narayana, etc. They follow scriptural texts known as the Vedas and are typically vegetarian. Recent expressions of the faith, such as Chaitanya’s sixteenth-century Hare Krishna movement, de-emphasize the Hindu caste system to preach all-inclusiveness and special mercy to the fallen souls.
The historical approach to homosexuality within Vaishnava Hinduism is quite opposite from that of the Abrahamic faiths. Whereas the latter punished homosexuality harshly in ancient times but has since softened its stance, Hinduism has no history of persecuting homosexuals until after the arrival of Islamic and British (Christian) influence. Ancient Vedic texts mildly discourage homosexual behavior for brahmanas or priests but do not criminalize it for the common citizen. On the contrary, Vedic texts describe homosexual citizens serving as dancers, artisans, barbers, house attendants and prostitutes well within the purview of ancient Vedic society.
This comes as a surprise to many Hindus who are at present accustomed to condemning homosexual people and excluding them from both family and society. It has also become a custom among Hindus to force gay and lesbian offsprings into opposite-sex marriages, even though this is expressly forbidden in religious codebooks such as the Narada-smriti. Vedic medical texts like the Sushruta Samhita declare homosexuality to be inborn (discussing it only in chapters on embryological development) and texts concerned with human sexuality (the Kama Shastra) refer to homosexuals as a “third sex” (tritiya-prakriti) with both masculine and feminine natures. Thus, while Abrahamic faiths have been forced to abandon ancient codes and beliefs in order to accommodate gays in modernity, Vaishnavas need only abandon imported misconceptions and refer back to their ancient past.
The modern debate over homosexuality in Vaishnavism has only recently begun and gay-friendly organizations such as the Gay And Lesbian Vaishnava Association (GALVA-108) lag quite a bit behind their Judeo-Christian counterparts. While some Vaishnava sects and leaders do in fact fully accept gay peers and disciples (particularly in the West), too many still remain ignorant and homophobic. This has subsequently kept many gay Vaishnavas in the closet, afraid to come out to their family or co-worshipers and with some instances of gay suicide as well as gay-related “shame killings” reported.
My own personal experience as a gay Vaishnava, however, has been much less tragic and thus I am hopeful Vaishnavism will once again embrace gender-variant people. After converting and moving into a Hare Krishna ashram at the age of seventeen, I came out to my peers only a few months later and with no ensuing difficulties. Ultimately, essential Vaishnava teachings of all-inclusiveness, compassion and bodily transcendence should compel practitioners to overlook all bodily differences and embrace the soul of every being.
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