Last updated on November 29, 2018
Uninformed opinions by influential public figures on section 377 are a matter of grave concern
In light of the recent decriminalisation of Section 377 of the IPC by the Supreme Court, there have been a lot of opinions in public forums about homosexuality. It is revealing to take a peek into these opinions as it reminds one of what Noam Chomsky has rather elegantly called the “Orwell’s problem” that states: “How come it is that human beings, with ample and reliable information at hand, nonetheless know and understand so little”.
Uninformed opinions espoused by influential public figures are a matter of grave concern since they seem to shape the mindset of thousands and lakhs of the educated middle class as well as many young followers. In the present context I am referring to Subramaniam Swamy, a statistician, economist and senior politician, and religious/spiritual gurus namely Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev, who have publicly expressed their irrational and ignorant views about human sexuality in response to the decriminalisation of homosexuality by India’s apex court.
The current article has a twofold objective: to briefly share information about the biology of homosexuality, and secondly, to critique the opinions of public personalities regarding homosexuality.
Before I discuss the opinions being expressed by these public figures, let us first unpack the biological aspects of homosexuality based on the scientific literature on the topic. It is easy to start with the simple question: what is sexual orientation? Since 1975, sexual orientation, according to American Psychological Association (APA), has been defined as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviours and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.” Sexual orientation manifests as three principal types: heterosexual or straight with exclusive sexual, emotional or romantic attraction to the opposite sex, homosexual (sexual, emotional or romantic attraction to the same sex) and bisexual or attraction to both sexes.
Research from studies of twins and their families on the biology of homosexuality started with clues that genetics might play a role in determining sexual orientation. Primarily, these studies demonstrated that gay men have a larger number of relatives who are also gay as compared to heterosexual men. Other studies have also shown that homosexual siblings share genetic markers on chromosomes X and 8, thereby suggesting the probable existence of specific genes responsible for homosexuality.
However, it is misleading to paint a simplistic picture that a specific set of genes are responsible for one’s sexual orientation. There are other factors as well. The genetic argument is further complicated by the fact that no single gene acts in isolation, and like all other biological traits, sexual orientation is a result of multiple genes acting in a complex cooperative fashion along with other environmental factors.
In conclusion, as a recent review sums it up “Multi-disciplinary evidence reveals that a sexually dimorphic spectrum of somatic and neurologic anatomy, traits and abilities, including sexual orientation and gender identity, are conferred together during the first half of pregnancy due to genetics, epigenetics and the diversity of timing and function of sex chromosomes, sex-determining protein secretion, gonadal hormone secretion, receptor levels, adrenal function, maternally ingested dietary hormones, fetal health, and many other factors. Multiple layers of evidence confirm that sexual orientation and gender identity are as biological, innate and immutable as the other traits conferred during that critical time in gestation.” The story of how these factors coax different parts of the body and brain during early human development— towards a specific sexual orientation—is only beginning to be unravelled.
Considering this vast pool of information available to us from scientific literature, let us critique the opinions and reactions of a section of our society including the public figures I mentioned in the beginning towards homosexuality. These range from calling homosexuality “unnatural”, a “western influence,” a genetic disorder, or even simply referring to it as “bad.” It is morally wrong and a deliberate choice on the part of these people for calling them (anyone apart from heterosexuals) deviant or mentally sick. This is not only a deeply troubling sign of ignorance and intolerance but also a blatant disregard of all science and reasoning.
Let us take the so-called “unnatural” argument. Homosexuality, by definition, is a natural form of sexual orientation (as per the dictionary definition of ‘natural’ i.e. existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind). Moreover, the diversity and ubiquity of sexual tendencies of animals have been well documented for over a century and sexual orientation of all kinds have been reported in over 450 species of animals ranging from tiny insect such as dragonflies to large mammals like elephants, as well as our prime ape relatives. In a nutshell, the argument that homosexuality is not natural is irrational, and as Pauli, the great physicist would call it, not even wrong. Furthermore, even if some act is deemed unnatural, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it cannot be practised. For example, our daily activities e.g. brushing our teeth, wearing clothes, using mobile phones, taking antibiotics and even getting married are all integral part of our lives which do not happen in nature—and yet we don’t seem to make a fuss about any of them.
Another worrisome opinion is to brand homosexuality as deviant behaviour caused by an underlying genetic or mental condition. However, there is no scientific basis for such a claim as there have been no associations found between homosexuality and psychopathology of any kind. The psychological problems that homosexual minorities face are mainly due to the prejudice and non-acceptance of their sexuality by the society around them. The prejudice also extends to the notion that homosexuality is a deliberate choice on the part of gay people.
The word “innate” (in the scientific conclusion) is crucial here as it points towards the fact that one does not choose one’s sexual orientation the same way one does not choose one’s skin colour or height. We do not choose to be straight, and likewise, we do not choose to be gay. The only “choice” homosexuals make is to either openly express their sexual orientation in a society hostile to the idea, or to curb their inherent sexual and emotional needs and stay closeted throughout their adult life and suffer from many psychological issues in the process. Unfortunately, the second one is a choice many men and women in India still opt for, owing to the stigma attached to homosexuality. Moreover, the logic that people choose to be gay, is illogical in a society where they are painfully aware of the social costs associated with being gay.
Last but not least are the social implications of accepting homosexuality. The opinion of people, in general, has been more accepting in recent times as compared to say a decade ago (as per World Value Survey) but some of our politicians and gurus like the ones I have mentioned above have the most regressive attitudes. For example, Jaggi Vasudev and Subramanian Swamy raise objections to being openly gay or for celebrating one’s homosexuality. They seem to be tolerant, with much reluctance, with whatever consenting adults may do in the privacy of their bedrooms but find it unacceptable to be open and vocal about it. This is rather bizarre as we do celebrate heterosexual unions (aka marriages) and make a rather big deal of it. In fact, our culture has a tradition of celebrating heterosexual romance, be it literature, media or Bollywood.
In the same vein, the homosexual community needs its own space to celebrate gay romance in literature, media and pride parades etc. Therefore, this point of view that homosexuality should not be celebrated openly, reeks of hypocrisy and in a way normalises discrimination of homosexual people by depriving them of basic rights to express their love openly, marry someone they love, or be in a live-in relationship without any prejudice or harassment—all the rights that the heterosexual community has taken for granted. This is scary because in their piecemeal acceptance of homosexuality they are promoting a homophobic viewpoint to thousands of their followers that no further rights should be given to or even be pursued by the homosexual community.
This is not only antithetical to the principle of equality enshrined in our constitution but also, immoral and inhumane. Such attitudes need to be challenged and resisted with utmost force and urgency.
Acknowledgment: I thank Dr Shashank Tandon (Research Assistant Professor at the University of Utah) for his inputs and discussions.