I have learnt somewhere that in India the British made homosexuality illegal in 1861 through Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, terming it as "an act against the order of the nature". Was this the first time homosexuality was outlawed in India? If not, who was the very first to do so in the Indo-Pak subcontinent? Was it the one of the Muslim rulers?
No, it would have been the Portugese, see here and here.
Was this the first time homosexuality was outlawed in India? If not, who was the very first to do so in the Indo-Pak subcontinent? Was it the one of the Muslim rulers?
Answer: Not the British, the Portuguese (Portuguese India). During the Goa Inquisition commencing in 1560, more than 300 years before 1861 (i.e. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code). Not a Muslim ruler, but the Catholics - in particular Portuguese inquisitors, the first one being Aleixo Díaz Falcão.
The earliest case of a conviction for "sodomy" I could find where the convicted is known by name is from 1589: Antonio de Matos, born in Hormuz, was sentenced to the galleys (i.e. being a galley slave) for life.
Sources: Alisa Meyuhas Ginio (1999): The Inquisition and the New Christians: The Case of the Portuguese Inquisition of Goa in The Medieval History Journal Vol 2, Iss 1, Stephanie Hassell (2015) Inquisition Records from Goa as Sources for the Study of Slavery in the Eastern Domains of the Portuguese Empire in History in Africa, Vol 42, pp.397-418) (scholarly papers behind paywalls, sorry); alternatively the wikipedia articles on the Goa inquisition and in the LGBT history of India.
Let me detail the various aspects of this in the following order:
- What exactly is being outlawed (homosexual behavior, not homosexuality)
- Who would be expected to outlaw homosexual behavior
- Who was the first to outlaw homosexual behavior anywhere on the Indian subcontinent
- Who was the first to outlaw homosexual behavior in all of the Indian subcontinent
1. What exactly is being outlawed
Note that it does not make sense to outlaw sexual orientations in the same way that it does not make sense to outlaw introversion, optimism, or perfectionism. Those behavioral patterns are parts of the personality that people cannot possibly do anything about. They are quite possibly already fixed at birth and most certainly partly hereditary.
Those who outlaw homosexual behavior typically deny that homosexuality exists, for ridiculous examples, see here and here. They see homosexuals as sinners against some moral or behavioral code and outlaw the sin ("sodomy" etc.). That this leads to cultural animosity, harassment persecution of LGBT people as a group, and witch hunt like incidents, is a different question.
2. Who would be expected to outlaw homosexual behavior
This is typical for religious fanatics, especially those in the tradition of the Abrahamic religions, although the degree to which homophobia is seen as a central element of the religion varies quite a lot with time and across religions. Currently, homophobia and persecution of homosexuals is a major element of Wahhabi ideology and of Islamist fundamentalism (since the Wahhabis are sponsoring and funding it, to some degree together with Iran) which finds some appeal in conservative Muslim culture in general. This has been very different in pre-modern times; Muslim states tended to be much more tolerant and liberal. Christianity on the other hand has experienced the opposite development and is much more liberal today than it used to be in the late Middle ages and in early modern times (although certain right wing elements in many predominantly Christian countries would very much like to reverse this and return to Middle age zealotry).
3. Who was the first to outlaw homosexual behavior anywhere on the Indian subcontinent
The British came relatively late in the colonization of India, in 1612, after the Portugese and the Dutch were already there and shortly before the French and the Danish arrived.
The Portugese were the first Europeans to arrive in India in 1498 and seize territories there as colonies from 1505. They lost no time to implement the Portugese inquisition against what they saw as "sodomites" and a lot of others.
4. Who was the first to outlaw homosexual behavior in all of the Indian subcontinent
The British were the first and only Europeans that did conquer larger territories in the subcontinent. This did not occur before the 19th century, however, after they defeated the French. Note that the subcontinent was rarely a unified political structure until then, except for the periods of the Maurya empire the Mughal empire and possibly the Gupta empire (each at the time of their largest extent). Consequently, if the original question is referring to laws that would have been valid for all of the subcontinent, the answer is that there, was for almost all times in history, no one with the authority to create such a law.
While they only reorganized Indian criminal law after conquering the subcontinent, they would not have tolerated "sodomy" even before that in the areas under their control. Neither would the other European powers, though none of them would have been quite as brutal as the Portuguese inquisition.
Edit (Feb 2018): Since it was criticized that the answer might be missing the point, I tried to structure it better with a tl;dr section and sections detailing the various aspects. The contents and explanations are the same as in the first version of the answer.
Edit (Aug 2018): @J Asia: Thanks for helping improve this answer. I believe you were thinking about explicit evidence of persecution of lesbian sexual practices ("lesbian sodomy") which is discussed by the book you cite (Soyer, F., Ambiguous Gender in Early Modern Spain and Portugal (Brill, 2011), p.45.) and corresponds better to the date (1744) and names (Joao Cosme da Cunha) you give. However, the Goa inquisition commenced about 200 years earlier, in 1560 with inquisitor Aleixo Díaz Falcão by royal order of king João III following a request St. Francis Xavier made in 1546. Please see the linked wikipedia article on the Goa inquisition and the sources cited there. It was standard practice for the inquisition (especially in its Iberian tradition) to persecute homosexual behavior, male "sodomy" in particular. But there is no reason to believe that they were much more lenient with "female sodomy" where it came to their attention. In fact, as Ginio (1999) details, sodomy accusations were quite common in the Goa inquisition, including false accusations brough by bribed witnesses. Ginio's evidence includes a tretise written in 1687 by Charles Dellon who had been subject to such an accusation himself.
At the height of the Islamic Golden Age – a period from the mid-8th century to the mid-13th century when Islamic civilisation is believed to have reached its intellectual and cultural zenith – homosexuality was openly spoken and written about. Abu Nuwas (756-814), one of the great Arab classical poets during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, wrote publicly about his homosexual desires and relations. His homoerotic poetry was openly circulated right up until the 20th century.
Nuwas was an important historical figure – he even made a couple of appearances in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (known in Urdu as Alif Laila). It was only as late as 2001 that Arabs started to blush at Nuwas’ homoerotism. In 2001, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, burnt 6,000 volumes of his poetry.
Most modern Muslims, therefore, have little knowledge of what the Islamic Golden Age was really about, even though they keep on wanting to go back to it.
“ISIS have no idea what restoring the Caliphate actually means," a tweet by Belgian-Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab said. "In Baghdad, it’d involve booze, odes to wine, science. and a gay court poet.”
Baghdad was, till the time the Mongols invaded and destroyed it, the cultural capital of much of the world – the New York City of its time. If Nuwas and his homoerotic poetry could represent the height of Baghdadi culture, it is natural that other Muslim societies would also be quite open to homosexuality. Is historian Saleem Kidwai puts in the fabulous book Same-Sex Love in India, “Homoerotically inclined men are continuously visible in Muslim medieval histories and are generally described without pejorative comment.”
India, homosexuality and the ‘third gender’
In that way, India’s ruling differs from recent court decisions legalizing gay marriage in Colombia, Taiwan and Germany – though for LGBTQ Indians, the impacts may be similarly life-changing.
Sexual and gender minorities in India are regularly harassed, assaulted and jailed.
Yet many gender researchers who study India – myself included – argue that India’s religious and cultural heritage has long been more accommodating to multiple gender and sexual expressions than Western societies.
According to scholars Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s groundbreaking 2000 essay collection on same-sex love in India, Hindus embraced a range of thinking on gender and sexuality as far back as the Vedic period, around 4000 B.C.
The Hindu god Shiva has both male and female characteristics. Richard Mortel via Wikimedia, CC BY
Hinduism’s first sacred texts tell stories of same-sex love and gender-morphing figures. The Hindu deity Shiva is sometimes worshipped as a multi-gendered figure composed of Shiva and his wife Parvati together, in what’s known as his Ardhanarishvara form.
Hindu texts from around 1500 B.C. likewise show that the “third gender” – individuals sometimes called “hijras,” who do not fit into the categories of man or woman – were integrated into India’s political and social life.
In the Kama Sutra, India’s famed erotic guidebook, the character Svairini is described as as a liberated woman who lives either alone or in union with another woman.
“Male-male attraction” is also “one of the themes of pre-colonial Urdu poetry” writes Vanita in her book about Indian Islamic literature from the 18th and 19th centuries.
India’s Khajuraho temples, built in Madhaya Pradesh state between 950 and 1050, even include depictions of homosexual orgies and fellatio, among other erotic sculptures and scenes.
Some scholars of Islam, India’s second-largest religion, also find acceptance of gender fluidity in the Koran, which says that Allah “shapes you in the wombs as He pleases.”
Indeed, in India’s 16th-century Mughal courts, hijras and eunuchs often held positions of high esteem as advisers or emissaries between men and women.
A long struggle
In fact, the first challenge to the law was taken by the Naz Foundation, a NGO that works to create awareness of HIVS/AIDS and other sexual health issues. In 2001, they filed a petition challenging the law in the Delhi High Court.
&ldquoHIV/AIDS has been the entry point to start talks about LGBTQ rights in India,&rdquo says Sylvester Merchant, another Senior Program Officer at India HIV/AIDS Alliance. &ldquoWe did not have our own Stonewall and hence, HIV was our starting point,” he says, referring to a violent uprising in 1969 by the LGBTQ community in New York City. The movement is thought to have been the starting point of the fight for LGBTQ rights in the U.S.
A long legal tussle ensued. New Delhi&rsquos High Court decriminalized homosexuality among consenting adults in 2009, only to be later overturned by the country&rsquos Supreme Court in 2012, following appeals from religious groups. The top court had then observed that less than 200 people were prosecuted in over 150 years for committing an offense under the section.
In 2016, five petitions to overturn the law were filed in the Supreme Court by prominent LGBTQ activists. The petitioners claimed that Section 377 violated their sexual autonomy, privacy and right to equality. Before Thursday’s verdict, about a dozen more petitions were filed by other parties arguing to quash the law.
While the ruling is welcomed by Indian LGBTQ activists, prominent voices in the community say challenges remain.
&ldquoThe LGBTQ movement in India is very urban-centric,&rdquo says Samarpan Maiti, a scientist and rights activist who won the title of Mr. Gay India earlier this year. Maiti, who is a brain cancer researcher, says his motivation to sign up for the pageant was simply to create awareness. &ldquoI thought this would send a message to people in rural areas as they would likely take the word of a scientist who is living as an openly-gay man.&rdquo
Maiti has been working with LGBTQ people in underprivileged parts of India. He says spreading awareness to remote areas is a major hurdle as a majority of people in these regions consider homosexuality a disease, or at best, a phase. Maiti recalls how his mother blamed homosexuality on his city life when he came out to his family in 2016. Gaining her acceptance was a process that took a long time, he says.
&ldquoShe never spoke about it and I was the one always bringing it up,&rdquo he says. &ldquo I started showing her movies about the LGBTQ community and our issues and that&rsquos how she finally accepted me.&rdquo
Gaining that kind of societal acceptance will not be a smooth journey either.
Petitioners faced strong opposition in court with Christian religious groups arguing against repealing the law. Even though Hindu and Muslim groups decided to stand back and not legally challenge the petition, members from all religious groups have vociferously defended their anti-gay stand in speeches and media appearances.
LGBTQ activists say the next step is pushing for marriage equality and property rights, but they will face an ongoing battle to ensure that their new-found right is not taken back from them, as it was in 2012.
&ldquoWe cannot rest on our laurels,&rdquo says Harish Iyer, a prominent LGBTQ activist, who shot to fame after his mother posted a matrimonial advertisement seeking grooms for her son in 2015. &ldquoWhen love comes out of the closet, hate shall too raise its hood.&rdquo
B. R. Ambedkar, an Indian social reformer and politician who came from a social group that was considered untouchable, theorized that untouchability originated because of the deliberate policy of the upper-caste Brahmanas. According to him, the Brahmanas despised the people who gave up the Brahmanism in favour of Buddhism. Later scholars such as Vivekanand Jha have refuted this theory. 
Austrian ethnologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf theorized that untouchability originated as class stratification in urban areas of the Indus Valley Civilisation. According to this theory, the poorer workers involved in 'unclean' occupations such as sweeping or leather work were historically segregated and banished outside the city limits. Over time, personal cleanliness came to be identified with "purity", and the concept of untouchability eventually spread to rural areas as well. After the decline of the Indus Valley towns, these untouchables probably spread to other parts of India.  Scholars such as Suvira Jaiswal reject this theory, arguing that it lacks evidence, and does not explain why the concept of untouchability is more pronounced in rural areas. 
American scholar George L. Hart, based on his interpretation of Old Tamil texts such as Purananuru, traced the origin of untouchability to ancient Tamil society. According to him, in this society, certain occupational groups were thought to be involved in controlling the malevolent supernatural forces as an example, Hart mentions the Paraiyars, who played the drums during battles and solemn events such as births and deaths. People from these occupational groups came to be avoided by others, who believed that they were "dangerous".  Jaiswal dismisses the evidence produced by Hart as "extremely weak" and contradictory. Jaiswal points out that the authors of the ancient Tamil texts included several Brahmanas (a fact accepted by Hart) thus, the society described in these texts was already under Brahmanical influence, and could have borrowed the concept of untouchability from them. 
British anthropologist John Henry Hutton traced the origin of untouchability to the taboo on accepting food cooked by a person from a different caste. This taboo presumably originated because of cleanliness concerns, and ultimately, led to other prejudices such as the taboo on marrying outside one's caste. Jaiswal argues that this theory cannot explain how various social groups were isolated as untouchable or accorded a social rank.  Jaiswal also notes that several passages from the ancient Vedic texts indicate that there was no taboo against accepting food from people belonging to a different varna or tribe. For example, some Shrauta Sutras mandate that a performer of the Vishvajit sacrifice must live with the Nishadas (a tribe regarded as untouchable in later period) for three days, in their village, and eat their food. 
Scholars such as Suvira Jaiswal, R. S. Sharma, and Vivekanand Jha characterize untouchability as a relatively later development after the establishment of the varna and caste system.  Jha notes that the earliest Vedic text Rigveda makes no mention of untouchability, and even the later Vedic texts, which revile certain groups such as the Chandalas, do not suggest that untouchability existed in the contemporary society. According to Jha, in the later period, several groups began to be characterized as untouchable, a development which reached its peak during 600–1200 AD. Sharma theorizes that institution of untouchability arose when the aboriginal tribes with "low material culture" and "uncertain means of livelihood" came to be regarded as impure by the privileged classes who despised manual labour, and regarded associated impurity with "certain material objects". 
According to Sarah Pinto, an anthropologist, modern untouchability in India applies to people whose work relates to "meat, and bodily fluids".  Based on the punishments prescribed in The Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 the following practices could be understood to have been associated with Untouchability in India: 
- Prohibition from eating with other members
- Provision of separate cups in village tea stalls
- Separate seating arrangements and utensils in restaurants
- Segregation in seating and food arrangements at village functions and festivals
- Prohibition from entering places of public worship
- Prohibition from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of higher caste members
- Prohibition from entering other caste homes
- Prohibition from using common village paths
- Separate burial/cremation grounds
- Prohibition from accessing common/public properties and resources (wells, ponds, temples, etc.)
- Segregation (separate seating area) of children in schools
- Social boycotts by other castes for refusing to perform their "duties" 
At the time of Indian independence, Dalit activists began calling for separate electorates for untouchables in India to allow fair representation. Officially labeled the Minorities Act, it would guarantee representation for Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and Untouchables in the newly formed Indian government. The Act was supported by British representatives such as Ramsay MacDonald. According to the textbook Religions in the Modern World, B. R. Ambedkar, who was also a supporter of the Act, was considered to be the “untouchable leader” who made great efforts to eliminate caste system privileges that included participation in public festivals, access to temples, and wedding rituals. In 1932, Ambedkar proposed that the untouchables create a separate electorate that ultimately led Gandhi to fast until it was rejected. 
A separation within Hindu society was opposed by national leaders at the time such as Gandhi, although he took no exception to the demands of the other minorities. He began a hunger strike, citing that such a separation would create an unhealthy divide within the religion. At the Round Table Conferences, he provided this explanation for his reasoning:
I don't mind untouchables if they so desire, being converted to Islam or Christianity. I should tolerate that, but I cannot possibly tolerate what is in store for Hinduism if there are two divisions set forth in the villages. Those who speak of the political rights of the untouchables don't know their India, don't know how Indian society is today constituted and therefore I want to say with all the emphasis that I can command that if I was the only person to resist this thing that I would resist it with my life. 
Gandhi achieved some success through his hunger strike however Dalit activists faced pressure from the Hindu population at large to end his protest at the risk of his ailing health. The two sides eventually came to a compromise where the number of guaranteed seats for Untouchables would be increased at both central and provincial levels, but there would be a common electorate.
The 1950 A.D., national constitution of India legally abolished the practice of untouchability and provided measures for affirmative action in both educational institutions and public services for Dalits and other social groups who lie within the caste system. These are supplemented by official bodies such as the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Despite this, instances of prejudice against Dalits still occur in some rural areas, as evidenced by events such as the Kherlanji massacre.
France and Spain: Cagots were historically untouchable groups of southwestern France and northern Spain. 
Korea: Baekjeong in Korea were an "untouchable” group of Korea who traditionally performed jobs of executioner and butcher. 
The nations where it's still criminal to be gay (as India marks an awkward anniversary)
Tuesday marks 10 years since India decriminalised gay sex, but it's unlikely the milestone will be celebrated.
That's because the 2009 lower court ruling was short-lived overturned within a few years by the nation's Supreme Court.
Their 2012 judgment effectively re-established the British colonial-era law Section 377, which saw gay sex punished by up to 10 years in jail.
Yet there are still dozens of countries where same-sex relationships are outlawed.
Where in the world is it still criminal to be gay?
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) listed the following nations in its 2019 map of criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual acts between adults.
Some countries have varying levels of punishments because of regional differences in law.
De Facto criminalisation: 2
Up to eight years imprisonment: 31
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Chad, Cameroon, Togo, Ghana, Liberia, Guinea, Senegal, Namibia, Botswana*, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Oman, Syria, Lebanon, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, Comoros, Mauritius, Eswatini, Bhutan, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Cook Islands
10 years to life in prison: 26
Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St Vincent and Grenadines, St Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, Guyana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Brunei, Soloman Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga
Effective death penalty: 6
Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran
Possible death penalty: 5
Mauritania, UAE, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gambia
*Since the list was published Botswana scrapped its law, banning gay sex in June.
How has India's flip-flopping laws on gay relationships affected British Asians?
British-born Reeta Loi said the changing laws of the motherland have a profound affect on attitudes in the UK's Indian community, which she believes is more conservative than the counterparts in India.
"Our identity can be challenged because of the motherland," she told ITV News.
Ms Loi is CEO of Gaysians, which overseas a UK alliance of more than 20 British Asian LGBT+ organisations.
She said even those not born in India still "hold onto whatever piece you have of your homeland", so remembers the 2012 reversing of the decriminalisation as "terrible, horrifying (and) heartbreaking that you're not accepted for being who you are.
"To see that change was heartbreaking but to see it come back (in 2018) was wonderful."
The musician and writer travelled to DJ at the Pride Parade in Bombay before the second decriminalisation and remembers a "sombre" mood, with onlookers "standing watching rather than cheering".
Returning in 2019 after the law change, she joined scenes of "elation and joy".
"There were five times more people and it was celebratory. Everyone had really gone to town with their outfits," she said.
Ms Loi said it mirrored the scenes in the UK.
"We British Asians had a party, celebrating with south Asian queer performers. It's the closest thing we've had to our own pride."
Ms Loi hopes India remains true to its newly enshrined law, which she said is based on values which are centuries old.
Homosexuality has "always been part of the (Indian) culture", she said. "It's only modern history and the British colonial law (which changed it)."
Despite the decriminalisation in India, Ms Loi believes more needs to be done to change hearts and minds in the UK, among her parent's generation but also some younger people in the British Asian community.
"India has moved on in so many ways but diaspora communities haven't," she said.
"Our parents' generation are far less liberal than their counterparts in India. It's really concerning, really alarming."
She points to a recent report which found British south Asians twice as likely as any other group in UK to disapprove of same-sex relationships.
"They're the values they believe in. There's a lot of work here to be done here."
A timeline of India's difficult relationship with homosexuality
1861: British India introduces section 377, based on 16th century law called the Buggery Act. It states: "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with 1[imprisonment for life], or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine."
1994: India's first AIDS activist movement, AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, seeks to decriminalise homosexuality.
2001: An NGO, Naz Foundation, files a second petition at the Delhi High Court in the hopes of legalising gay sex.
2003: The Delhi High Court refuses to consider the petition.
2009: Homosexuality is decriminalised as the Delhi High Court overturns the colonial law.
2012: On March 27, the Supreme Court reverses the verdict.
2013: Section 377 is reinstated and gay sex is criminalised making it punishable with up to life imprisonment.
2015: A member of the Indian National Congress party, Shashi Tharoor, introduces a bill to decriminalise homosexuality and it is voted down twice.
Explainer: As Madras HC prohibits conversion therapy, a look at history of traumatic 'cures' for queer individuals
It is vital to note the pseudoscientific nature of conversion 'treatment', which perceives sexual and gender orientation as a 'mental illness' and homosexuality as 'abnormal'.
This explainer contains descriptions of conversion therapy. Reader discretion is advised
On Monday, 7 June, Tamil Nadu was set to become the first state to ban conversion therapy in India. A Madras HC ruling this week put the spotlight on LGBTQ rights, as Justice N Anand Venkatesh recommended a range of measures while hearing S Sushma v Commissioner of Police — the case of a lesbian couple from Madurai who had eloped to Chennai and were being harassed by their families. The families had filed police complaints, following which the petitioners approached the court for protection.
Upholding the rights of LGBTQ individuals under Article 21 of the Constitution, Justice Venkatesh's order prohibits “any attempts to medically cure or change the sexual orientation of LGBTIQA+ people to heterosexual or the gender identity of transgender people to cisgender,” the Indian Express reported. The court said action would be taken against professionals who carried out any form of conversion therapy.
What is conversion therapy or cure therapy?
The NGO GLAAD defines conversion therapy as "any attempt to change a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression". It is vital to note the pseudoscientific nature of this "treatment", which perceives sexual and gender orientation as a "mental illness" and homosexuality as "abnormal". The methods can range from "talking" and aversion therapies (employing electroconvulsive shocks or nausea-inducing medication) to prayer, with more extreme measures like exorcisms, physical violence, "corrective rape" and food/sensory deprivation also reported to have been used against LGBTQ individuals.
Experts note that conversion therapy can have severe effects for the individual exposed, including putting them at risk for self-harm, depression and suicidal thoughts, and leaving them physically and emotionally traumatised.
Historical cases of conversion therapy
While conversion therapy has had a long and troubling history throughout the world, among the early recorded cases of a "medical" attempt was by Viennese endocrinologist Eugen Steinach. Steinach transplanted "testicles from straight men into gay men in attempts to change their sexual orientation" — a procedure that was later established to be not only ineffective, but also harmful.
Yet another controversial medical treatment was popularised by American neurologist Walter Freeman in the 1940s and '50s: He used an ice pick to lobotomise homosexual individuals, claiming the procedure would "cure" them. Instead, it left most of his patients severely and permanently disabled.
An essay by Lancaster University's Rianna Price, published in The Conversation, notes that in India, "the earliest documented medical use of aversion techniques were in the 1970s, following a renewed global interest in scientific cures for homosexuality, and was reported in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry".
"When aversion therapy was introduced in India, it involved using electro-convulsive therapy as well as a programme of behavioural therapy to remove fear or anxiety of the opposite sex. Patients would attend sessions with a range of erotic or pornographic same-sex photographs they had chosen themselves. While viewing them, they would receive an electric shock, creating a negative association of pain with their own feelings of arousal. The photographs would then be replaced with a heterosexual image and the electric shock would subside, assigning a sense of relief to opposite-sex attraction. While visual aids were the primary stimuli, Indian practitioners also included sensory materials, such as women’s perfume, to elicit stronger positive relations with opposite-sex stimuli," Price wrote.
Last May, conversion therapy was back in the headlines in India when a 21-year-old from Kerala died by suicide. Anjana Harish, a bisexual woman, said she had been forced to undergo conversion therapy by her family — a programme that began with her being assaulted and sedated, then placed in isolation, followed by a course of heavy medication. In a video posted to Facebook, she said, “My own family did this to me, that’s what saddens me the most". Two months after sharing her narrative, she was dead.
Earlier this week, a 23-year-old lesbian woman from Tamil Nadu, Pavithra, spoke with a German news publication about her family's attempts to force her to undergo conversion therapy. This included visits to a general physician followed by a consultation with a psychiatrist who advised Pavithra to watch porn videos depicting heterosexual intercourse. Pavithra's family also took her to a quack who "prescribed" rum as medication, and an unidentified tablet. She finally fled from her home and has been living with her partner Mary.
The same report also quotes Rajashree Raju, a member of the Kerala-based LGBTQ activism group Queerala, as saying that instances of individuals being forced to undergo conversion therapy had doubled during the pandemic-induced lockdown.
Incidentally, Queerala has been petitioning for conversion therapy to be declared illegal in India since October 2020, after Anjana Harish's death. Queerala members approached the Kerala High Court for a decision on the same, and the state's chapter of the Indian Psychiatric Society issued a statement to the effect that “offering conversion therapy… amount(s) to human rights violation and may invite legal action".
What is the medical position on conversion therapy in India?
The Indian Psychiatric Society issued an official statement in 2018 — coinciding with the Supreme Court's ruling reading down Section 377 and decriminalising homosexuality in India — tasking members to ‘stop considering homosexuality as an illness’.
The IPS' president Dr Ajit Bhide asserted that there was no need to "castigate, punish or ostracise" individuals for being homosexuals, which was seen by the queer community as a directive against mental health and medical professionals who might otherwise practice conversion therapy.
Where else is conversion therapy banned?
Malta, Brazil, Taiwan, Ecuador, Germany have bans in place on conversion therapy. The practice has been criminalised in Canada and Albania. In addition, some US states have protections for LGBTQ individuals against conversion therapy. The UK has also been mulling a ban.
India has outlawed homosexuality. But it’s better to be transgender there than in the U.S.
The gay rights movement in the United States has experienced historic successes in recent years. Gay couples can marry legally in 36 states, and growing social acceptance is evident in the rising numbers of openly gay athletes, politicians, and billionaires. And yet, progress in the associated transgender movement has lagged far behind. Transgender women — those born biologically male, but who have female gender identity — are far more likely than other LGBT people to be the targets of harassment and violence, and the protections afforded to gay Americans are sometimes challenged when applied to transgender people.
There have been troubling examples of this recently. Last month, transgender teen Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note attracted national attention for bemoaning the lack of human rights for transgender people and calling on Americans to “fix society.” A couple of weeks later,Saks Fifth Avenue doubled down on its fight against a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former employee who said she was dismissed because she was transgender. The retailer argued that transgender people aren’t protected by the Civil Rights Act (it has since backtracked on that position).
The situation for transgender communities isn’t so dour everywhere. In their quest for acceptance, transgender people have found it in an unexpected place: socially conservative South Asia. There, the Indian Supreme Court has deemed homosexuality a crime. But in a revolutionary ruling last year, the same justices extended legal rights and equality to transgender people. Not only that, they abolished the binary gender system, creating a protected third gender that covers not only transgender people, but also intersex (who have both male and female anatomy) and eunuchs (who have neither male nor female anatomy), often collectively called “hijra.” The change allows them to identify their gender as ‘hijra’ on all government documents, including passports. Governments in Nepal, Bangladesh, and even Pakistan have recognized a third gender category, as well.
Indians largely have embraced the third gender even before the legal rights were codified. Early last year, in the first official census count of the third gender, nearly a half million Indians identified as a member of the category (though activists insist the real number is at least four times larger). Even more surprising, 55,000 of third-gender people were under the age of 6, showing the comfort parents have in recognizing nontraditional gender identities in their children. Certainly, hijras and other members of the third gender are not free from harassment, discrimination and hardship in South Asia. Transgender people often live on the fringes of society in poverty and work in prostitution. But hijras also have a respected and storied history in India, and long have been prominent members of society. Their presence at births, marriages and other celebrations is seen as good luck. Some government jobs and colleges have set quotas for acceptance of hijras.
How is it that a society so restrictive in its views of sexuality, is so progressive in its approach to gender? And why has the United States developed in the opposite way? The explanation lies in the nations’ religious foundations.
Hinduism — practiced by 80 percent of Indians — has infused Indian culture with a mythological diversity that has normalized multiple gender identities. To provide support for its legal defense of the third gender, the Indian Supreme Court drew from ancient moral-philosophical classics of Hinduism. In one cited epic, the Mahabharata, a prince’s death wish is to marry, but no one would accept the offer of a dying prince. And so Lord Krishna, a male deity, descends to earth in the form of a woman named Mohini to marry to him. This and other stories provide divine justification for transgenderism, even according them supernatural status.
In the epic Ramayana, when Lord Rama is banished from the kingdom, he tells all the “men and women” who follow him to return to the city. The hijras among his followers choose to stand by Lord Rama, arguing that his directive did not apply to them. For this, Lord Rama blesses them. The idea that the Hindu deities conferred special blessings to transgender people for their devotion continues to influence their role in Indian society.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the cultural and legal perception of gender is strictly binary. Here, we legalize identities based on oppositions, such as heterosexuality and homosexuality, but have a hard time imagining pluralistic gender categories. Take, for example, Kentucky’s proposed “Student Privacy Act,” which would ban transgender students from entering school restrooms and locker rooms that don’t correspond to their sex assigned at birth.
Judeo-Christian traditions form the foundation for this perspective. The biblical book of Genesis describes God’s creation of humanity succinctly: “male and female.” The Bible does not stray from that binary gender structure established by Adam and Eve, and the concept of marriage continued the divine design of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Though the legalization of gay marriage has not come to the United States easily, expanding the traditional notion of marriage to include same-sex couples did not upset the system much. The binary structure of marriage — two individuals each with one gender identity — has remained intact. Polygamy, for example, would be far more threatening to a Western culture grounded in Judeo-Christian structures.
Homophobia Is Not an Asian Value. It's Time for the East to Reconnect to Its Own Traditions of Tolerance
T an Seng Kee, a 62-year-old retired doctor and LGBTQ+ activist, recently filed a motion in Singapore&rsquos High Court, asking it to order the city-state’s cabinet to revoke a colonial-era law that could imprison men for up to two years for engaging in consensual sex.
The law is rarely enforced, but it&rsquos the symbolism that counts: despite gradual, progressive shifts in official rhetoric, Singapore remains one of the more conservative states in the region when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. Taiwan, by contrast, was a pioneer in recognizing same-sex marriage in May 2019, to be followed by Thailand, which passed a civil partnerships bill in July 2020.
Asian critics of homosexuality have long argued that it is a Western behavior, superimposed upon Eastern cultures as a decadent, neo-colonial side effect of globalization. Even those who are not opposed to homosexuality tend to shrug their shoulders at what they believe to be a uniformly conservative continent when it comes to sexual politics. It’s just not Asian, many say. The public will never accept it.
Yet reality yields a far more complex picture. According to a 2019 Pew survey, wealthier countries tend to be more accepting of homosexuality regardless of whether they are Asian or Western. For example Japan, which has the world’s third biggest economy, is significantly more accepting of homosexuality than, say, Israel, Poland, Lithuania, or Greece. Affluent South Korea is far more accepting than Bulgaria or Ukraine.
In fact, the widespread contention that homosexuality isn’t an Asian phenomenon is gloriously false. The Kama Sutra, written over two millennia ago, has a chapter of explicit instructions on gay sex. In imperial China, many Han dynasty rulers were bisexual or homosexual. Scholars Bret Hinsch and Li Yinhe note that tales of homoerotic relationships, such as those of Long Yang and Emperor Ai of Han, were widely known and valorized throughout Chinese history. Lesbian and gay partnerships were meanwhile ubiquitous throughout the Ashikaga and Edo era Japan, even under the most repressive, feudalistic rule of its political history.
If anything, it was contact with the West that steadily chipped away at this permissiveness in Asia towards same-sex relationships. Jijian, a pejorative Chinese term for men who have sex with men, arose at a time when Christian missionaries began spreading the idea that homosexuality was sinful.
Such attitudes, unfortunately, became gradually entrenched as Asian states sought to court the favor of Western powers and win over critical religious intermediaries. The Meiji Restoration in Japan brought a roster of modernizations to the country&rsquos economy but in some ways set the country back by cultivating a new cultural elite that aligned itself with conservative Western mores. By the late 19th century, the British Raj had criminalized sodomy and sought to outlaw the community of Hijra, despite the long history of these third-gender and transgender individuals on the sub-continent. British curricula and laws in the Raj propagated the view that the gender binary was the norm, and that those who deviated from cis-heterosexuality were to be regarded as the Other.
In 2020, religion is still used in Asia to bolster homophobic attitudes. But whose religion is it? Leading figures in Chinese Buddhism have spoken out about the need for tolerance towards homosexuality, saying that while heterosexual marriage is a custom, “customs can always be changed.&rdquo Taoism makes scant mention of same-sex relations, let alone prohibiting them. There are prominent Hindu deities who are gender-fluid. Even in the heavily Catholic Philippines, 73% of respondents to the Pew survey cited above said homosexuality ought to be socially acceptable.
There are also religious figures from India, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka among the 370 signatories of a recent declaration by the Global Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ Lives, which apologizes for religious teachings that have “caused and continue to cause deep pain and offense to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex.” Lending their names, too, are prominent Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus based in countries like the U.S.A. and U.K.
So there is nothing innately Asian about homophobia. Indeed, there is every reason to think that recognition of the rights of the LGBTQ+ population is in line with Asia&rsquos stepping up to become a fulcrum of the 21st-century world.
Singapore&rsquos founding father Lee Kuan Yew, and two-time Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, were fond of emphasizing the phrase &ldquoAsian values&rdquo to describe the set of norms that made Asian states distinct from their Western counterparts. Indeed, Mahathir went so far as to assert that, &ldquoIn Malaysia, there are some things we cannot accept, even though it is seen as human rights in Western countries &hellip We cannot accept LGBT marriage between men and men, women and women.&rdquo
But while “Asian values” are generally understood to be socially conservative, there is no reason why they should remain so. Significantly, Mahathir’s activist daughter, Marina, was quoted by Malaysian media in 2018 as saying “LGBTs just want the same rights as everyone, nothing more.”
In other words, the legacy of colonialism need no longer frame Asian discussions about same-sex relations and gender fluidity. It would make economic sense for them not to: as the world&rsquos economic powerhouse, Asian economies would benefit vastly from the surge in human capital and new ideas that a more inclusive civil society could bring.
But neither should change come because of some Western-inspired emancipation. It would be far better for the East to reconnect with its own traditions of tolerance and inclusivity, defying the stereotype that LGBTQ+ rights and the West go hand in hand.
Changing families’ attitudes is a key priority for clinical psychologist Richa Vashista, a research interventionist at the Humsafar Trust, a nonprofit organization in Mumbai and Delhi that provides counseling, health-care services and advocacy for the LGBTQ community. Vashista has co-authored “Strengthening Bridges: A Manual for Counselors to Support Parents of LGBTQ” to guide mental health professionals in supporting parents.
“When children come out, the parents often blame themselves or feel guilty,” says Vashista. “The mother usually blames herself, thinking something happened during pregnancy that her child turned out this way.” The manual outlines helpful responses to this and other parent questions, such as what to tell their friends or why their children can’t just marry and live secret lives.
Catching the next generation before they develop anti-LGBTQ attitudes is another priority for Indian psychologists, says Ahuja, who has developed an intervention to “subvert heteronormativity” among college students.
Using a scale she developed to measure Indian attitudes toward homosexuality (Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 64, No. 14, 2017), Ahuja tested a three-part intervention: an educational presentation offering facts about homosexuality and its longtime presence in Indian culture an exercise in which participants imagine they are members of a persecuted minority and a session based on the contact hypothesis in which students interact with a gay man and a lesbian woman. Ahuja and her colleagues found that the intervention increased empathy and improved attitudes toward homosexuality in participants (Journal of Homosexuality, online first publication, 2018).
“We really need more such forums to talk about homosexuality and to give the opportunity for homosexuals to share their experiences,” says Ahuja, noting that Indians’ attitudes are typically shaped by media depictions of homosexuals as buffoons.
Such interventions need to happen at every level, adds Vashista, who provides trainings on sexual orientation and gender identity at schools, corporations and other venues. At workplaces, for example, Indians still face enormous pressure to conform. “A client comes and tells me, ‘I have to live a lie and pretend to be someone else at work,’” she says. “It takes a mental toll on them.”