Not Fair, Still Lovely: The Perpetuating Toxicity of Colorism

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Source: Adam Jones

This past summer, two pandemics plagued the world: COVID-19 and systemic racial discrimination and prejudice against Black communities. While the former was making modern history, the latter had been happening for centuries. As I thought of ways to address and educate myself and my family on these injustices, I found myself revisiting and reevaluating my own biases, particularly those I’ve experienced within the Indian community.

Growing up in South India, I would mimic my mother and grandma’s daily skin care routine when they used “Fair and Lovely,” a skin lightening and bleaching cream. I was constantly told to not play outside because I might get too dark, and my foundation for dance competitions and rehearsals was often shades lighter that what it needed to be. I was raised in a world where your worth was defined by the color of your skin, and if by chance your skin was too dark or too tan, then you were seen as un-beautiful, unworthy, and incompetent. Most women like my mom, my grandma, and I, as well as other individuals that suffer from the stigma that being dark is ugly, have often fallen prey to companies that profit off the ideology that whiter skin is equivalent to beauty, self-confidence, and self-worth.

Colorism in Indian Society

Colorism is an issue that is often ignored and rooted in societal pressure around fairness. It is a discriminatory practice in which institutions or individuals treat those with lighter skin tones more favorably, upholding instead White, Eurocentric standards of beauty. India is a mixture of diverse cultures, languages, and shades of brown. With different skin tones came colorism that continues to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions. For generations, Indian society has been brainwashed into the ideology that fairer skin is more desirable, leading to the nation  developing a multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry. Everyday products like Olay’s Natural White Glowing Fairness Cream, Lotus Herbal’s White Glow Skin Whitening and Brightening Gel Crème, Pond’s White Beauty Daily Spot-Less Lightening Cream, etc. promote stereotypes against darker skin tones through their marketing strategies. For example, a current advertisement shows a young woman with a darker skin tone being rejected from a job later ends up using a fairness product to become more beautiful and thus confident. She then goes on to score an even better job at the end. Mainstream media also fails to provide accurate representations of India’s population, with many actors being light skinned and with frequent recruitment of foreign and predominantly White-presenting actors. Often the practice of “brown-face” is used among these actors and production companies to fit a certain role or aesthetic, thereby enforcing negative stereotypes when proper recruitment should’ve happened in the first place. Even more disturbing is that these stereotypes are so enforced in people’s homes and daily lives and can affect prospective marriages, job opportunities, and other relationships due to preferential treatment towards lighter skin.

The Origins of Colorism

Often, people mistakenly identify the origins of colorism with the caste system present in India. The caste system divides the Indian population according to labor and promotes the idea that each subgroup has its own functionally important role in society. Over time, this led to misrepresentation and manipulation of the caste system, because higher status on the ladder typically meant more prestigious work related to education, religion, trading, etc., whereas lower status meant more labor-intensive work that typically meant occupations in dirtier, outdoor environments. Naturally, those individuals lower on that ladder became darker due to their exposure to natural environmental conditions. Their natural and seasonal tanning along with their status as Dalits (“the untouchables”) within the caste system can be argued to have contributed to colorism. While the caste system does play a part in this ideology, it doesn’t fully explain why discrimination continues to happen, especially among individuals that identify with a higher status on the caste system but are also darker. Apart from that, multiple text depict Hindu deities as “dark-skinned,” and who hold a tremendous amount of respect, honor, and power. Neither the caste system nor religion can wholly explain the origins or colorism and why it still continues to perpetuate today.

A chart depiction of the Caste system.
Source: Source: The Ancient Wisdom Project

Colonization, the third factor of this equation, seems to be the missing part of the puzzle. Like many countries, India was not exempt from British rule and had only in the past century gained its independence. During the centuries of British rule and oppression, “colonization was embedded in the idea that fair skin people were the ruling class, and darker skinned people were the subjects.” Apart from this, there was also blatant favoritism by the newly erected British government towards light skinned Indians that directly affected social and class mobility as well as a family’s socioeconomic status. This was seen through discriminatory practices, such as offering lighter skinned individuals government pardons, jobs, and a voice, which were not offered to Indians of darker skin tones. This mindset, that the only way to be worthy, to be accomplished, and to be civilized and beautiful, slowly became an innate mantra amongst the Indian population, creating generations of individuals that strive for a beauty standard deeply rooted in anti-ethnic, anti-Indian, and anti-minority sentiments. The effects of colonization intermingled with the stereotypical notions of the caste system to give us unique and deeply rooted coloristic principles.

Difference between racism and colorism

Earlier, I mentioned that I wanted to address my own biases regarding systemic racism and educate myself on this issue. However, as an Indian-American immigrant, I found it difficult to navigate the differences between racism and colorism as the two are often intertwined and seen together in my community. But the more I researched on this issue, I found that people, often non South Asians, frequently mistook colorism for racism because it can perpetuates anti-Black sentiments within South Asian communities. Except, they are very distinct concepts. For example, in the U.S. (but not exclusive to the U.S.), skin color is the foundation of race, and continues to be a criterion in determining how they are evaluated and judged. The United States’ historic treatment and oppression of Black Americans is racially based, and within that exist preferences for certain skin tones. However, in a lot of Asian and colonized countries, race is not the primary indicator of how an individual will be treated. Instead, the color of a person’s skin on the wide range of the color spectrum will be the major determinant. While the two sound very similar, “the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy” is the crucial factor in social and class mobility, not necessarily race. Colorism and racism, while closely related problems need different solutions, and while these some of these solutions may overlap, each has a unique set of problems.

Woman holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
Source: Socially Urban

Right now, certain skin care and make-up companies, such as Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely,” that release skin whitening, bleaching, and lightening products have issued public apologies and are removing, re-advertising, and rebranding their products. While this alone is not enough, because the consumption of such products is based in generational trauma surrounding discrimination around darker skin and beautiful shades of brown, it is a step forward in addressing how such companies are profiting off anti-Black sentiments and how to halt such practices.

What can I do?

  • Follow Nina Davuluri’s “See My Complexion” petition and project.
  • Continue to callout and critique companies that promote skin bleaching and whitening products because cosmetic changes such as rebranding products is not enough to halt harmful beauty standards.
  • Most importantly, it’s important to address and actively combat our own implicit biases that are rooted in generational trauma.

MAUNAKEA & THE FIGHT TO PROTECT SACRED LAND

Image of Mauna Kea protectors blocking the road
TMT blockade on Mauna Kea. Source: Occupy Hilo, Creative Commons/Flickr

A $1.4bn observatory called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is slated to be built on Maunakea, a mountain on Hawaii’s Big Island, this year. This telescope would be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere and would provide images more than 10x sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing astronomers to explore even deeper into space. Yet, while the construction of a new telescope on a tall mountain might seem like a neutral endeavor, it is rife with issues of justice.

The construction of TMT was initially stopped in 2015 when Native Hawaiians and allies blocked the road to construction crews for months until the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court officially stopped construction that December. Then in 2019, developers were given the go-ahead to once again begin construction. In response, protesters (or as they prefer to be called protectors) turned out to block the road, with the protest coming to a head in July, when 38 kūpuna (revered elders) were arrested and Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, signed an emergency proclamation giving law enforcement more control over the area and allowed them to bring in National Guard troops. However, the protectors did not back down and have been camped at the road ever since.

In December, protectors at the Mauna Kea Access Road removed barricades and shifted their camps to the side of the road for the first time, opening the access road to all traffic except construction equipment as part of a deal with Mayor Kim. In return, the Mayor promised, “that no attempt will be made to move TMT construction equipment up the mountain for a minimum of two months.” Protectors hope this time can be used to influence decisionmaking in other arenas. While this update does look promising, in January the trial for the first group of protectors arrested began and has so far highlighted the opposing viewpoints of this protest. According to Deputy Attorney General Darrell Wong “These defendants may have characterized their actions as kapu aloha and peaceful, but nonetheless it involved a plan, an organized plan, something that was calculated and basically something that was unjustified.” Yet the protectors and their attorney view their actions as a response to the government blocking the activists from practicing their religion and culture, which is protected under the law.

Sacred Land

Picture of Mauna Kea in Hawaii
Mauna Kea Hawaii. Source: Eric Tessmer, Creative Commons/Flickr

The protectors are not anti-science, as some TMT supporters have claimed. They are not opposed to the scientific advancements brought by such a telescope but they are opposed to its chosen location. Maunakea is a sacred mountain that is said to connect native Hawaiians to the cosmos. According to the Maunakea Visitor Information Station, the mountain is the dwelling place of the goddess Poli’ahu, it is associated with the Hawaiian deities Lilinoe and Waiau, and the summit is considered the realm of the gods.

The construction of TMT would negatively impact the sacred land and the telescope would increase activities on the mountain, further degrading the environment. The mountain top is already home to 13 other telescopes and since multiple alternative sites were found by the board of directors behind TMT to be “excellent for carrying out the core science” of the observatory, it at first seems off that TMT supporters seem so committed to this location. However, if we take a step back to look at the issue it is easy to see the link between this current protest and the history of ill-treatment to native Hawaiians and the continued desecration of their native lands.

A Brief History of US Interference in Hawaii

The history of Hawaii was absent from all of my education. It had always been just the 50th state and an island vacation spot until I lived in American Samoa and decided to learn more about the history of US intervention in Polynesia. It was then that I learned about the fraught history of Hawaii, a history that I honestly should have known and could have at least guessed at if I had taken a moment to. Just as North America was colonized, so too was Hawaii and many continue to consider the island to be occupied by the US.

In 1887, King David Kalakaua was forced, at gunpoint, to sign a new constitution for the Kingdom of Hawaii, which stripped the monarch of the majority of his authority. The new constitution had been written by a group of white businessmen, many of whom were connected to the sugar and pineapple plantations on the island, who wanted the Kingdom to become part of the US. When the King died, his sister Lili’uokalani succeeded him and attempted to restore power to the monarchy. This action angered the same white businessmen and they formed a 13-member Committee of Safety which forced Queen Lili’uokalani to abdicate her throne. The Committee then proclaimed itself the Provisional Government of Hawaii.

President Harrison signed a treaty of annexation with the Provisional Government, but before it could be ratified, President Cleveland was elected and the treaty was withdrawn. President Cleveland also appointed a special investigator to investigate the events in Hawaii, who found that there had been a coup. He then ordered Queen Lili’uokalani to be restored to power, but the Provisional Government refused and declared Hawaii a republic in 1894. Soon after the US government officially recognized it as a republic. In 1895, Native Hawaiians staged mass protests and eventually took up arms to stop the annexation, but the protest was suppressed and the leaders, along with Queen Lili’uokalani, were jailed. In 1898, Congress passed the “Newlands Resolution” officially annexing Hawaii and, in 1959, it became the 50th state.

For decades, the use of the Hawaiian language was punished, Native culture was suppressed and a large military presence was maintained on the islands. Many Native Hawaiians remember these US policies explicitly designed to suppress traditional Native Hawaiian religious and cultural practices, and while no longer explicit, native culture is still being infringed upon.

Religious Protections?

Theoretically, sacred land disputes should not exist because of existing protections of religion in the US. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right for people to practice their own religion, with the first clause providing that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion and the second prohibiting Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion”. Since sacred lands are part of the “religious” practices of many Native Americans they should be protected. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the courts. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, a group of Native Americans from the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa tribes objected to proposed road construction within the Six Rivers National Forest because it would destroy land that they held sacred. The district, appellate, and Supreme courts all agreed that the activity would indeed violate their religious needs, yet the Supreme Court ruled against them. The Court ruled that in this case, while the activity would adversely affect their religion and destroy the sacred location, the government was not prohibiting the practice of their religion and therefore construction could continue (Bowman, 1989).

The establishment clause of the First Amendment, prohibiting government endorsement of religions, has also proven detrimental to the fight for the protection of sacred lands. According to the Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, government actions must be secular in nature, or at least neutral, and must avoid “excessive entanglement in religion”. In practice, this has resulted in the protection of sacred lands by the government being ruled unconstitutional. Based on this decision, courts found that the National Parks Service’s 1995 Final Climbing Management Plan (FCMP) for Devil’s Tower National Monument violated the establishment clause because it placed a mandatory ban on climbing during June out of respect for local tribal religious practices (Bonham, 2002). In response, the ban was changed to a voluntary one and the case was dismissed, however, some in the climbing community still oppose the ban in any form arguing that they have a right to climb the Tower. While this might appear at least as a partial win for the tribes, what it illustrates is that protecting native sacred land sites is considered a governmental endorsement of religion by the courts and would, therefore, violate the establishment clause.

In short, the courts have continuously failed to protect sacred lands and to adequately protect the practice of indigenous belief systems and cultural practices. A point to think about in light of this failure is that the US Constitution and legal system are not culturally neutral. It is rooted in European legal traditions and Christain morality and theology. Just as culture shapes how individuals see the world, it also shapes how the legal system sees the world and responds to disputes. The Anglo-American legal tradition is capable of recognizing the “sacred” when it takes the form of a church structure, a sermon or a piece of art; but a mountain, a lake, a river? These places are empty until people make their mark. Therefore these sacred land disputes are not merely conflicts between individual rights and government or corporate power but are conflicts between different cultures and different ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Final Thoughts

In the case of Mauna Kea, the mountain is holy and an integral element of native Hawaiian religion and culture, a culture that the US systematically tried to wipe out. The land in and of itself is sacred and deeply connected to the people and that should be respected. While the building of a telescope may seem neutral, it is not. It is the destruction and desecration of the mountain and cannot be separated from the history of colonization and occupation of the island. In the end, no telescope is worth dehumanizing others. Mauna Kea shows that science does not happen in a vacuum. It must critically examine who is benefitting from the information and at what cost.

As Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the protest leaders, put it, “For Native Hawaiians, there is a question of our right to self-determination as defined by international law, but I think it’s so much bigger than that,” said Pisciotta. “It’s about us learning to live and be interdependent.”

Kenya and Beyond: Including Human Rights in Conservation

Nelson and Maggie Reiyia watched in despair as their community slowly fell into decline despite tourism profits from nearby Maasai Mara National Reserve. As indigenous Maasai themselves, the Reiyias were determined to reinvigorate their community despite the massive forces of ‘big’ conservation and outside development. Thus, they set out to create the first Maasai-run conservancy in the history of Kenya and reconnect their people, culture, and livestock to the land and its wild inhabitants.

A Maasai man in traditional red clothing overlooks the Sekenani River. Nearby vegetation reflects off the water's rippled surface.
A Maasai tribe member overlooks the Sekenani River. The Sekenani restoration project is one of many local initiatives conducted by the Nashulai Conservancy. (Photo credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/sekenani-river-restoration)

Historically, the Maasai and other Kenyan tribes occupied these lands until Western colonial powers began to forcibly move people to make room for themselves and their ever expanding game reserves. Sadly, there is a long history of colonial and post-colonial entities removing people from their lands in the name of conservation and game management. This tendency to ‘Other’ people unlike us – that is, to assume their inferiority as humans – continues to taint conservation and often results in counterproductive efforts to save endangered species.

Sadly, this model of conservation has been adopted the world over and partly stems from the assumption that Indigenous people lack the ability to govern themselves or the knowledge to sustainably manage their lands. Yet, in the case of the Maasai, they have occupied the landscape long enough for it to become an integral part of their culture and worldview. Of course this is hardy meant to reference to the outdated ‘noble savage’ cliché; rather, it is an attempt to force us to consider who was already managing these lands and critical resources before the colonizers arrived.

A herd of wildebeest and zebras meandering about the vast and empty Maasai Mara National Reserve.
A herd of wildebeests cross the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Every year the migration of these animals attracts tourists from around the globe. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

An additional assumption held by Western society and much of modern conservation is that people should be removed from their lands in order to establish pristine areas for wildlife. Enter the additional force of tourism – a massive economic influence that often turns sentiments against local populations thought to be spoiling the landscape, competing with wildlife, and over-hunting the animals we so desperately seek on our travels. Don’t get me wrong, tourism can be a positive source of income for a region. But when money takes precedence over people depending on ancestral lands, it is unethical at best.

Finally, we cannot forget the horrid calls to shoot poachers on-sight and emotional outcries against trophy hunting. In our Western need to anthropomorphize wildlife, especially the ‘cute’ or charismatic animals, we fail to see the socioeconomic complexities of people and place. We also have to remind ourselves these are not our animals to govern. These animals – if they can be thought of to belong to anyone – are clearly in the domain of the countries in which they reside and the people living among them. In other instances, certain animals represent a critical source of local income through legal trophy hunting. But as we saw with the ‘Cecil the Lion’ outrage, the Western world is appalled at the thought of killing a lion for any reason while giving little thought to the ribeye steak on our dinner plate.

Two zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where the grass and sky both seem endless. Few people are seen aside from tour guides and tourists.
Zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where few people are seen aside from tourists and their tour guides. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

Conservation is complicated so we have to look at the bigger picture. It is often as much about humans as it is about wildlife and ‘wild’ spaces. The combined result of ‘Othering’ indigenous populations and disregarding their traditional ecological knowledge, while simultaneously anthropomorphizing wildlife and claiming ownership over entire ecosystems, has led us to our current circumstances. While many conservation initiatives are beginning to take local and Indigenous voices into account, the unfortunate fact is that neocolonial conservation is alive and well.

Over the last decade I have watched as the push for social science integration with conservation biology has slowly gained momentum. Such calls for interdisciplinary approaches have arisen from the desperate need to better understand the multifaceted human dimension of conservation. ‘Fortress conservation’ and the forced removal of people from their lands, or lack of access to resources and profits from their lands, are outdated practices and clear human-rights violations. From conservation to tourism, local cultures have a right to be included. In fact, research from myself and others has demonstrated that when communities are intimately involved there is an increased likelihood of long-term conservation success.

The Nashulai model diagrams depicts their commitment to helping both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage.
The integrated Nashulai model emphasizes the need to help both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage. (Image credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/)

After hearing Nelson and Maggie Reiyia speak at UAB about their indigenous-run conservancy and the advances they have achieved for both their cultural and biological heritage, I believe there is hope that we can shift the narrative of conservation to one that is more inclusive and ethical. Simply put, supporting initiatives like the Nashulai Conservancy can help push back against ongoing injustices and bring human rights to the forefront of conservation.

Sherrie D. Alexander, MA
University of Alabama at Birmingham, Researcher and Instructor of Anthropology
IUCN Primate Specialist Group, Section for Human-Primate Interactions, Member
Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation, North American representative

Land acknowledgement: The University of Alabama at Birmingham is located on the traditional lands of the Muskogee Creek Indians.  

 

 

From the Ashes to the Stage: Indigenous Culture in the Performing Arts

On Tuesday, October 29th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s College of Arts & Sciences and Department of Theatre to present indigenous actor, choreographer, director, and educator Michael Greyeyes. During his lecture and discussion with audience members, Greyeyes addressed issues such as the realities of being a stage performer, becoming a director, and indigenous representation in the media.

Greyeyes prefaced his lecture by acknowledging the original caretakers of the Birmingham area, namely the Chickasaw and Muscogee tribes. Following, Greyeyes began to mention a meeting he attended about “conflict”. He emphasized that conflict could elicit an array of emotions such as anger, frustration, and fear. However, he claimed that conflict is necessary, much like fire, because it burns away what is unnecessary.

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, a province of West Canada, Greyeyes moved to Toronto as a young man to work for The National Ballet of Canada. During this time, the company was resurging from its own series of ashes by elevating new leadership and young dancers. After his 4-year apprenticeship that took him around the world and back, Greyeyes had residencies as a performer in New York City, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. “Ever the migrant”, he exclaimed.

In Los Angeles, consumed by a restless artistic interest, Greyeyes took up acting. However, as a person of indigenous heritage, he often found himself disillusioned by being typecasted into roles such as “Native doctor” or “Indian lawyer”. Greyeyes then chose to continue his “re-education” by pursuing a Master’s in Fine Arts at Kent State University. Following, he was asked to take on a new role in the performing arts as a director. As a result, Greyeyes has found himself in the position to refine what it means to be a director at his non-profit, Signal Theatre, where he spends considerable time on development and training performers. Thus, the end-product becomes an intimate performance that is suited to resonate better with its audience.

Greyeyes closed his lecture by alluding to our political landscape with the Talking Head’s lyric “Same as it ever was” and suggested that, in times such as this, artistic creativity has the opportunity to challenge new conflicts by rising old memories from the ashes and expressing what we hold dear.

Greyeyes engaging with an audience member. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

After his lecture, Greyeyes took questions and comments from the inspired audience. One person mentioned that conflict in their parent’s native land of Egypt raised parallels with what indigenous communities have endured through colonialism. Greyeyes responded by mentioning there are high numbers of indigenous soldiers in the armed forces and that he has even played this role on the big screen. Although, the families of these soldiers are the ones who must pick up the pieces. In response, Greyeyes created A Soldier’s Tale which is a passionate dance performance about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He stressed that when non-indigenous people “write us” into the script, their perceptions come out and it generally doesn’t sound right. Thus, he expressed his most acclaimed role by the indigenous community was his True Detective performance as a solider shattered by the Vietnam War. Although, this character was not written in the storyline as a “Native solider” rather an everyday veteran that was given an indigenous perspective by Greyeyes himself. From the ashes to the stage.

Section 377 is overturned, but now what?

Rainbow heart with "love" spelled out in the middle
LGBT Rainbow Heart with Love Inscription. Source: b_earth_photos, Creative Commons

For the past 150 years in India, homosexual acts were not only banned but were criminally punishable by up to ten years in prison. Introduced in 1861, while India was still under British colonial rule, Section 377 of the Indian Penal code made illegal any “unnatural offenses” that were deemed as sexual activities “against the order of nature.” For many years this gave policemen, government officials, and local village leaders free reign to harass and discriminate against the LGBTQ+ population of India. Recently on 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India, after years of court decisions and decades of public protest, ruled that the application of Section 377 to queer and trans sex was unconstitutional. The justices denounced this law’s infringement upon the freedoms of LGBTQ+ people as it “criminalized consensual sexual acts of adults in private”. This determination has ceased much of the governmental abuse of the Indian LGBTQ+ population. It is worthwhile to note that despite the public opinion that Section 377 was repealed, the law is still active and applicable to other offenses such as rape, bestiality, and sexual acts with minors. The supreme court decision simply made it illegal to apply Section 377 to queer sexual acts.

Now that Section 377 can no longer target sexual minorities, India’s vast LGBTQ+ population is beginning to emerge from the shadows and realize their true selves in public without fear of prosecution and imprisonment. This is not to say that there is not a reason to still be afraid. Many people and institutions are still very hostile towards the queer and trans community because of the social stigmas, stereotypes, ignorance, and intolerance that are still very much ingrained in Indian culture. There is still much work to be done to educate the general population for LGBTQ+ issues to be destigmatized. There is hope that a culture friendly and accepting of all people, regardless of sexual or gender orientation, will soon become a reality in India.

It has long been held that “Section 377 in itself does not mean that you can be arrested for simply being or saying [that] you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, Hijra or Kothi. Your freedom of expression is not under threat”. This fact, however, has not prevented the widespread discrimination inflicted by police officers, hospital staff, and highly hostile work environments. India’s lack of a complete anti-discrimination law that protects all groups who may face prejudice has allowed such toxicity and hatred to fester and grow. Although a few anti-discrimination laws exist, they are not well enforced and only apply to public institutions. This means that all private Indian companies are free to discriminate against LGBTQ+ employees with no legal repercussions and allows government institutions to violate existing law without any harsh penalties. The criminalization of queer sex and the lack of adequate discrimination protections has ignited many lasting problems for the LGBTQ+ community. These people lack quality public healthcare, face cultural and religious persecution, and fear a prejudice entertainment industry that is encouraging the current generation of adolescents to be homophobic.

It seems odd that Section 377’s past criminalization of queer sex could damage the healthcare available to the LGBTQ+ population. However, it is important to realize that not only was having queer sex a criminal act, but anyone that was found to have helped hide or abet LGBTQ+ sexual acts would have also been prosecuted as an accessory to the crime. This was the case with Arif Jafar, an Indian health counselor. Arif made it his mission to attempt to help the queer population have safe sex and avoid being infected with HIV by handing out condoms each week. After nearly three decades of aiding the LGBTQ+ community, Arif was arrested for abetting and promoting the criminal offense of queer sexual acts. He was beaten, spent 47 days in jail, and has had to appear in court each month for over a decade. This is but one of the many atrocities committed against the LGBTQ+ people because of Section 377. Simply selling condoms and other objects used for safe sex to queer/trans men and women was unlawful. This created dangers for both the LGBTQ+ community and any doctors willing to serve them. For these reasons, many LGBTQ+ in India have avoided healthy sex conversations out of fear that their doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals involved with their care would report their “criminal” sexual acts to the authorities.

Section 377 instilled so much fear in the LGBTQ+ community that many refused to see a doctor for treatment for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, the UN collected data detailed in the 2017 UNAIDS Data report that showed that the national HIV infection rate for queer men is 4.3% while the national average is .31%. This means that queer men are nearly fourteen times more likely to be infected with HIV than straight men. It is impossible to determine exactly how large of an impact the lack of access to condoms and other safe sex essentials has had on the LGBTQ+ HIV epidemic. However, it is clear that these policies could only have increased the health risks for this community.

In addition to preventing many from seeking or receiving proper medical care, doctors were not well educated on the common spectrum of LGBTQ+ health issues, and as such were not adequately equipped to serve these patients. Even after the recent Supreme Court decision absolved these risks, the vast majority of the LGBTQ+ population are still hesitant to going to the doctor for sexual related issues. Doctors play a key role in providing sex education to their patients. It is well established that these safe sex talks help to decrease patients risk for sexually transmitted diseases. However, when patients fear talking to their physicians for fear of getting reported to the authorities then these safe sex talks do not occur. One can only hope that the sacred bond and trust between patient and physician can heal over time for this community.

Many Indians cite cultural and religious reasons as grounds for their anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes. However, this stance doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Hindu culture has a long history of acceptance for LGBTQ+ people and religious figures. H. H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar makes this point clear by saying that “Homosexuality has never been considered a crime in Hindu culture. … It is not a crime in any Smriti. Everyone has male & female elements … [and] Nobody should face discrimination because of their sexual preferences. To be branded a criminal for this is absurd”. Institutions such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Gay & Lesbian Vaishnava Association corroborate this pro-LGBTQ+ attitude. This begs one to question why public opinion differs from historical evidence and major religious organizations.

The answer lies 150 years ago when Britain took direct control of India from the British East India Company. After Britain began governing India in 1858, they implemented Section 377 and other social policies that attacked the prevalent LGBTQ+ population India had at the time. This was an enforcement of British values on Indian society. When India decriminalized queer sexual acts this past year it wasn’t, “India becoming ‘westernized.’ It’s India decolonizing.” says Twitter user @shamiruk. Being colonized and subjugated for many generations has caused a multitude of prejudice western practices to become entrenched in Indian society. The goal moving forward is for India to evolve past the harmful effects of colonization and be fully reunited with the LGBTQ+ accepting culture of pre-colonial India.

 

LGBT activist during the 16th Kolkata Rainbow pride walk 2017 in South Kolkata on Sunday, December 10, 2017. Express photo by Partha Paul.

Although great strides are being made to help the LGBTQ+ community gain legal protections and societal acceptance in India, the current entertainment industry’s portrayal of the queer community in a negative light, often at the butt of insults and jokes, is endangering an entire current generation of young people to be homophobic. The progress for widespread social change has been incredibly slow. There are many stereotypes in mainstream Indian cinema that only fuel derogatory comments and demeaning behavior towards the LGBTQ+ population. In fact, after the news spread about the Supreme Court decision on Section 377 many young people were tagging each other on Instagram and Twitter saying things like “you’re free now!” in teasing and mocking tones. The term “gay” itself has become a common insult for kids to tease and mock their peers. This highly toxic culture is the direct result of a society that makes light of making fun of the LGBTQ+ community as ‘just joking’ by media outlets, and even the parents and role models of these young children. Scared of the prejudice and abuse that being openly queer will bring, many LGBTQ+ people still aren’t comfortable with coming out and being comfortable in their own skin.

The 6 September 2018 Supreme Court decision to decriminalize queer sexual activities by Section 377 was a major step forward in LGBTQ+ rights and protections. This is a milestone that will forever be remembered as a landmark case in the LGBTQ+ social movement for acceptance in Indian society. Going forward there are many issues left to tackle. The most crucial factor in combatting these issues is educating the public on the LGBTQ+ community. This is vital to removing the deeply ingrained homophobic stigmas. A more educated and open-minded public will also be more likely to elect governmental officials who will enact laws to protect LGBTQ+ people. If the public can learn how to be accepting and respectful of LGBTQ+ individuals, then both institutional and societal change can happen.

The government needs to take a key role in helping to enact these changes by, “disseminating new guidelines to public institutions, especially to law enforcement,” says Dr. Sambuddha Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri is a public health expert based in Mumbai, who has done research on HIV and sexual minorities. Steps need to be taken to educate the public through media outlets and by instituting LGBTQ+ education in primary and secondary school curriculums. Meanwhile, the government should focus on passing laws to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.  This top-bottom two-pronged strategy will help to quickly facilitate the necessary legislative changes and increased pace of social acceptance required to make a pro-LGBTQ+ India that people deserve.