One of the enduring, cruel legacies of British colonialism was that, even decades and centuries after nations threw off British rule, there remained a chilling similarity to the experience of boys and men with same-sex desires in places as far flung as India and Nigeria, Australia and Uganda, Pakistan and the United States.
As a child of affluent, cosmopolitan parents in 1960s Calcutta, I learned to feel like a criminal long before I knew what homosexuality was. At the age of 8, the taunting of my peers at the tony La Martinière for Boys taught me that I was a “sissy” and “pansy,” a loathsome freak forever to be cast out from the brotherhood of regular boys. I encountered even worse humiliation at the Doon School, India’s Eton or Andover, another warped boys-only world modeled on elite British schools. In my seven years there, I was subjected to unrelenting sexual assaults because of my pretty-boy looks and condemned for my femininity—often by the very boys who assaulted me.
Like my father and brothers before me, I went on to St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, run by the Church of North India. In this adult world, I had to confront a nullifying silence about homosexuality, which left me desperately fearful that there was no one else in the world with my sick longings. The silence was punctuated only by incidents that revealed an intense homophobia. My father and his friends spoke of men rumored to be homosexual in hate-filled tones that they did not use even when talking about the most vile politician or corporate swindler. (Strikingly, they never mentioned lesbians.) I was too unsure of myself then to wonder why homosexuals were the objects of such revulsion when there seemed to be no openly, avowedly gay men in India.
The upshot of all this was that by the time I had reached adulthood I was certain that homophobia was an Indian tradition, an immutable feature of our ancient civilization. This belief persisted even after I learned, while studying in the United States in the mid-1980s and hungrily reading the pioneering works of Western gay scholarship, that the Indian law criminalizing same-sex relations had been inherited from the colonial-era Indian Penal Code of 1860. It persisted despite the knowledge that Britain, arguably more than any other country, from the 16th century onward had developed a national mania for persecuting and killing homosexual men, and that criminal laws embodying this hatred had been exported to its colonies. (Women were assumed to be asexual, and were largely spared homophobic persecution in Britain, which helped explain why my father’s generation seemed so bizarrely unaware of lesbianism.)
And everything in my first stint living and working in India, as a journalist in New Delhi, reinforced my belief that homophobia was as much a part of Indian culture as it was of American or British culture. All the gay men and women I met, however privileged, lived in apprehension. Many were in sham marriages in a desperate attempt to hide their orientation. In the public parks, where gay men went to meet others and find sex or love (there being no gay bars), blackmail and beatings by the police were a constant danger. These signs of danger were a disquieting reminder of why my father had pleaded with me—when I was debating whether to return to India—to remain in the relative safety of the United States.