Greater NW Pride: Colonialism, LGBTQ+ People, India, and the Church


Colonialism, LGBTQ+ People, India and the Church

In the last two weeks I had an opportunity to be on pilgrimage in India.  When I arrived there on Sept. 4, 2018, “homosexuality” was considered a criminal act under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which banned any “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” In other words, even as a gay man on a pilgrimage in India, it was best that I not say anything about being gay. That all changed on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, when the India Supreme Court overturned this law criminalizing gay sex that had been on the books for 157 years, one of the many remaining vestiges of Victorian, middle class, British rule over the colony known as India. The law had been used in interesting ways: from jailing a health worker for handing out condoms to gay men, to harassing and blackmailing LGBTQ people. By the Supreme Court’s act of overruling Section 377, LGBTQ people, like me, are now considered full, normal human beings. To celebrate, my pilgrim guide found the rarest of all things in the state of Uttarakhand: a beer! 
What is fascinating about all this is that the holy writings of Hinduism, like in the Rig Veda, promote same sex love, which has long been a part of India’s culture. In the article, “Gays and Colonial Brainwashing by Gurcharan Das (Times of India, Sept. 12, 2018), he writes there is a remarkable tolerance of gender ambiguity. The Indian epics are full of stories about men turning into women, and vice versa, and they are told matter of factly without guilt or shame. India is the only civilization to have elevated “kama” or desire, emotional well-being, and pleasure to a goal of life. The extreme pleasure of sex is, perhaps, recompense for the loneliness of the human condition. It was the Victorians, in the 19thcentury, who promoted a prudishness of today’s Indian middle class, which is lurking deep in the Indian psyche, and pessimism about kama. In the end, The Supreme Court’s decision implies that to be civilized means: “I prefer the opposite sex but I do not object to you preferring the same sex. In a free, civilized country, we must learn to respect those who differ from us.” 
In my justice work within the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church, and especially coming out of the Listening with Open Hearts Conference, in which two days were spent considering the power of white, cisgender, straight, middle class colonial practices, I was struck by the parallel of what happened in India, and what is happening in the UMC. The power of Victorian middle-class prudishness was not only forced upon a society as diverse as India, but Britain itself, in which the English finally realized that sexual orientation is natural and people have no control over it. And it is, in part, this same Victorian prudishness that may also influence how many in the Church universal think about sex and sexual orientation. In other words, is it just possible that we, in the Church, have also gone through colonial brainwashing, and what we are now witnessing is our breaking out of such colonial thinking? If so, may we all embrace rather than deny the diversity of God’s beautiful creation and the gift of love among us all.

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!