The ‘Indian’ Pride

India has far older histories of what may now be termed “pride”. We must celebrate this multiplicity all year round instead of choosing to celebrate it in June—the American notion of “Pride”

Artwork By Anupriya

“Pride” is the term with which members of the LGBTQIA+ communities describe their defiance in the face of stigma and oppression. The term “pride” stands in direct opposition to the “shame” that is often associated with non-normative sexualities and disproportionately attached to those who do not subscribe to the template of heterosexuality and reproduction. “Pride” is a powerful counter to the shame of sex.

So far so good. As a symbolic term that allows people to emerge, if only briefly, from beneath the shadows of violence and fear, “pride” is an important tool in the arsenal of non-normative sexualities. But why is this tool called “pride” in the first place, and why do we celebrate it in June?

The answer to both these questions lies in a land far away. In the United States, “pride” month is celebrated in June to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City, in which gay people stood up to the police and refused to be arrested for their sexual orientation. Their resistance led to activists organising to create safe spaces for sexual minorities in the United States. The Stonewall riots mark the importance of civil resistance to majoritarian violence; in this way, they are of the utmost importance to societies everywhere in which people are discriminated against on the basis of sexuality. This June 1969 act of resistance continues to be commemorated in the US in the form of “Pride” month.

So why do we in India celebrate “Pride” and celebrate it in June? We do this partly, of course, because America is the aspirational land of “liberty”—an idea that the Americans themselves have assiduously fostered for over a century. And we do this partly because “we”—those of us in Anglophone communities who know what the Americans are up to—have committedly taken on their vocabulary of pride and shame.

There is certainly plenty in India about which we need to feel shame. The recent ratcheting up of majoritarian communal violence, and the ancient codes of caste divisions, continue to be areas of great shame in the Indian subcontinent. If we were to marshal vocabularies of pride with which to counter the phobias of Hindutva and caste, then that would be both interesting and politically relevant. It would talk back to the rhetoric of discrimination that the British used as the base from which to extend the colonial reach of their empire.

After all, what ties together caste, gender, sexuality, religion, and race, is the idea of difference. Not just any old difference—not a difference between purple and yellow, for instance—but a difference that is hierarchised between better and worse, superior and inferior, pure and impure. This hierarchised difference is the rhetoric of caste. It is also the language of colonialism.

But this language of hierarchised difference has never been the only language in India. Unlike many other parts of the world, which are effectively monolingual, India has always been a polyglot culture. We have had many languages, not just literally, but also conceptually, which is why “argumentative” is an adjective often associated with Indians.

Alongside the rhetoric of caste, we have also had languages of desire that cut across caste distinctions; we have had religions that emphasise castelessness, and we have had mass conversions of peoples from languages of caste to the language of castelessness.

In order to fuel their colonial mission, however, the British decided that India should speak only one conceptual language. And that language was the one of hierarchised caste distinction. They shut down all ways of being in the world that militated against such rigidity. “Hindus” were created as a single category and then separated from “Muslims,” who too were created as a monolith. “Men” and “women” were told to be completely separate from one another, flying in the face of Indian myth, religion, and literature.

The Kamasutra, for instance, suggests there are at least three different genders. Sufi poets like Bullhe Shah write about men in love who often dress as women and wear burqas. Bhakti poets describe men changing into women as they are suffused with desire. Vishnu actually turns into Mohini from time to time to further the plots in which the gods find themselves enmeshed.

Hijras have a long and rich history in the subcontinent, and the term “hijra” (which derives from the “hijr” of the Prophet’s escape from Mecca to Medina) does not even begin to cover the many different constituencies of people—kothi, panthi, aravani, khwajasara—who sidestep the gender binary.

To this day, we have men who have sex with men but who do not consider themselves gay, and might never even have heard of the term, let alone associate shame or pride with their activities. Whereas Indic cultures have historically complicated languages of binary distinctions, British colonialism has insisted on it.

An embrace of “pride” in relation to sexuality returns us to a colonial-era reliance on the language of binary distinctions. After all, the idea of sexual “shame” was introduced on a large scale to India only when the British brought it to us two hundred and fifty years ago. The idea of shame in relation to sexuality exists in no major religious texts in the world other than in the Bible where, in books like “Leviticus,” the question of sexual shame is not only described but also actively imposed on adherents. This idea of sexual “shame” is relatively new in the Indian subcontinent, but we have allowed it rhetorically to colonise the other discourses that have marked our sexual lives. We have far longer and far older histories of what may now be termed “pride,” or can more directly be termed “multiplicity.”


We have 12th-century temples that proudly showcase multiple sexual positions. We have 13th-century poetry that stunningly encapsulates male-male desire. We have 18th-century art that shamelessly paints cross-dressing lovers. We have the largest corpus of male homoerotic poetry in the world. We have calendar art that foregrounds sexually brazen gods. We have long histories of multiple-gendered, multiple-sexual, multiple-identifying people, long before trans became a trend.

Why don’t we celebrate this multiplicity all year-round instead of choosing to celebrate, in June, the American notion of “Pride”? 

(Views expressed are personal)

Madhavi Menon is professor of English, director, Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University