Gay Gandhi? Hardly

Last year I attended a short orientation to prepare me for work in rural India. Facing a year in the closet, I asked what I could expect from men in my community in rural Rajasthan:

"You might see some men holding hands like homosexuals in the west."

As a westerner I may have jumped to conclusions about two men holding hands. Certainly in London, you can guarantee that two men holding hands are probably gay or bisexual.

Here in India, I’ve spooned in a single bed with men, I’ve shared my dinner with men, and I’ve had men lie on my lap while we watch the TV. I’ve even been told by men that they love me, and that I am their heart. My phone is full of text messages from men confessing their love and that they miss me.

But do not mistake me as a celebrated as a gay icon. None of these interactions have any sexual context. My relationships with men in my community are entirely platonic. Simply, these men are not gay (I don’t doubt, however, that some in my community live in the closet).

So what happens when a westerner with a western lens on social interaction has the opportunity to interpret male social behavior in India? Well, Gandhi gets called bisexual and the Gujarat State Assembly convenes an emergency session that unanimously bans a comprehensive biography on India’s founding father, a biography they haven’t even read.

Joseph Lelyveld’s book, ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India’ is not itself alarming, nor does it reveal anything that was not already known. Let’s be clear, Lelyveld is not Salman Rushdie and ‘Great Soul’ is not the Satanic Verses (although I, like the Gujarat Assembly, have not read the book). Safe to say, for now, Lelyveld will not be the target of an Indian fatwa.

Reviews of the book have put Lelyveld on the defensive though. In a WSJ review Andrew Roberts suggests that the book labels Gandhi bisexual. Roberts says that Gandhi’s true love is Hermann Kallenbach, a German bodybuilder, because it is written that Gandhi “has a portrait of Kallenbach in his bedroom”, because Gandhi said that Kallenbach had “taken possession of Gandhi’s body”, and because Gandhi had asked Kallenbach “not to look lustfully upon any woman” (never mind that this was in strict adherence to his vow of celibacy).

The review was widely quoted. In the British Daily Mail, an article ran under the headline: "Gandhi 'left his wife to live with a male lover' new book claims". The Mumbai Mirror, carried the story on a front page headline, “Book claims German man was Gandhi’s secret love” (ironically the article remarks how gleeful western reviews have pounced on the few lines relating to sexuality, failing to note that their story was itself smeared gleefully across their front page).

Lelyveld, judging by various reviews, has included a marginal section on Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach in his book, but stops short of judgment on the nature of the relationship.

But ‘Great Soul’ has nonetheless caused uproar in India, where the WSJ review – shot-gunned to the public by a lazy Indian media - has been read ahead of the book, meaning the book and content have been framed in the eyes of Roberts and other discerning (I kid) westerners. Gujarat is only the first of a pack of baying state assemblies in line to ban the book.

I have two problems with this; firstly, that the entire assembly of a state representing sixty million people could be so disgusted by the suggestion that Gandhi is gay, and secondly; that the entire assembly of a state representing sixty million people would base legislation on an erroneous review without even considering to pause and assess the evidence.

So that’s a lazy media, homophobia, and gross misjudgment. If I could convey a sigh of disapproval (should that be – quelle surprise?) at India, this is it (in the wake of their Cricket World Cup victory, nonetheless).

Homophobia in India is still rampant, but it’s manifested in ignorance rather than hatred. At any rate, there’s a long way to go before the question of Gandhi’s sexuality fades into irrelevance, and there are plenty more battles to be fought before it becomes acceptable to call Gandhi’s founding father bisexual (a term that many ‘phobes’ might perceive as more threatening than being called gay).

The race to ban ‘Great Soul’ on a whim of hysteria would be more believable had it happened under the Taliban. But in a country known for its morbidly slow legislative process, the decision to pass a hurried vote during an emergency session is a betrayal of democracy.

The gross misjudgment and unquestioning disgust caused by the suggestion that a book might have supposed Gandhi bisexual says more about the need for action to challenge homophobia – even in an ‘enlightened’ state assembly – than it does the content of Gandhi’s character.

Gujarat (soon to be joined by the state of Maharashtra, home to Bombay) has bought a great deal of shame not just to itself, but to millions of gay Indians who have begun to come out of the closet since homosexuality was decriminalized in 2009. The whole milieu - from an ignorant review seeking sensationalism, to a sloppy media doing the same, to lazy and captivated state assemblies – is a train-wreck of impotence.

Was Gandhi bisexual? I don’t know. But on the basis of this irrelevant evidence I wouldn’t count on it.

Then again, like the Gujarat State Assembly, I haven’t read the book.

By Simon McNorton. You can read more of Simon's thoughts at simonmcnorton.com.


essay editing services said...

Is it really such an important question? I think this is the smallest part of his life. He's done so much during his life, and there are a lot of things we should knw about him!

tony c said...

Great post for making the important point that whatever Gandhis sexuality was this was an embarrassing decision for India.

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