October 11 is celebrated as National Coming Out Day; an annual commemoration and celebration of all those in our communities who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and/or intersex. Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus stands firmly against homophobia, transphobia, and bigotry of all kinds, and today we want to reiterate our commitment to fighting for LGBTQI Hindus, LGBTQI people of faith, and all the diverse individuals who are part of LGBTQI communities worldwide.
Broad, capacious, and ever-changing, the wide-ranging beliefs and practices we call Hinduism have long honored various perspectives on gender and sexuality. Although homophobia was never completely absent from South Asia, Hindu traditions have acknowledged and celebrated gender and sexual diversity through sacred narratives, iconography, and theology. However, Dr. Ruth Vanita writes that “under colonial rule, what was a minor strain of homophobia in Indian traditions became the dominant ideology,” and today, many conservative Hindu and Hindu nationalist groups portray gender diversity and sexual diversity as foreign and un-Hindu.
Sadhana advisory board member Dr. Anantanand Rambachan writes that the Hindu idea of tritiya-prakriti, the “third nature” or “third sex,” “helps us to … accept such sexual diversity as a natural part of the diversity of the tree of life.” Hindu traditions teach us that irrespective of our gender identity and sexual orientation, the supreme divine reality brahman exists equally in all beings. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad (5:11) tells us that our soul (atman), which is identical to brahman, is beyond distinctions of “woman, man, and third-sex person.” Dr. Rambachan writes that “Homophobia, characterized as it is by fear, hate, and denigration of third sex persons, finds no justification in Hinduism and betrays its most fundamental vision and values.”
Advocacy for LGBTQI rights has been a significant aspect of Sadhana’s own work. Through our Healthy Relationships workshops in partnership with the Caribbean Equality Project and the NYC Commission on Human Rights, we have tackled issues of LGBTQI acceptance and healthy relationships. In recent years, we have come together with a number of other Hindu groups and individuals in Princeton and Washington DC to brainstorm how to build LGBTQI inclusion in Hindu communities.
Our LGBTQI Committee has been brainstorming how Sadhana can be a resource and support to LGBTQI Hindus in the United States. We have begun building a database of Hindu mythic stories, sacred scriptures, traditional practices, and academic texts that portray same sex desire as natural and joyful, and that foreground the lives of tritiya prakriti individuals. We are also working on expanding our service to LGBTQI communities by creating a database of queer-friendly Hindu temples and spaces, priests eager to perform same-sex marriages, and queer community centers for people of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean descent.
Many LGBTQI voices, especially those of people of color, have critiqued the emphasis on “coming out” as a prerequisite to being part of the LGBTQI community. We want to highlight a few Hindu voices who offer a more nuanced perspective on coming out, aimed specifically at LGBTQI Hindu youth:
Raja Gopal Bhattar is the director of the LGBT Campus Resource Center at UCLA, and a PhD candidate in Higher Education. Raja is genderqueer, and they say, “There’s this white American notion that if you’re not out to everyone, you’re not queer enough. You don’t have to come out to your family ‘till you feel safe—your safety is most important. Part of our authenticity is living in that complexity.”
Dr. Pemmaraju Rao, a Texas-based physician and psychiatrist, urges parents of LGBTQI children to let go of their fears and traditional paradigms, and listen to their own children above anyone else. To LGBTQI Hindu youth, Dr. Rao says, “Look to Hinduism. See how it embraces both the masculine and the feminine. Your karma and your past lives have led you to this point. It is a proactive choice by your soul. Your uniqueness gives you an extraordinary power to offer to the world, as a gift.”
To any young LGBTQI Hindu who feels confused, anxious, questioning, frustrated, in need of a community: we at Sadhana are here for you, today and every other day. You are valid, and you are loved. You are always welcome to reach out to us through Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Comprehensive article co-authored by Sadhana member Hari Venkatachalam, “Same-Sex Marriage and Hinduism”
- The Desi LGBTQ Hotline, offering 100% confidential support for South Asian LGBTQ and questioning individuals, families, and friends
- Sadhana advisory board member Dr. Anantanand Rambachan’s book A Hindu Theology of Liberation, particularly the chapter “Liberation from Homophobia”
- Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai
- Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West by Ruth Vanita
- Shikhandi And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You, by Devdutt Pattanaik
- Interview with Sapna Pandya, a Washington DC-based queer activist and Hindu pandit