Brace Scholar Koki Kapoor ’21 Presents Nuances of Queer Identity in Pre-Colonial and Modern India

Contrary to popular belief, a significant amount of modern Indian homophobia stems from recent colonial influence, according to Koki Kapoor ’21. Kapoor, a Brace Fellow, questioned this dynamic in her research presentation, “Queer Identity in Pre- and Post-Colonial India: How India’s Increasing Gender Fluidity is an Outcome of Decolonization” on Friday, October 16 via Zoom. Through her summer research, Kapoor analyzed religious and secular texts highlighting queer identity in pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial India. 

According to Kapoor, the existence and inclusion of queer sexuality was a longstanding societal trait in pre-colonial India.  Kapoor described an excerpt from the Sanskrit epic “Ramayana” that depicted the Hijras, people who identify as gender non-binary or queer.

In her presentation, Kapoor said, “[Hijras] have been part of Hindu culture and the Hindu religion since the sixth century B.C.E. When I have friends and family members talk about how queer identity is a ‘disease’ imported to India from Western colonization, one could argue that is untrue. Queer sexuality was highlighted, accepted, and celebrated in pre-colonial India.”

Kapoor then dissected the Indian Penal Code, particularly Section 377, in explaining the modern legal and educational instruments the colonial British regime implemented in India to homogenize sexuality through the lens of puritanical Christianity. Kapoor found that despite the majority of the population being Hindu, this Christian standard of heteronormativity still remains.

“There’s a crazy standard of heteronormativity being enforced that is mostly a Christian idea. The fact that it still exists in an Indian Constitution in a country that is majority Hindu, not even Christian—a very small percentage of the population is Christian—is fascinating but also worrying and it made me personally think about how deeply embedded colonization is in my life and in the language I use on a daily basis,” said Kapoor in her presentation. 

Sarah Driscoll, Instructor in English, was Kapoor’s faculty advisor for the project. While assisting Kapoor in her project, Driscoll said she learned about the relationship between Indian independence and the long-term effects of British colonialism. Driscoll commented on how, despite India’s independence from Great Britain, this has not necessarily led to institutional change and a return to traditional values. 

“[Kapoor’s] project emphasizes some of the myths of post-colonialism, which is to suggest that independence can be equated with freedom… she shows that, in fact, Indian independence from the British Empire is not necessarily a promise of institutional change,” said Driscoll. 

Brian Chica-Herrera ’24, an attendee at the presentation, also found it ironic that while colonized nations suffer from issues of homophobia, the original perpetrators now serve as the protectors or perceived originators of queer identity. 

Chica-Herrera said, “I think what I got after most was how the effects of this homophobia is still rampant throughout countries like India, less developed countries, whereas Europe, which first introduced the theory, the ideas, is now more open. So the original colonizers are now seen as like the defenders of all these. The way things are now aren’t as they always are.”

Kapoor examined ways to deconstruct internalized queerphobia and heteronormativity within modern Indian society, giving examples of mainstream Indian shows that celebrate queer characters and identity. Kapoor also considered effective solutions of bridging language barriers to include both urban and rural Indian communities in queer sexuality re-education. 

She then discussed her motivations for tackling the homophobia and queerphobia she had noticed in her friends and other family members in India, as well as within herself. 

In an interview with The Phillipian, Kapoor said, “I realized during my years at Andover that gender, sexuality, especially on campus, is often a very U.S.-centric topic. As somebody who comes from a colonized country, with so many developments happening rapidly—there is a same-sex marriage act going to court in India this week—it’s so important to me. I wanted to find a place where I could articulate that and give space to South Asian centric voices on campus, and the Brace fellowship was an amazing way to do that.” 

Denise Taveras ’21 described Kapoor’s presentation as a stepping stone in which she was able to continue to unravel many issues she had internalized growing up. Taveras noted that Kapoor’s presentation enabled her to reaffirm her history as a queer person of color. 

“[Koki] was able to explain things about a culture that I was never really familiar with and unpacked things in such an articulate way that many people would have trouble doing on their own. The presentation was also really reaffirming because as a queer person of color, knowing that the existence of people like me weren’t always considered bad or evil, to put it simply, helped me feel more comfort when trying to unpack my internalized homophobia,” said Taveras.

In expanding her project, Kapoor hopes to shift her focus to the transformations of queer identity in South India. 

“There’s a lot where I can take this project… like South India. That’s one area that I didn’t really get to research and look at when it came to my presentation, because I focused more on Hinduism and Islam in Northern India. So I think that would be a great place to take my project, to another part of the subcontinent, and another part of the country, and look at those perspectives and those angles as well,” said Kapoor in an interview with The Phillipian

Editor’s Note: Koki Kapoor is a Commentary and Copy Editor for The Phillipian.