Homosexuality: Myths and Reality

by Afsan Chowdhury

Whether homosexuality is a sexual alternative, the result of various psychological orientations or plain deviant and some depraved behaviour is another matter. Whether it is a crime deserving punishment, a sin deserving damnation, a behaviour aberration meriting treatment or counselling are issues which may be debated on for long but the fact remains that it is present amongst us and there are many who practice this, if only for a small period of their life. It is an area of knowledge, which we are only beginning to understand. And research is at a very nascent stage and the jury is still out on this. It is also obvious that had there been no AIDS pandemic, the issue of gay – commonly used term for homosexuality may well have been in the closet for many years. The “AIDS transmission link” of male gays in the western world has greatly contributed to greater focus on this unusual sexual behaviour amongst both males and females. It should also be noted that sodomy laws still operate in most post-colonial countries though in Great Britain itself, sex between any two consenting adult in private is no longer a criminal offence. In Bangladesh, sodomy law exists but has been allowed to lie low, as overt homosexuality is not socially practised. As a result, such activities are conducted secretly, or in a manner, which does not upset or disturb society. People do not pair up and start living as couple as in the west and that is why it is not considered a social threat. And hence considered not worth taking too seriously. In fact, in many levels of society, homosexuality is surprisingly accepted as an inevitable part of sexual growing up. At this point we should state what is isosexuality and homosexuality. It has been noted by anthropologists and zoologists including Desmond Morris who wrote the pioneering work (The naked Ape) on the similarity between human and simian behaviour that men and apes both turn to sexual relationships including homosexuality if they are deprived of their usual sex partner over a period of time. Of the examples he cited, a number of them were taken from the fruit gathering expeditions of monkey herds. It transpired that after a period of time, older adult monkeys would seduce young adult monkeys - both males - and they would smoothen the process by adopting feminine postures to attract the younger partners. But these apes would not practice homosexuality once they returned to their permanent nests. This was termed as isosexuality or isolation driven sexual behaviour. Contemporary researches now shows that most animals practice homosexuality and many are actually bi-sexual in nature. Giraffes are one such animal whose sexual behaviour has been extensively documented. And they may do so even when they are not isolated. That men who are away from their normal sex partners will have other sex partners is almost considered normal in many societies including our own though changes are noted. We know that sailors, who would experience the largest duration of deprivation, would have “spouses in every port”. This meant they visited brothels. Much less talked about was what happened in the ships. In fact, so great was its social acceptance that such behaviour was greatly incorporated into social mores through jokes and bawdy tales. The same goes for soldiers and to some extent religious seminaries. In our society, jokes about people away from homes who resort to same sex partners is very common but discussed only amongst peers of the same sex. Thus, by subsuming it amongst the many cultural behaviour patterns which appear to trigger off in certain extra ordinary situations especially when the person is young, healthy and passing through a peak period of sexual yearning, it too has become part of the under culture which is very much there but not spoken of. In the last eight years, in which I have probed the sexual behaviour of the Bangladeshi and Bengali people and as I undertake sex education activities as a formal activity, what has surprised me is the common strand that cuts across most people in the world. What distinguishes our society from say an African one, is its passion for secrecy and preserving socio-sexual etiquette. In Africa, a couple will stay together and not marry for many reasons including lack of money and not necessarily to keep sexual options open while out here, it is kept a secret and that appears to be the prime objective of the entire process. Of course, the compulsive reason is the perceived prestige of the family, the clan or the habitat. But the fact remains that most behavioural patterns in the world fall within a certain stage. For many this is a comforting rather than a disturbing thought. For others this generates insecurity.


Gay sex is more common than we think. In many cultures especially where long periods of isolation is common, we find its greater cultural acceptance. This also relates to the link with a particular kind of work and its importance. We found that in rural areas of Bangladesh, homo/isosexuality is not only common but accepted provided it did not impinge upon social transactions. Not only was it known and accepted but even considered a part of growing up by many. In some of the cases, the young boys were practically raped by older adults but it was considered a shame to make too much noise about it. In fact, it was brushed away by village elders as well and the victim would be the butt of jokes. This does not mean that homosexuality is the dominant trend. Far from it but as it does not disturb society or family one may consider it safe. This of course relates to males. The extreme dominance of the “Shakhi” syndrome has been argued by many as erotic and lesbian though not always overtly sexual. We would accept all the points but in a reduced degree. In case of habitual gays, leading such a life is not a major problem either and a network of such gay partners are present though we have noticed that many gays who can manage do leave Bangladesh to settle abroad. There have been a number of AIDS induced deaths of Bangladeshis in different countries abroad which are known but many feel that such migrations allow them to lead an open and more satisfying lives. Some people have also applied for amnesty claiming that as gay persons, their life is in danger, as they cannot live with their partner in Bangladesh. Since statistics makes no sense as no quantitative study has been done, we shall not resort to it but my estimate would be that nearly half the population have had one homosexual encounter in life including some very innocent ones as children. These encounters may be casual, maybe while growing up as a child, adolescence, maybe in periods of great loneliness or in situations like being in hostels, away from homes, in strange places with no access to company of any sorts etc. They should be classified as isosexuality though it is noted that casual isosexuals are high in number especially with the rise of migration for work, which involves living away from the family. A new breed of male children have entered the trade as commercial sex workers for those who seem to gratify either their latent homosexuality or be substitute for female CSWs. That is, male CSWs are less taboo in some cases however strange it may seem. But if we go by growing statistical assessments of the total populations and the estimated number of gays, that would be between 2 to 5 %. That number would translate into 2.5 million to 6 million gays. Of that, half would be males and that is 2-3 million people and that would generate a CSW market. To this should be added the isosexuals who are so many that we can safely assume that 10 million males are ready to pay for sex, male CSWs would be a natural presence in our society. It should be stated that most male gays do get married. Most of them do not have sex outside marriage but some do. If we go by the increasingly quoted stated figure that half of the males have sex before marriage and a large number after marriage, we can see that many gays must be into extra-marital gay sex. During an intensive period when I was “probing this problem” I found that many men who were initiated into gay sex during adolescence returned to it after giving it up for a period of time, getting married, finding heterosex a little less satisfying and then indulging in both. In most cases the married homosexuals I met were not happy human beings who had married either under the impression that marriage would cure them of being a Gay or family pressure had got them into such unhappy marriages. In some cases, some gay men had married to use it as a convenient façade behind which they carried on their homosexual life.


We have mostly spoken about the life of male gays but the life of lesbians or female homosexuals remain almost unknown to us. I remember an incident, which occurred in Calcutta where I was trying to locate the haunts of closet lesbians who had formed a “club”. My guide to the sexual underworld including the homosexual one was my taxi driver Ramlal. I was a source of great amusement to him because I had come all the way from Dhaka and was visiting all the places where commercial and non-commercial sex was transacted but was not tasting any myself. It took him three days to figure it out and then he grunted, “journalist”. That explained my odd behaviour to him. Ramlal had been mastering the streets of Calcutta for three decades but he had not heard of lesbians. Male gays yes but not females. In fact, I had to explain some of the “functional” aspects of such relationships. He flatly denied that such people lived in Calcutta. I gave him three addresses and told him to scout them out for me and let me know the situation. The next morning Ramlal looked at me with a new found respect in his eyes. “For thirty years I am in Calcutta driving taxi and I didn’t know of their existence and in three days you found them. You are a genius.” I calmed him down and told him that one good contact can reduce ten years to a single telephone call. He, who would never even got out of the car when we were in Sonagachi because he had taken people there so many times was a different man at the club. He was so curious that in the club in upper middle class Calcutta, he stuck to with me like glue. I paid an outrageous entry fee for both of us and sat with the club “manager” who told me that the patrons had agreed to talk to me but they would not not allow me to record what they said. While that reduced the exercise to non-work, I at least learnt more and more about the Bengalee lesbian world. Most of them were married and most were unhappy. Their husbands and children knew nothing. It was both physical and emotional loneliness. In Bangladesh, the first few contacts I made with lesbians were through the male gays and that meant that like everywhere else, male and female gays were banding together. In Bangladesh that bond is weak compared to India but it is still there. And like in Calcutta, most lesbians are married and lead a sexually and often emotionally unsatisfying and uncomfortable life. They are focussed on their children as a substitute for affection. In most cases, the husbands do not notice or if they do the “family” overrides other issues and concerns. There are very few cases of gay couples in our society but they are there. I met a few and found two facts common in both: a. Most behaved like normal couples and preferred to lead independent lives. b. Most family members and friends were supportive and it was a surprise to see how so many of them were helped by friends from both sexes. Without being burdened by marriages, they were more relaxed and more honest than their male partners who were invariably caught in the web of their own lies.

Health factors

The issue has come into the forefront and become part of the public discourse because of the link between sexual behaviour and health. With it has come the question of dealing with it as a moral and legal issue. In societies where it is expressly forbidden and which are also conservative in nature this can prove to be a difficult territory to handle for public health and communication workers. The high level of STD and the growing threat of AIDS have made this inevitable. Some of the Middle Eastern governments have handled this matter both with sensitivity and objectivity. I was told by the officials of the AIDS Information Centre located in Alexandria (Egypt) at a meeting in 1994 that their prime objective was to create awareness about unsafe sex behavior amongst gays as well, and in this effort they had even been able to get the support of the Islamic clerics. The position they had adopted was that in Islam gay sex was “hakkullah” or “sin unto God”. The matter would therefore have to be resolved by God and only God. While there was no space for homosexuality in Islam and it is a haram, there was still a responsibility on all other Muslims to help others including gays. So it was the responsibility of Muslims to counsel gays and help them lead a safe sexual life if they chose to. This had led to a lot of inter-action with the gay community in Arab society and greater awareness about their lifestyle. In Bangladesh, the gay society is dominated by numerous compulsions. In fact, as long as it is a secret behavioural pattern, most people can continue to have a gay sex life and be exposed to various risks including accessing commercial sex. Quasi-gay life is also noted in isolated congregations like in dorms of schools, college and university hostels etc. Migrant workers also practice this and to be honest no significant social problem is faced by them. I myself remember that some fellow students of ours would keep a partner in their room for weeks and while we joked about it, that is all we did. None were particularly bothered. In many ways society understands that they pose no threat. As long as it doesn’t disturb the accepted norms and values, society appears to be willing to put up with it.

Gays: born or made?

At the end, let me say a few words about why a person may be gay. For many years it was considered a devil inspired activity which also means it has been with us since sexual behaviour was noted and chronicled. Thus we can go back to the art of thousands of years and see it there. Gay activists often use such facts to state their case of being part of the mainstream of all past societies. We know of the Spartans and Greeks in general who tolerated this, often went further and even nodded assent to sex between older and younger men. This was considered a high form of love actually and many researches have come up with this conclusion. Ancient western society was of course a little less tolerant of lesbianism and we know that the great poet Sappho was exiled to the island of Lesbos where she lived and composed some of her finest works. The word lesbian of course comes from the reference to the “residents of Lesbos”. In ancient Indian art homosexual love is often depicted. A more recent central Asian work, the memoirs of Babar has specific references to sex with young boys. This means society had no stigma attached to gay sex. Such phases in society have been common before and the present level of tolerance towards gays in many contemporary society is not a first time event. In the post AIDS world, behavioural research relating to sex has leap frogged and we now know more about these matters than ever before. And the research tends to show that gays are born and not made. That is, it is not a conditioned behaviour picked up from the psychological environment but something that is dictated by the brain. The area, which controls such impulses – hypothalamus, is where the differences are noticed and the breakthrough in this area is generally considered to have been made. The same pattern is noticed with female gays and like the males, their sexual orientation is also decided in the womb. This is universal for all human beings. Most scientists dealing with socio-biology are saying that being gay and not being a gay is not a matter of choice but a matter of being determined while being gestated. While that makes many gays feel a lot less guilty about being a gay, it is still being debated in scientific circles and within a few years science will know much more about it. But that does not mean everyone will accept it whichever way the findings go. This also does not negate conditioning the socio-sexual environment, which may actually decide this for some or many. Moreover, there is a matter of dominating and subsumed trends. That means, homo and heterosexual behavioural patterns may be present in all of us and the fact that the percentage of bisexuals are the highest in society and many practice homosexuality for a short episode under certain circumstances means we can not ignore this finding totally. That means conditioning plays a role on what may have been partly determined. A person with bi-sexual intents may decide not to practice homosexuality for whatever reasons but the sensations may arise and he may suppress it though be unable to deny. It is not a clear-cut yes or no in all cases. In fact the opposite is probably true. Alternative sexuality is a complex issue because biology, psychology, sociology and theology all have claims on the topic. Each society will have to decide which is the dominant source of knowledge and lay down the rules for what is acceptable and what is not. But tolerance and sensitivity towards society’s norms should be in our mind when we discuss such complex issues.

The author is a free lance researcher and journalist. He has been researching on sex education for the last several years.