The Philosophy of LGBTQ+

LGBTQ+ ideas and thought have a historical relationship in the philosophical discourse. From the ancient Greeks to ancient India. The areas of topics include – gender and sexual identity, being, historicism, epistemology, love etc. to a name a few. With interlinking elements from feminism, existentialism, phenomenology etc., what is LGBTQ+ in the philosophical discourse and what are some of its main questions? A preliminary effort is performed in this article to address them.

In ancient Greece, sexuality and gender were discussed in great interest by various Greek thinkers. Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, who wrote unfavourable opinions about sexual activities in the Law and the Republic, acknowledged the intensity of sexual attraction between same sex in the Symposium. His ideas spoke more regarding how erotic attraction can be used for bondage and more in-depth understanding than sensuality (which he was against). Relationships between men were quite common in some parts of Ancient Greece. However, the relationship was usually an exploitative one where the relationship was often an older man in his 30s — erastes— with a young boy — eromenos (Dover, 1989). Some rare but interesting thoughts were less focused on the idea of gender, and more on the person’s nature, as a character in Plutarch’s Erotikos portrays — “the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail.”

The western world, after a brief encounter with different kind of relationships in Ancient Greece, adopted an unfavourable opinion on the ideas of sexuality and gender and focused more on forming a rigid structure of human beings and relationships. The rise of Christianity accentuated this with its take on sex in general. The early tradition in religion considered sex for non-procreative purpose as sinful (St. Augustine). With this belief, non-heterosexual relationships became a stern sin in the eyes of the religious institution, and thus it enacted laws which banned such “unnatural” relationships.

In ancient India, the term for neither male nor female was reserved as a “third” gender — who had elements of both male and female. In different cultures, the third gender has been represented in various ways. For example, in the Kamasutra, the third gender is shown in having a mixture of both male and female sexual roles. The ancient India scripts mention stories of deities of same-sex relationships (Mohini for Krishna) and some of the stories are reflected in today’s world with festivals like Aravan Festival of Koovagam, Tamil Nadu. However, these ideas were not widespread throughout and thus, reflect the mood in today’s India where non-heterosexual relationships are considered a taboo and transgenders – “third” sex and others are outcasted with low legal and economic protection. In his book, Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, Vaishnava monk Amara Das Wilhelm discusses how ancient expressions of Hinduism accommodated homosexual and transgender persons much more positively than we see in India today: “Early Vedic teachings stressed on responsible family life and asceticism but also tolerated different types of sexualities within general society.”

Human society discussed thoughts and issues of sexuality, gender relations etc. throughout the age. However, after a limited open discussion was a long period of outright suppression of such ideas and in contrast, focused more on building a one-dimensional relationship order of a male and a female. A conservative notion of family structure was developed throughout the world, either be myths or coercion. But the 1960s was the era where various groups were questioning these “structures”, and thus it had a significant influence in the area of sexuality and gender for the coming years.

One of the modern historical thought to come out (in the 1960s-70s) in the discussion of sexuality and gender was the debate between essentialist versus social constructionists. The essentialist believe that there is a “natural” specific notion of having a particular sexual orientation rather than “created” by societal norms. For example, a person being either attracted to a man, woman, both etc. These attractions are natural groupings. In contrast, social constructionists argue that sexual categories and personal identity are by-products of class relations, human sciences, history etc. It builds a societal way of how gender and sexual norms are understood. Furthermore, it is argued that the terms used in the LGBTQ+ is subjected to a modern and western categorisation. For example, sexual acts in the ancient Greek or the Indian period, and the modern notion of, say, “homosexual”, are too simplistic a view to categorise them in all in one grouping (Halperin, 2002). Foucault in his historical work to analyse sexuality from ancient Greece to the modern era (1980, 1985, 1986) portrays how sexuality, gender and identity varied across different time and space.

“The conditions for freedom are thus set by the norms available or created in the context of struggling with the situation in which we live but which we have not chosen and cannot completely control.” – Foucault

This historical study tries to show how over time, sexuality and gender identities have been developed and constructed and therefore, presents weakness in the essentialist argument. Consequently, when modern humans are put into such rigid, defined categories of sexual identity (heterosexual, homosexual etc), social constructionists argue that they define within our society expression of these sexual constructs. It is hard for such sexually identified people to come out from the category, even if they understand the historical construction, because of their perception conditioning which is difficult to realise.

This notion has caused a series of debates on the nuances of these categorisations. The more we understand, the more we realise the problem of group identity, binary representation etc. These questions over a period gave rise the field of Queer theory which deals with the idea of social and political constructs of sexuality and identity and the weakness in the idea of “naturalistic” identity. Thus, the field, among many areas, studies how ideas of sex and gender, which seems so natural, is reinforced and constructed by our environment — gives preference to heterosexuality. (Butler, 1990, 1993). We can see this in our corporate (marketing), cultural (tv shows), and material (clothing) fields.

“Queer is … whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence” Halperin

Queer theory has led to interdisciplinary studies with various fields. Feminism and queer theory have common themes on the issue of the self and the oppression under a patriarchal order. Especially in cases where they (female and LGBTQ+) are considered less as a human being (Butler 2004, 2). Existentialism offers the insights to what it means to be a being and having an identity without no control on where we come from — existence precedes essence— which affects questions in queer theory. In the area of constitutional law, some scholars have used queer theory to understand how laws in countries favour heterosexuality (Eskridge, 1999). Power relation questions are brought out by the intersection of post-colonialism and queer theory where the focus lies on social dynamics and regulation on knowledge. Especially in the new world order where people focus on how race and being queer can have different implications for different people. In the context of India and other South Asian countries, queer fiction has generated a challenge to the homogenisation of western “queer” and gave voices to different stories and ideas of sexuality gender and identity (Bakshi, 2011).

However, the queer field is not without some of its criticisms. Some people have argued that because “queer” does not have any distinct sexual or gender status, it may allow straight people to be “queer” and thus, robbing marginal gays, lesbians, trans etc. of being distinctive (Halperin 1995). It desexualises identity rather than focusing on sexual identity itself (Jagose, 1996). Also, due to modern political activism and rights, Butler, in particular, has claimed for a more nuanced approach of sexual and gender identity where stability in categories is required for political representation (2004).

In the current social-political sphere, LGBTQ+ sexual and gender identities are now becoming more about choice that compliments the mere idea of “nature”, where people apply the fundamental rights — the right to associate with whomever we choose, the right to express our opinions, the right to think our own thoughts etc. The recent Indian Supreme Court judgement in the Navret Johar case was preaching of this thought.

A person’s sexual orientation is intrinsic to their being. It is connected with their individuality and identity. A classification which discriminates between persons based on their innate nature would be violative of their fundamental rights, and cannot withstand the test of constitutional morality” – Justice Indu Malhotra

J.S. Mill’s harm principle — “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” — which is used as a basis of our political and legal discourse, ignites this thought where it stresses that the choice of our sexual and gender identity does not harm anyone, and thus, there should be no basis of moral discrimination by the state or any other individual. (Voytinsky 2004)

With the current discourse of realisation and legal acceptance, what are the political and philosophical implications of the rights of LGBTQ+? For example, consider the marriage debate between non-heterosexual people. Some activist and theorist reject the idea of marriage for LGBTQ+ groups as the marriage institution itself favours heterosexuals. Religious groups are wary of non-heterosexual marriage proposals, both in India and abroad, as they argue that it conflicts with their religious idea of marriage. On the other hand, some people are arguing for a legal civil partnership idea which was adopted recently in the U.K.

Such implications on the rights and discrimination of LGBTQ+ should be debated in the public discourse to gain insights on how to improve the lives of people who have been left out and discriminated because of different gender and sexual identity for many years. In India, the recognition of rights has been initiated in the public discourse, thanks to the Supreme Court judgment and activism by civil rights groups.

The rich relation of LGBTQ+ ideas in philosophy can help further the discourse with profound insights on identity, gender and its relationship with society. Some of the interesting questions to think about it, but not limited — Is feeling like you can do whatever you want with your gender voluntarist? Or does this feeling itself shift the norms that constitute gender? What is the implication of epistemology of queer theory? Can there be one, considering objectivity? The morality of different sexuality and the consequences it has in our society? How can group identity of LGBTQ+ be understood and how can it be made democratic? What are the inequalities of sexual and gender suppression? How can we fix it in the societal, political, and economic realm?


Divanshu Sethi is the philosophy section editor for Catharsis Magazine. He holds a masters degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science and bachelors in Economics and Business from University College London.

Leave a Reply