June 1999, completely rewritten Feb 2004

Homosexual, but not gay




Many people, particularly in the West, think that "homosexual" and "gay" mean almost the same thing. They do not, and it is very important towards understanding sexuality that we do not conflate the two. If we do, our language loses precision, and our analytical approach becomes more blunt as a result.

In this essay, I will begin by trying to define both these terms, as they are understood in English.

Then I will move on to explore some other issues brought up by the fact that there is this distinction between "homosexual" and "gay". Exploring why and how this distinction arose helps to expand our understanding of sexuality, and the politics of it.


Generally, this word is best used as a descriptor, signifying that the person has a tendency to be erotically and romantically oriented to persons of the same sex. Compared to "gay", this term is often used in a more clinical way, as in just stating a fact.


"Gay" is a term signifying a sense of identity, and thus a social construct. It indicates that the person identifies with people who share a similar homosexual orientation as himself (whether or not that sense of identity is reciprocated). He sees a meaningful distinction between homosexually-oriented persons as a group and heterosexually-oriented persons, and he locates himself within the former.


Some people assume that once someone knows himself as homosexually-inclined, he must perforce identify with other people of the same inclination. Thus, "homosexual" must necessarily mean "gay". This simple equation has resulted in a carelessly interchangeable use of both words in the Western media.

But if we look closely at how people outside of the West see their sexual instincts, and how they categorise people, it will be obvious that in much of the world, people construct identity very differently. The simple equation mentioned above - if I recognize myself as homosexual, I will identify myself as gay - does not operate most times.

But before coming to that, we should enquire when a person even sees himself as homosexual. 


In this essay,  I use the masculine to include the feminine, unless otherwise specified


When sex isn't sex

If what you do or feel is not recognised as sexual, then you won't see yourself as homosexual even if your feelings and actions relate to other persons of the same sex.

In fact, there is no universal definition of sex. Many cultures, particularly in Asia, give a far bigger scope to the idea of affection, alternatively, a far bigger scope to the idea of play, even between adults. "Affection" may involve living together for years, sharing the same bed and lots of physical contact, but none of that is seen as "sex". 

The Chinese have a concept of "qing", which is a supreme form of love and selfless devotion. Qing can equally occur between friends of the same sex, as between husband and wife. If qing can encompass sexual intimacy between husband and wife as an element of that love and devotion, it can likewise imply physical intimacy between two persons of the same sex who feel qing for each other. But the overarching descriptor of the relationship is qing, an emotional relationship, with or without sex.

"Play" can mean any amount of physical contact without much emotional attachment, including genital contact to ejaculation, but still none of that is recognised as sex. The box on the right gives a lucid picture as to how millions of Indians see it.

Whether qing or masti, if these persons don't see their feelings, fantasies, desires or activities as sexual, then even if partners of the same sex are involved, they aren't going to see themselves as homosexual.

You may ask: But don't they recognize that their feelings and perhaps actions mirror those of their friends who are doing it with the opposite sex? And if the friends' feelings and actions are recognized as sexual, won't they recognize their own as sexual too?

Not necessarily so. They may not see any parallel. Two guys mutually masturbating is a very different thing from a guy inserting his penis into a vagina. The latter is sex. The former is something else. As for feelings, we shouldn't assume that people see the parallel between (a) two guys liking each other, hanging out together and in private moments, sharing intimacy, with (b) a husband who impregnates his wife as part of his marital duties. Scenario (a) may be, in their way of thinking, just fun, or play, while (b) may be family obligation and social custom, also known as "sex" which to some people are enjoyable, to others not so, because they got married out of social custom or family duty.

There are researchers who have conducted surveys in the small towns and villages of rural Asian countries (areas not yet impacted by Western morals and systems of thought), and when they asked people whether kissing, fellatio, mutual masturbation, even anal penetration constituted sex, they didn't get anywhere near the unanimity of opinion one might expect from, say, the West.

So, the first point to note is that people may be doing all kinds of intimate things with partners of the same sex, they may feel very close and emotionally involved with someone of the same sex, even to the point of jealousy if a third party came into the picture, but if nothing here is classed as sexual, the question of whether they are homosexual does not arise.

Few opportunities for heterosex

Some people may be intuitive enough to recognize that the intimacy, play, affection, whatever you call it, that they share with partners of the same sex, do indeed mirror how others relate to the opposite sex. Therefore, if what the other is doing is sexual, then what I am doing is arguably sexual too.

But even if the idea of the "sexual" has now broadened to include same-sex activity, it is still not obvious why one should attach any significance to the sex of the partner involved.

In many traditional societies, the male-female divide is rigidly maintained, and so men and women do not have opportunities to mix or fool around with persons of the opposite sex. They fall back on the friends of their own sex for friendship, affection, room-sharing, and play. Thus, the choice of sexual partners is not seen as a choice of orientation, but of circumstance. As circumstances change (e.g. after their family has arranged for them to get married) they may do it - whether out of pleasure or duty - with the opposite sex.

Therefore, to them it will seem very artificial to bifurcate sexuality by the sex of one's partners, when it is so situational. If actions are determined by circumstance, then it's going to be very hard to square it with the notion that it is a manifestation of something inherent within you. Without that sense of the trait being inherent, how can there be a sense of identity built around that trait?


Examples from India:

In his article, "A tour beyond the Taj Mahal", Paul Knox wrote, "In India, same-sex behavior runs a close second to cricket as the national pastime. The gay cruising spots in Indian cities are well known and busy. Truck stops offer not only female sex workers, but male sex workers as well. Hotels usually have massage or "towel" boys available to exchange pleasure for the equivalent of $2 or $3 U.S. of rupees. Because private space is at a premium, consensual sex between men often happens in spaces not particularly conducive to negotiating safe sex. People get it where and when they can, whether that means going to sex workers or having sex in public toilets, cinemas, parks or even in crowded trains in the light of day."

Shivananda Khan, in his article "Cultural Constructions of Male Sexualities in India" echoed this point. "The street, the bus stand, the park, the public toilet, the railway or bus station. Contacts are made, and quick sex available, penetrative or otherwise."

"Workers in public and domestic arenas join in the sexual networks. Whether just for sexual release, money, or actual desire for sex with other men, is perhaps a difficult question to answer. Taxi-drivers, rickshaw wallahs, malish wallahs, room service boys and housekeeping men in hotels, waiters at restaurants, shop assistants. The framework is ubiquitous. The glance, the second glance, the smile, the appropriate questions, sometimes "for a few rupees more", sometimes just masti.... In Indian urban cultures, male to male sex does not exist in a few selected areas as in Western cities. It is anywhere, in the right conditions, the right time, the right space. "

But "sex" is an English word. The Indians may not even think they are having sex. Shivananda: "There is a construction around male sexual behaviours which can be defined by the Hindi word Masti. It means mischief, and is often used in the context of sexual play between young men and boys. More often than not this does not involve penetration. This masti arises at moments of sexual tension, as "body tension", when sexual discharge becomes urgent, when sexual arousal arises during play or body contact, when opportunities are created for sexual contact, often under the blanket. Such opportunities are very frequent. There is social acceptance of males sharing beds, of male to male affectionalism, both public and private. This often means that a significant amount of sexual behaviour occurs in family environments, between uncles and nephews, cousins, friends, and even at times brothers. This is not seen as real sex. It is masti. Sex is between a husband and wife!"


The chasms of class, sex and gender roles

Go one step further and assume we're meeting men who are introspective enough to see that all their feelings and desires have always been focussed on other males. If they have to do it to their wives, it feels like a chore. They may understand the concept of "homosexual" as an inherent trait, but they still do not identify as "gay".

They still do not see the validity of any concept that groups them with other people who share the same desires. This is because there exist other social cleavages that make it seem absurd to identify with persons on the other side of chasm.

The three most important are class, sex and gender roles. The first has largely disappeared in modern society, but not in more traditional communities. The second and third chasms are still with us today, and still stand in the way of gay identity.

Here is a rich landlord ruling over a vast estate. From time to time, he picks teenagers or young adults to share the bed with him. These lads are either his own workers or from the town, but always they are of inferior social status to him. Money may be involved. Can one expect the rich man to identify with all these lads who feel compelled to agree to his request for services? No way!

Can the lads identify with their patron? Even if these lads personally enjoy intimacy with other males, the social gulf between them and the patron is unbridgeable.

In one corner of the landlord's estate, some farm workers sharing a bunk "make happy" with each other now and then. Do you expect them to identify with their landlord? They have nothing in common - not even the kind of sex involved. The farmworkers' kind is more egalitarian, the landlord's kind with social inferiors is more transactional.

Then, can any of these guys identify with the life-long affection between two elderly women (one of whom is the landlord's unmarried sister) living in a cottage near the main house? Theirs is a completely different kind of relationship, but more importantly, they're of a completely different sex. In societies with deep sex divides, it is virtually impossible to identify with others across that divide.

In fact we still see that today. Modern gay men find it difficult to identify with modern lesbians.

The third major factor is that of gender roles. When the sex divide is so thoroughgoing, whether you are or you behave as male or female is much more significant a factor than whether you prefer males or females. Men who look and act masculine are considered one set, separate from men who adopt the mannerisms and perhaps the dressing of females. The way the subject presents himself is a far more fundamental classifier than the object of one's erotic desires.

Most Asian societies have a tradition of treating effeminate males as a "third sex", who are exempted from the social obligations of mainline males. Just as the male-female divide is so profound that people are unable to identify across it, so masculine-looking men (even if they prefer romping around with other males) cannot identify with effeminate males who may also like the company of males. After all, many women also like to romp around with men; but that doesn't mean the masculine-looking men should classify themselves together with women!

Once again, even today, we see this cleavage in modern gay communities. The "straight-looking" gay men often resist identification with the "queens".

Except in the most westernized bits of urban Asia, people don't generally sign on to the "gay" identity that is so common in the West. We can still observe that they are homosexual in orientation and choice of partners, but they continue to identify as "man" or "woman". Their identity is still chiefly on the social role they consider most fitting for themselves.

Then how did gay identity arise?

Even in the West, gay identity is a recent thing. We can see it emerging in the late 19th Century, but it was only in the middle 20th Century when "gays and lesbians" began to be conceptualized as a class of people with a right to more equal treatment.

How did the West create this "gay" identity that is strongly predicated on the sex of the object partner, over other traits? That's going to be a long story for another article. But very briefly, I believe it has to do with the way Western societies in the 19th Century reached its most prudish level, and actively criminalized all kinds of sex except procreative coitus. Yet at the same time, there was always much laxity with non-procreative heterosex. The trial of Oscar Wilde in England must surely have raised the consciousness of many men in the English-speaking world at the time.

In addition, the pseudo-scientific pathologisation of homosexuality in the first half of the 20th Century was also deeply offensive.

Gay consciousness is very a much a reaction to these threats. Give disparate people a common enemy and they start to feel a common bond.

At the same time, other trends also made it easier to create identity across the chasms of class and sex. One product of the Enlightenment and the Socialist creeds of the 20th Century was the rise of egalitarianism as an ideal. Not only were class divides eroded, but the sex divide as well.

These conditions have yet to appear in much of Asia, and thus, while lots of people are observedly homosexual, few will call themselves gay.

Yawning Bread 




Analogy - common trait without common identity

There are people who like spicy food, in fact in many parts of Asia, we will encounter people who cannot enjoy food unlike it is spicy.

On the other hand, there are people who either cannot bear spicy food, or don't like it.

But those who like spicy food do not see themselves as a class with a common identity. They don't feel any affinity with other people who also like spicy food. In itself, the preference is insignificant compared to cleavages of language, social class, nationality, sex,  occupation... and so many more important ways of defining oneself.