Throughout history, Asia has been a continent with ever-changing countries, leadership, and borders. In modern-day Asia, LGBT rights are limited in comparison to many other areas of the world. Same-sex sexual activity is outlawed in at least twenty Asian countries. In over five Asian countries today, homosexuality is punishable by death. However, homosexuality in Ancient Asia was much more widely accepted than it is now.
A note: Before the land known as India was formed as a country in 1947; it was not called India. There were many names and countries across India’s lands, such as Jambudvipa, Bhārata, and Nābhivarṣa. However, we will refer to the land that makes up the modern-day nation as “India” for simplicity’s sake.
Hinduism, the largest religion in India, has taken various positions on homosexuality, ranging from the inclusion of homosexual characters and themes in its texts to being neutral or antagonistic towards it. The Arthaśāstra, an ancient Indian text, mentions various sexual practices that punished both homosexual and heterosexual intercourse. In this text, heterosexual intercourse was punished more severely. The ancient Indian philosopher, Vātsyāyana Mallanaga, talks about erotic homosexual behavior in the text Kama Sutra.
The Mongolian Empire ruled by Genghis Khan was certainly not kind to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Ancient Mongolia eventually evolved in the hands of a grandchild of Genghis Khan, who shared identical beliefs.
According to the Xinhua News Agency, the world’s first constitution, created by Genghis Khan, stated that “Those who commit sodomy shall be put to death.” Sodomy is anal and/or oral sex. While sodomy was illegal within the Mongolian Empire, transsexuality had a firm footing within Mongolian tradition. Within the culture, a shaman had a special status within the nomadic population. They would connect the spiritual world and the human world. Because Ancient Mongolia was far before acceptance, understanding, or reassignment surgery, many thought the “feeling” of transsexuality was spiritual.
Overall, it is hard to place what the exact treatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community was like thousands of years ago within Mongolia, but it certainly wasn’t great.
Within Ancient China, homosexuality was regarded differently among the different social classes. It was not unusual for the Emperor to have many male and female concubines. However, it was still an obligation for an Emperor to marry a woman and produce at least one heir. It could be said that many Emperors were bisexual. However, since labels for sexualities did not exist in Ancient China, the sexualities of these rulers are unknown. Furthermore, the belief system in which producing an heir was paramount was further propagated by the philosopher Confucius.
Confucianism was a belief system that detailed “a perfect society.” Within these beliefs was that of getting married to produce children. Bisexuality was favored over homosexuality. This was because if you were homosexual, you would not get married to have children, which brought “dishonor.” This belief system guided China, and a majority of the population believed it was perfect, so it did not change for an extended period of time. Confucianism (while majorly transformed) is still the core for learning, values, and social code within China.
A story within The Book Of Han (published in 445 AD), called “The Passion of the Cut Sleeve,” details Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty and his male lover Dong Xian. The Emperor and the so-called “companion” took a nap together. The Emperor did not wish to wake his lover, so he cut his sleeve. This story proves that the idea of same-sex love existed within Ancient China. How homosexuality was viewed and treated this early within Ancient China is unclear, but what is clear is that we at least know that homosexuality existed to some degree.
Japan has a long history of blurred sexualities and gender-bending practices. These practices could apply to those of the aristocracy or royalty. However, this history has long been suppressed due to more modern homophobic beliefs.
Within ancient Japan, nobles often pursued male and female lovers, no matter their own gender. To said nobles, the gender of sexual pursuits was less critical than the transcendent beauty found within a mate. Samurai and Shoguns within Japan had wives to bear children and instill political alliances within noble houses, but some also enjoyed an active love life with many younger male lovers.
Until modern times, sexual acts in Japan were not linked to sexuality. Men who had sex with men or women who had sex with women did not consider themselves gay or lesbian, as these labels were not yet introduced into society. Same-sex relations between adolescents and even children were deemed to be normal for their development. It was believed that persons that had same-sex relations while they were younger were more likely to fulfill their social obligations to have children later in their life rather than continue with their same-sex relations.
In ancient times, homosexuality was openly accepted and practiced across most of Asia. However, as time went on and Islamic and Christian views were spread, cultural opinions of homosexuality shifted. Asia and its thoughts, beliefs, and practices of homosexuality faced rapid de-evolution, and today across Asia, the acceptance of homosexuality is less prevalent.