Bil Browning

Was Gandhi Gay?

Filed By Bil Browning | March 28, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Andrew Roberts, Gandhi, Hermann Kallenbach, India, Joseph Lelyveld

Was Gandhi gay? Noted historian Joseph Lelyveld has written a biography of the famous Indian activist that includes a hint of same-sex intimacy. Conservative "historian" Andrew Roberts 6a00d8341c90b153ef014e6025fce4970c-320wi.jpg(there's been some controversy about his other work) wrote a review of Lalyveld's Great Soul that has sparked almost more controversy than Gandhi's rumored sexual orientation.

In a Wall Street Journal review, Roberts calls Gandhi a child molester, and a rapist, but save his most scathing judgements for Gandhi's relationship with Hermann Kallenbach.

"...The love of his life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908. "Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom," he wrote to Kallenbach. "The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed." For some reason, cotton wool and Vaseline were "a constant reminder" of Kallenbach, which Mr. Lelyveld believes might relate to the enemas Gandhi gave himself, although there could be other, less generous, explanations.

Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach about "how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance." Gandhi nicknamed himself "Upper House" and Kallenbach "Lower House," and he made Lower House promise not to "look lustfully upon any woman." The two then pledged "more love, and yet more love . . . such love as they hope the world has not yet seen."

Roberts, ever the classy man, describes Gandhi as "a sexual weirdo."

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Gay or straight, Gandhi was both an ideological extremist and a hypocrite -- he demanded that Great Britain surrender to Hitler in the name of nonviolence, but argued that India had the right to use any means necessary to secure its independence.

I contend that posing the question "Was gay?" isn't at all helpful to understanding the person, their times, or our own.

All people have a wide variety of feelings and desires all through their lives. Being "gay" isn't about going beyond some threshold of emotion, it's about a modern political stance and a way of understanding contemporary society.

We can better understand our own times and experiences, and the times and experiences of historical figures, if we understand that homoerotic connection (and a desire for it) are a part of being human. How the permitted and forbidden expressions of homoeroticism change from era to era and culture to culture is what makes the history of sexuality interesting, not a simplistic binary view of labeling historical figures as 'gay' or not.

I couldn't agree more ditchhook, homoerotic connection in a socio-historical context!

I read his entire column and the unabashed raving chip on his shoulder against Gandhi pretty much invalidated any interesting points about his public and private personas I might have taken away from it. He basically made it clear that he read a book that gave him fuel for his own weird issues with Gandhi, and was disappointed that it didn't even agree with his column.

Rick Sutton | March 28, 2011 1:03 PM

I'm reading the book's tediously-written, and a difficult read, but I hope it's worth the effort.

Desiree: context, my dear. Gandhi was a pacifist of the first order: his advice to jews facing persecution was to quitly "take it," for lack of better terms. In the context of six decades, that attitude seems horrific, but at the time, he was hardly alone among international theorists and leaders. He believed in the ultimate goodness of mankind, to decry the persecution of any race.

His Hitler comments were, at the time, not that far off from our own leaders' public pronouncements. It was a time whose major news events were relayed by in-person writing journalists, and it was tardy.

Given broader context, and knowledge, I think Gandhi would've gone to war with Hitler. We'll never know what he would've done with more complete and timely knowledge.

But it's been kind of popular since the mid-90s to trash Gandhi in this way. The Churchill folks pushed it--Winston despised Gandhi.

MKG's writings, and his actions, are a good place to look. Overwhelmingly, he espoused non-violence.

I'm no expert on Asian cultures in general or Indian culture specifically, but I hear that sex between men in India is more common and accepted than the "official" social attitudes indicate.

Not that different from smoking marijuana in the US -- Some conservative circles get very upset about it, but at same time, countless urbanites think it's just no big deal -- and all the while, it remains officially illegal and verboten according to the rulemakers of society.

Om Kalthoum | March 29, 2011 1:43 AM

Roberts, ever the classy man, describes Gandhi as "a sexual weirdo."

Well, yeah, he was.