Many readers have noted that the WSJ reviewer of Joseph Lelyveld's new biography was Andrew Roberts, a renowned reactionary historian, who, in this day and age, is intent on demonizing those who once opposed British imperialism (move over, Dinesh). For Roberts, citing Gandhi's homosexuality is part of a smear campaign. Obviously, I don't share that perspective, and I do want to address the notion that Gandhi was bisexual, not gay.
He did have a wife, and he got a boner when sleeping naked among young women. But my point is that homosexuality is a sexual and emotional orientation to members of the same gender. It's the emotion that situates the sex, and the emotion that is, to my mind, the deeper reality. Gay men have had sex with women for millennia (me too!) but that doesn't make them straight or bi. The NYT has a fascinating piece on the subject and India's potential banning of the book. Money quote:
Gandhi expresses great fondness and yearning for Mr. Kallenbach in the letters, telling him that his was the only portrait on Gandhi’s mantelpiece, opposite the bed, and that cotton wool and Vaseline were “a constant reminder” of him ... Gandhi destroyed Mr. Kallenbach’s letters to him early on, according to the book.
In the book Mr. Lelyveld writes, “One respected Gandhi scholar characterized the relationship as clearly homoerotic’ rather than homosexual, intending through that choice of words to describe a strong mutual attraction, nothing more.” But Mr. Lelyveld then acknowledges: “The conclusions passed on by word of mouth in South Africa’s small Indian community were sometimes less nuanced. It was no secret then, or later, that Gandhi, leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man.”
My italics. Why would Gandhi destroy letters from someone he clearly loved?Isn't the obvious likely explanation that they would have revealed the real nature of the bond? And the distinction one scholar makes between "homoerotic" and "homosexual" relies again on the absurd and homophobic notion that if one doesn't have actual sex with another man, one is not gay. All of this is saturated with homophobia of various degrees, and India is a deeply homophobic society. The India Times adds more detail:
On June 21, 1909, Gandhi's first letter says, "I address my first letter from the train to you as I expect most from you and as you are uppermost in my thoughts. When heart speaks to heart, speech is superfluous. Yet I cannot help saying this much: I do not understand your extraordinary love. I hope I deserve it all. Our mutual attachment is the strongest possible testimony of our having lived before in bodies rather than the present ones."
On September 17, 1909, Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach calling him 'Lower House', how happy he was to get "another charming letter" from him. But the most controversial is the letter he wrote a week later. "Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed. The eternal toothpick is there. The corns, cottonwool and Vaseline are a constant reminder." Then Gandhi - Upper House to Kallenbach - talks of how he had never "departed" from the "contract" the two had.
What was this contract between the two? There were two agreements. The first one with seven points was a simple one and talked of how the two would divide work in the farm near Lawley. The second agreement talked of Kallenbach going to meet his family in Europe and not spending money beyond what was "befitting the position of a simple-living poor farmer''. It also says 'Lower House' would not look "lustfully upon any woman". The agreement signed by both ends with following line: "The consideration for all the above tasks imposed by Lower House on himself is more love, and, yet more love between the two houses” such love as, they hope, the world has not seen."
This may conceivably be an intense heterosexual friendship - but one that speaks of immense love, vaseline, upper and lower houses, and an insistence that the friend never resort to heterosexual sex. If you want to believe that, no one is stopping you. But one day, I suspect, the way in which biographers strain to ignore or downplay obvious evidence of homosexual orientation will decline. Only then will gay citizens be able to see themselves in history - from King James VI to Bayard Rustin and Abraham Lincoln - and all citizens be respected enough to know the unvarnished and uncensored truth.
(Photo: Hermann Kallenbach, Gandhi's intimate "soulmate.")