Editor’s Note: This month, that is January 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Resistance and Hope, where we invite various articles on people’s thoughts on the topic- what resistance means to you, ways in which you resist oppressive structures and norms in your everyday life, your sources of hope and courage, etc. If you’d like to share your story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Introduction: The Past and the Present
Ruth Vanita’s 2005 book, Love’s Rite: Same-sex marriage in India and the West changed my understanding of same-sex marriage by demystifying the egregious preconceptions I had about this social phenomenon, which, according to Vanita, has a rich historical background. By underpinning the historical genealogy of same-sex love, friendships, suicides and unions, Vanita makes the case that it is modern homophobia to blame for intolerance surrounding homosexuality, not ‘rigid customs and traditions’ as it is commonly assumed.
South Asia has no extended pre-modern history of persecuting people who participated in same-sex unions; it was under the British Raj (Rule) that the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was introduced in India and with it, came the notorious Section 377 in the year 1861. Hence, to say that homosexuality is against ‘Indian culture’ would be egregious at best and naive at worst, because the very architects of the IPC Section 377 weren’t even Indian! Moreover, it wasn’t just India, but multiple other regions that also imported this form of homophobia under British rule that, over time, enmeshed with the local culture of the colonized. Finally, no one individual or group can claim monopoly guardianship over the definition of ‘Indian tradition’ or ‘Indian culture’. To do so would be downright wrong.
While the bulk of Vanita’s book discusses same-sex unions within the context of Hinduism, the part that I wish to highlight in this essay is a modernist framework to understanding LGBTQ+ rights in this new decade– 2020. Such an approach is both forward-looking and hopes to situate the modalities of those with alternate sexualities in a new India which has not only repealed IPC Section 377 but is also trying to situate it’s struggle for equality within the confines of a political climate which is both polarised, and hegemonically ethno-nationalist, masculinised, and increasingly saffron.
Resistance and Hope: 2018 onward
The past decade has seen slow but steady advancements in the LGBTQ+ rights in India. In 2015, Congress Member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor tabled a bill in Parliament, calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India. This bill was rejected in the Lok Sabha, by members of the opposition as well as from his own party. Similarly, in the 2013 case of Suresh Kumar Koushal and another v. NAZ Foundation, the Supreme Court overturned the previous Delhi High Court Naz Foundation v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi decision and reinstated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. It was only in September 2018 that the Supreme Court of India ruled unanimously that Section 377 was unconstitutional “in so far as it criminalises consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex”.
Since the Indian courts took over 20 years to simply strike down the unconstitutional aspects of Section 377, one wonders how long the courts may take to legislate on other issues important to the community
Vidya Krishnan, from the Hindu, reported that the first known protest for gay rights occurred on August 11, 1992 outside police headquarters in ITO, Delhi. In 1994, AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA) filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Delhi High Court, challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377. This was one of the first legal protests against the Indian government’s repression of the LGBTQ+ community. Since the Indian courts took over twenty years to simply strike down the unconstitutional aspects of Section 377, one wonders how long the courts may take to legislate on other issues important to the community, such as same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination laws, adoption rights etc.
Interestingly, the Press Trust of India recently reported that a review petition seeking these very same civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community was filed in the Supreme Court. The petition argued that the scope of the Section 377 ruling was too narrow and did not recognise other aspects of equality such as surrogacy, same-sex marriage and adoption. The argument made in favour of same-sex marriage was as follows:
“Both same-sex and opposite-sex relation are a consequence of people’s private attractions or motivations. While they are similarly circumstanced, they are treated unequally i.e. marriage between heterosexuals in an opposite-sex relation is recognised while it is not recognised for homosexuals in a same-sex relationship,”
This plea, however, was dismissed by the Supreme Court with the following statement:
“We are not inclined to entertain this petition after the decision of this Court in Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India decided on September 6, 2018,”
By why the Supreme Court was not “inclined” to “entertain” this petition, remains unanswered and requires further investigation by academics and legal scholars alike.
Towards a new decade
To those reading this who do not belong to the LGBTQ+ community, I urge them to visit the archives of 101ComingOutStories to get a flavour of what it means to be queer in India. Personal stories of hope and resistance have always moved me, and one of the most powerful stories that I came across on this platform was that of Sridhar Varadaraj. His story– I came out to my teenage kids– is a powerful narration of an Indian man, born and raised in Tamil Nadu in the 1960’s, who, after living through a heterosexual marriage for over a decade and raising two children, filed for divorce, came out to his children and now lives with his partner, Antonio Hernández in Madrid. Sridhar’s journey, while enthralling was also wrought with immense hardships and difficulties.
The essay concludes with a powerful narration of struggle and hope:
“My life though has been turned upside down, since. It’s been harder, lacking the comforts and security I was used to, but I don’t miss them anymore. The sacrifices have been more than worth it….My boyfriend and I stood for each other through thick and thin throughout the whole process of transforming our lives. He accepted the baggage I came with. I couldn’t have made it without him. And I knew I was taking the right path, however hard it seemed.
Today, I can sleep well with a clean conscience, holding my man. There is no better luxury in life than a good night’s sleep.”
What lessons can we learn from stories like these? And what is the path ahead in this new decade? Clearly, these aren’t settled questions, but worth probing. It is this “way forward” that I will articulate in the forthcoming paragraphs.
First, while the Indian judiciary may have legislated in favour of LGBTQ+ rights in its September 2018 decision, the fact remains that India is still a conservative and orthodox society, where one’s social status, class, caste, gender and sexual identity, and other social and economic markers, limit and constrain one’s life chances. While the growing number of LGBTQ+ Pride related events in the past couple of years is no doubt remarkable, the unfortunate fact remains that they are restricted only to urban spaces. LGBTQ+ identifying individuals living in small towns and villages still experience social ostracization and discrimination should they openly identify as queer.
During a recent field visit to Attappady, a remote village in Kerala, I asked local officials to tell me about the number of LGBTQ+ identifying individuals who resided in the village. I was told that the village “did not have those kinds of people”. Going over Sridhar’s story as well, one observes that his sexual awakening occurred during his time in the United States. Mine occurred when I was in Canada. Not too many Indians are as privileged as we are to explore our sexuality in spaces and societies where homosexuality is socially accepted.
Thus, the question arises, how can we make LGBTQ+ pride more accessible to 70% of the Indian population that are yet to experience Pride? Also, how can we transcend ascriptive notions of caste, class, gender and disability to ensure that Pride is truly inclusive to everyone?
The very fact that local languages lack a concise vocabulary to define alternate sexualities speaks volumes of the monumental path ahead in the avenue of sexuality education.
Second, tolerant social attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community may be achieved if greater initiatives are taken to educate the masses on gender, sex, and sexuality related issues, discussions of which are still deemed taboo in many parts of the country. It is pertinent that words like ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘lesbian’, for instance, find a space in the local vocabulary of those who speak different Indian languages. The very fact that local languages lack a concise vocabulary to define alternate sexualities speaks volumes of the monumental path ahead in the avenue of sexuality education. Education and awareness also include myth-busting, for example, the myth that all gay men are effeminate, or that gender dysmorphia is a mental illness are both scientifically unfounded yet widely perceived as legitimate truisms. It is these misconceptions and many more that need to be challenged through education and information dissemination.
And finally, mobilisation is key. Over the years, the number of people attending pride events has exponentially expanded. The first pride parade in India was held in Kolkata in 1999 with only 15 attendees. Today, Pride parades see thousands of people marching the streets. This mobilisation though needs to now enter small towns and villages. It’s important to take stock of the fact that mobilisation isn’t just physical. It is psychological, social, economic and political as well. The past decade has seen the establishment of LGBTQ+ cells in Universities across India, the expansion of HR benefits tor same-sex couples in a few formal sector organizations like Tata, the introduction of mass media commercial Hindi language films and TV shows that depict homosexuality more favourably than before (such as Made in Heaven and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga) and a few legal victories as well, such as the expansion of marriage under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 recognising the union of a man and a transgender woman as valid. These variegated forms of mobilisations need to continue.
In an era where issues of human rights are gaining global recognition, where countries world over are beginning to recognize the LGBTQ+ community as a legitimate community wanting of civil justice and freedoms, and where the vocabulary surrounding sex, love, sexuality and gender is constantly being reinvented, it is important to situate oneself in this struggle for equality with renewed hopes and aspirations for a better tomorrow. While the prescriptions in this essay are by no means adequate, I believe they are important and worth considering.
The 21st century began with the Netherlands being the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage in April 2001. As we enter the new decade, it will be fascinating to discover what new milestones we break.
Featured Image Credits: World Nomads