The energy on the streets of Delhi was too high to be avoided. Gay rights activists hoisted a rainbow banner in the city’s first-ever march calling for gay rights. Others held up signs as they marched through the main streets: “I’m gay!” “Open the doors!” “Gay rights, zindabad!”
Never mind the motorists—accustomed to loud rallies in the nation’s capital—who watched in silence. Forget the passer-bys who avoided making eye contact with the 300 or so protesters, many of them in masks. The rally underscored a different reality: the gay movement is gaining momentum in India and forcing a largely conservative society to confront a part of its identity that has been previously denied.
“I want people to know that I am here,” said Arun Sharma, who attended the July rally. “And, there are many others like me.”
A diverse LGBT population has always existed in India. Numerous examples in Hindu texts, including the Manu Smriti, Kama Sutra, and Rig Veda, reference same sex love. And mainstream Hindi movies often include transgendered characters.
Why then, I wondered, would there be laws in place in India that discriminate against homosexuals?
I spent a significant part of this past summer in pursuit of the answer to that question. My findings surprised me: I met gay men and lesbians who told me their families had disowned them, researched laws that have hindered the LGBT communities, and discovered a robust civil society dedicated to ending unfairness.
This is the story of my summer.
In April, I was chosen as the Summer 2008 Traub-Dicker Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I was finishing my first year as an M.A. student.
I left for Delhi almost immediately after finals to spend the first half of my summer at the U.S. State Department and the second half at the Human Rights Law Network. The institutions were eager to know more about gay rights in India and were often too understaffed and overwhelmed with other issues to take up a new one.
The catalyst for the project was partly personal: as an Indian American who grew up in rural America, I know first-hand how tough life can be when a person is a little different from the mainstream. Part of the reason I became a journalist to give voice to the people who were denied theirs. This was another opportunity to continue that work.
Homosexual men and women have always existed alongside heterosexuals, in every country including India. Though many Hindus reject homosexuality, there are numerous examples of same-sex love from the Vedic times through the present day in rituals, law books, art, and narratives. That is not to say that homosexuality was always encouraged, but it was certainly acknowledged.
The Rig Veda depicts sexual acts between women as revelations of a feminine world. Hindu texts also refer to the “third sex,” commonly referred to as eunuchs. In Tamil Nadu, the third-gender sect, the aravani, celebrates theKoovagam or Aravan Festival that is widely attended by gay men and lesbians. The Kama Sutra also makes several references to homosexuality.
General acceptance of homosexuality changed when Lord Macaulay introduced a law that criminalized homosexuality in 1860. The law has remained on the books and became known as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 377 reads, “whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.” Police used the law to extort, bribe or harass vulnerable men and women.
There have been no recent arrests under Section 377, but there have been highly suspect actions. In 1992, two female police officers in Madhya Pradesh got married but were charged with obscene behavior and forced to resign from their jobs. A lesbian couple in Orissa was forcibly separated. They attempted suicide, and one woman died.
On a typically scorching summer morning, I ventured to the Naz Foundation in Delhi, which alongside other non-governmental organizations has been leading the battle against Section 377. In 2002, the Naz Foundation, which advocates for gay rights, sexual health, and HIV/AIDS prevention, filed a Public Interest Litigation challenging the constitutionality of Section 377.The cab driver, a burly Sikh man exhausted from the heat and having to veer through unkempt roads, seemed relieved to finally find the Naz Foundation. I walked out of the gate—nearly an hour early for my appointment—and found the gate locked. I rang the doorbell several times before someone finally buzzed me in. It was a telling introduction to the gay rights movement in India: the work is sensitive, and those who are behind the effort need to protect themselves.
I sat in the lobby waiting for Rahul Singh, the coordinator of the men-having sex with men-program. As I waited, I noticed the available literature; the Naz Foundation provides counseling to families with gay children.
Exact figures of the size of the LGBT community are difficult to pin down. The National AIDS Control Organization estimates that there are 2.5 million gay men in India. However, that figure does not include lesbians or men who have not come out to their families. The figure is probably much higher.
Before long, Singh called me into his office, an organized room that shelved the Naz Foundation’s numerous legal documents on Section 377. “Half of the work in India is done by NGOs,” he said.
Singh became involved with the Naz Foundation in 2003 after coming out to his parents. His family struggled to come to terms with his sexuality and encouraged him to get married. Their relationship has remained strained.
His program reaches as many as 7,000 men in and around Delhi every year. Singh goes to them first, not the other way. He ventures into some of the toughest neighborhoods in Delhi to distribute literature, talk with people, and encourages safe behavior. Transgendered individuals and men pose a high-risk factor, and without the advocacy, Singh says, the AIDS epidemic would become worse.
Over the last five years, Singh says the work has only gotten marginally easier. When he began a grassroots effort to reach out to other gay men, he fielded threatening phone calls and other forms of harassment.
“There is a lot of intolerance. People don’t really understand what homosexuality is,” he said. “People think, ‘He’s gay. He must be having sex 24 hours a day.’ It’s a homophobic society.”
Since the Naz Foundation filed its petition, there have been other advances:
• In 2005, Prince Manavendra Gohil from a conservative principality in Gujarat openly came out as gay.
• In September 2006, numerous intellectuals, including Amartya Sen, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy, demanded the repeal of Section 377.
• In June 2008, Labor Minister Oscar Fernandes supported calls for the decriminalization of consensual gay sex.
• In July 2008, the Bombay High Court said the law needs revision.
• In August 2008, Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said the law must go, creating a firestorm among government officials.
When I attended the first gay rights parade in Delhi in July, ten years after the first one was held in Calcutta, I spoke to gay men, lesbians, and transgendered individuals who represented various strata of society. Some were rich. Some were poor. Some wore masks. Others refused. Many dodged reporters.
One man shifted his stance several times when speaking to me, and would not give me his real name. Another woman I met refused to speak with me for fear of being “outed.”
“Our families are not supportive of us,” said Neel Singh, who declined to give his real name. “How can we expect the government to be supportive?”
I went home that day with a new perspective on identity: as a heterosexual woman, I have never had to worry about being rejected on the basis of my sexuality. But growing up as an Indian American has presented its own challenges. I could relate to their loneliness, feelings of isolation, and frustration at being expected to be something other than what one is.
I have continued to research Section 377 and have learned how quickly the movement against it has grown. The gay rights movement, though nascent by most standards, has supporters in organizations in every major metro area of India, and the list grows by the day.
When I joined the Human Rights Law Network, I volunteered to share my experiences. The hardest part of this work is realizing that change is slow in India, and, in the meantime, people are dying.
India has one of the fastest growing AIDS populations in the world. At the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, the American Foundation for AIDS Research found that gay men are 19 times more vulnerable to infection. Section 377 undermines the ability of the government to reach out to those who are most vulnerable.
Advocates of Section 377 say the law upholds traditional Indian values. They argue that homosexuality is a western import intended to undermine strong families. The Ministry of Home Affairs has also said repealing Section 377 undermines “public morality” and would encourage “unnatural sex.” That is unfair and, from a historical perspective, grossly inaccurate.
I left India with even more questions than I’d had when I started, which is an indication of what I learned. But one thing is certain: the gay rights movement in India is flourishing, and, in a democracy, that is exactly as it should be.
Sheila B. Lalwani is a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.