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Legalizing Gay Sex in India Does Not Mean Getting Rid of Discrimination

Creative Commons Image by Vinayak Das

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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

This revolution was televised.
I watched on TV as friends of mine huddled together in a café in Kolkata as the verdict on Section 377 came out. They had come with rainbow flags and hope but until the last minute, there was an air of nervous expectation as if they were waiting for board examination results to come out.
A Creative Commons Image by Kandakuru Nagarjun.

On television I saw friends, tough activists suddenly tear up on camera. Someone talked about calling her mother who said she had never considered her a criminal anyway. Someone talked about getting calls from friends scattered all over the country. Congratulations they said. I wonder what we are being congratulated for. I didn’t do anything. Except try to be what I am. Imperfectly. But I tried. But when the news finally came, I felt a lump in my throat. I am what I am said the judge. This simple truth is something profound, something so many of us have struggled with all our lives, trying desperately to be what we are not, to fit into boxes that we were never meant to inhabit. We can say we are proud. We can say we are out. We can say we are comfortable. We can say our families support us. But somewhere we all bear the scars of coming to terms with being different.

Creative Commons image by Nick Johnson

But it has been the longest examination of our lives for so many of us. And while we think 377 does not really affect our daily lives, it does matter to hear our lives affirmed by the highest court of the land, the same one that had once tossed LGBT Indians aside as a ‘minuscule minority’ in 2013 when it let Section 377 stand.

In many ways perhaps that 2013 verdict, a slap in the face as it was, was necessary to remind us that rights do not come easy. Until then it felt like some lawyers and activists would ensure it happened while the rest could party and plan gay tourism. English language media was anyway overwhelmingly pro-LGBT. 2013 burst that bubble. And it made people aware how vulnerable rights can be when left to the whim of majoritarianism.

That is what Chief Justice Dipak Misra reminded us today when he said “Majoritarian views and popular majority cannot dictate constitutional rights.” And that is a view that extends far beyond the LGBT population of India.

In the days to come, we will analyse the fine print of four judgements from four justices, what they said, what they did not say, how far the ambit runs, what got left out, what doors were opened, which ones were left shut. Section  377 was never the end of the journey but always the first step in demanding respect. That journey remains. De-criminalising gay sex does not mean getting rid of discrimination. And for thousands of LGBT Indians in small towns and villages, Section 377 does not even figure in their daily struggle to survive.

But for now, for so many Indians, it’s time to pause and rejoice because we get too few opportunities to do that. It’s time to remember that a Supreme Court judge said, “History owes an apology to members of LGBT community and their family members for ostracisation and persecution they face because of society’s ignorance.”

Whether that apology comes or not, it matters deeply and profoundly to have it acknowledged. I am one of the luckier ones, loved, supported, sane. I have friends who did not make it.  But none of us came through unscathed. Some of us just learned to disguise our scars better with better accessories.

Already the Bollywood stars are tweeting, Karan Johar says “FINALLY!.. The country gets its oxygen back.” Perhaps finally one of them will find the strength to also say “I am gay.” We will look for the celebrity voices and the celebrity petitioners to fill our news shows.

But let’s never forget this. This was done by ordinary people who dared to say that change could happen against all odds. This did not happen in two years or five. It happened because young men and women came together in cafes, in parks, in dingy offices. It happened because Indian engineers in Silicon Valley printed and photocopied the world’s first LGBT South Asian newsletter in their office after hours just with hope in their hearts.

That first issue was like a note in a bottle put out to sea in the hope that someone would find it. It happened because a young advocate from Kolkata, who died too young, pushed for a little pink citizens’ report  called Less Than Gay in the early 90s when the issue was not Lutyens-chic. It happened because of the lesbians who committed suicide in Kerala.  It happened because a man training to be a monk at Ramakrishna Mission decided that he would be open about his sexuality, Section 377 be damned. It happened because of a young filmmaker who filmed himself coming out on camera to his mother. And it happened because of his mother who joined the voices against 377 in court after he died much too young in an accident. And it happened because of my Maharashtrian friend from San Jose who married his Vietnamese boyfriend in India because he wanted to be married just like everyone else.

It took much too long but eventually, it did happen. And for now, that’s enough. Tomorrow there will be other battles.

When I set down to write this MS Word said Roy_377.doc already exists. Do you want to replace it?

I checked it. It was the copy I had written when it was recriminalized in 2013.

Yes, I replied. It was time to replace it.

I am what I am.

Sandip Roy’s article first appeared on Firstpost.

This article was curated by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

Cover photo credit: Creative Commons Image by Vinayak Das