With its body blow to LGBT rights, the Supreme Court is siding with the homophobic, retrograde part of the community. This sliding back is worse that not moving forward. But there's a silver lining.
“Who am I to judge?” said the Pope aboard a plane in June this year, when asked a question about homosexuality. The magnitude of this remark cannot be overstated. When the Pontiff of a powerful, conservative, christian body implied that people’s sexual choices are their own business, it as good as announced the beginning of a brave new world. Alas, not in India.
India becomes the 11th country in the world where homosexuality is punishable with prison terms of 14 years to life. Our Supreme Court has seen fit to uphold a draconian law that makes gay sex illegal, setting aside the historic Delhi High Court verdict of 2009. ‘Uphold’, you might say, implies that the law has always been in place. What, you might ask, is new or especially troublesome? Well, because sliding back is worse that not moving forward.
Now, I don’t understand how homosexuality works. I mean, I know the definition and theory, but on that basic level that makes me heterosexual, I don’t understand homosexuality. I don’t think it’s a choice. Coming out is a choice, but being gay can’t be. This might come off as a tad prudish, but it is only an honest admission. I really don't understand same-sex physical attraction. A friend suggested that this be left unstated. I disagreed, for the following reason - I think it's important for grey areas in understanding to exist. Right now, there's pro-gay and anti-gay. The former is invariably stereotyped as progressive, urban, non-orthodox; and the latter, regressive, rural, uber-religious. My point is that there are urban homophobes and orthodox persons who believe in the right to choose. I can't, therefore, in good conscience, project myself as a knowing commentator on the issue. To paraphrase the freedom of expression' argument, 'I might not understand why you chose your partner, but I will defend your right to do so'.
To complete the circle, I don't understand homosexuality, but I do understand persecution, discrimination and bullying. These seem imminent.
You see, Section 377 is a homophobic tool for legalised persecution. It always has been. I mean, look at what it says - “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life…” and so on. The intolerant, a sizeable chunk, in State machinery have stigmatised and targeted homosexuals for decades.
Over the last 20 years, more people came out of the closet, demands to repeal the section grew louder, and the tolerance of the West began to seep in. The public, the police, the government, even the judiciary, came to reluctantly understand that this law is an irrelevant relic. And this understanding often took the bite off the persecution. It became a symbol of homophobia, rather than a real, everyday threat.
If, for instance, you were reasonably well-off, or a public figure, you were stronger than it. You could rail at it, debase its logic, flagellate it in public, and it still couldn’t be used to hurt you. If you were an average Joe, and you were booked under section 377, you’d be outraged, naturally, but you could also take a moment to snigger at the backwardness of the enforcer.
Not any more. ‘Carnal intercourse’ and ‘order of nature’ aren’t funny anymore. They’re actually serious about it. A friend asked me how the current situation is different from the situation before 2009. “The voices for gay rights are still strong. The law is still draconian. Homosexuality was still illegal, no?” But it’s not status quo. There’s a major, crushing, difference. Before 2009, the eloquent, emotionally-charged gay rights movement was on one side, and a lumbering system on the other. In 2009, the judiciary was forced to examine legality with objectivism. The Delhi High Court’s verdict sent out a shockwave of openness and unprecedented hope. For the first time, support for LGBT rights was not in principle alone, but in law as well.
It all comes crashing down today. The Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial body, is now actively siding with the conservative, homophobic, retrograde part of the community.
What happens now? What happens to my gay friend? What happens to your family member who finally came out of the closet? What happens to that writer I so admire? What happens to that dancer who has struggled all his life with his sexual identity and only recently found his place in the scheme of things? Are they going to lock them all up?
If they can’t arrest you for what you said or wrote, they’ll arrest you for being gay. If you’re gay, they’ll arrest you because they don’t like you. They’ll arrest you because they bloody well can.
I can’t help feeling grim. But I can still see a silver lining. The fight will go on. This movement, like all movements sparked by discrimination, is high on emotional content. The stakeholders are moved by concerns more personal than livelihood. I daresay the LGBT movement in India will receive global support on a massive scale. For the first time, LGBT rights might even become a political talking point, like in the U.S. It might even tip the balance in an election. What a day that will be for freedom, equality and inclusivity. I believe there is treasure at the end of the rainbow.
(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at firstname.lastname@example.org)