LGBT rights

In addition to decrying the Orlando massacre, why not work to decriminalise homosexuality in India?

The Islamic State and the American Right both encourage LGBTQ hatred. India should not.

It is far too early for us to understand what motivated Omar Mateen to allegedly walk into a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida with an assault rifle and kill 50 people. Authorities claim Mateen called the police before the attack and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Mateen's father thinks he might know why his son picked that particular nightclub: He told NBC News that Mateen had been enraged by the sight of two men kissing each other months earlier, and said that might be related to the massacre.

Even with those indicators, we don't know yet if it was indeed homophobia that inspired the worst mass shooting in American history. Yet, as Equality Florida pointed out in a statement, gay clubs – starting with Stonewall Inn in New York – have long been integral to the LGBTQ rights movement.

"Gay clubs hold a significant place in LGBTQ history. They were often the only safe gathering place and this horrific attack strikes directly at our sense of security."

Indeed, even if the motive hasn't been established, the attacks are likely to have the effect of turning gay clubs into targets, and leaving some in the LGBTQ community afraid to go to them. Even with America's horrible record of mass shootings – there have been more than 130 this year alone – the fact that the deadliest one in its history took place at a gay club is hard to ignore.

If it is indeed homophobia that motivated the attack, as Mateen's father has suggested, it has not emerged in a vacuum. The Islamic State, to which Mateen allegedly pledged allegiance before carrying out the attack, betrays horrific intolerance towards people from the LGBTQ community in Muslim societies around the world.

But Mateen himself didn't grow up in a Muslim society. He was born in New York and surely has been witness to the evolution of the LGBTQ rights movement over the last few decades. Although great advances have been made on this front, with the Barack Obama administration in particular putting its weight behind legalising gay marriage, the debate has also included the rancorous atmosphere that the American religious Right has helped create.

Organisations like the Westboro Baptist Church, famous for holding public protests proclaiming "God hates fags", were encouraged by members of the Republican Party, who have sought to portray the LGBTQ community as sinful deviants.

This is one of many matters on which right-wing Americans and Islamic fundamentalists can actually make common cause, and the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump continues in that long tradition of encouraging hatred towards the gay community.

Meanwhile, over in India, the condemnations follow a much more straightforward script without acknowledging the important LGBTQ dimension to the attack.

Indian politicians and others in public life condemn the massacre with the same global sentiments that come up after every mass shooting in America, most commonly a sense of disbelief that one of the most developed nations on Earth still has not figured out how to control guns.

While condemnation and solidarity is important, there is an even more empowering response to the horrific attacks that would represent a truly appropriate reaction: Working to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

The Orlando shooting has given people of the LGBTQ community a reason to fear going to a gay club in case it were to be attacked. With India, that fear is built-in, because gay sex is still illegal. Section 377, a colonial law that criminalises "unnatural sex", remains on the books in India. Although it is barely enforced, the very fact of its existence gives people and authorities an easy excuse to harass those from the LGBTQ community. What better way to say that India is hostile to gay people than by saying their way of life is criminal?

Efforts have been made to get rid of 377. In 2009, a landmark judgment saw the Delhi High Court striking down parts of the section, thereby decriminalising consenting homosexual sex between two adults. Four years later, however, the Supreme Court overturned this verdict, saying that only Parliament can alter such a law, not the courts.

Just last year Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor was prevented from even introducing a Bill attacking Section 377 in Parliament. Politicians from across the spectrum have made noises suggesting support for the LGBTQ community but the lack of numbers and opposition to Tharoor's Bill made it clear that the political class either doesn't consider the issue important enough or is afraid of the fallout of striking down 377.

For all those who complain about toothless slacktivism and a cycle of endless violence that results in condemnations and little else, the Orlando attacks remind us of a far-too-real injustice that India continues to perpetrate by keeping a bigoted law on its books. It may not mean much for the families of those whose lives were lost in Orlando, but every such attack is a reminder that India can do much more to ensure the safety of those who have been turned into targets far away.

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