Over the past fortnight, two violent incidents concerning the LGBTQIA+ community were witnessed in Pune City where I live. They demonstrate that despite the reading down by the Supreme Court in September 2018 of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised homosexuality , discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community continues unabated.
The first incident seemed like a warming up for the second, which ended in death. On July 9, plainclothes policemen raided a private gay party in the city and held guests captive. That it was a gay party was enough for the cops to treat the attendees as if they were criminals. Some guests may have been in drag, which the policemen thought was a “weird” way to dress. Their latent homophobia surfaced, not only in the manner in which they locked up guests in the room, but also in the homophobic words that they allegedly used to describe the community.
The second incident, which occurred on July 20, was far more serious. Here a 21-year-old transgender male jumped to their death from the second floor of a hotel to avoid being thrashed by bouncers. What makes the incident all the more disturbing is that it happened in a restaurant in West Pune, which, after all, is a public place. Though the victim’s partner cried for help, no one came to the victim’s rescue as they lay on the ground in a pool of blood. By the time the victim was taken to hospital, it was too late.
Vulnerable to attack
Unlike the West, in India, designated districts in metro cities where the LGBTQIA+ community can meet and let its hair down are conspicuous by their absence. No Indian city has the equivalent of the Village in New York City or Castro Street in San Francisco. None of India’s cities have legalised gay bars. Such bars once existed in Bombay, Pune, Bangalore and Delhi, ironically when Section 377 was still in force. But they have long since closed down.
In the absence of such infrastructure, we are forced to share social space with the heterosexual mainstream. This makes us especially vulnerable to homophobic assaults of both the verbal and physical kind. That the law allows for consensual adult homosexuality hardly implies that the conservative mindsets of the middle-class have simultaneously undergone a transformation. We are prejudicially ganged up against by all and sundry – by neighbours in housing societies, by guests in bars and restaurants, by the owners and staff of bars and restaurants, by the police, and, as it often happens by our very own families.
On the face of it, the police and restaurant owners can always argue that they are within their brief. That the raids are conducted not on account of the gender and sexual identity of the party-goers per se, but on account of complaints received pertaining to noise, or on account of drunken brawls breaking out among the guests, as is said to have happened in the West Pune bar. But this sounds like an alibi. Who is to prove that the raids are not on account of homophobic bias?
Heterosexuals regularly party noisily to a far greater extent than the LGBTQIA+ community, but we rarely hear of FIRs being registered against them, or of straight men and women being beaten to the point of death. Even language goes against us. In English, there is no such word or phrase as “heterophobia” or as straight-bashing.
Since the newspapers and social media platforms give out the names of the victims, it is likely that the families feel a sense of shame. In such a situation, it is doubtful if families are willing to take the matters to the police stations and the courts to ensure justice for their wards. It is more likely that they would prefer to see the matter swept under the carpet, so that it does not bring “dishonour” to them and their other offspring.
In an ideal world, whenever such cases are reported, civil society, as well as print, electronic and social media platforms should mount pressure to ensure that the culprits are sent to jail. Otherwise, what sense does it make for Section 377 to be read down? It isn’t enough for just gay support groups and members of the community to protest, for we are in a numerical minority. Why can’t students in college and university campuses take out candlelight marches in memory of the victim, as they did, say, in the case of Jessica Lal’s death?
It is only through a sense of solidarity that we can hope to see change.
R Raj Rao’s novel Mahmud and Ayaz is to be published by Speaking Tiger later this year.