On Friday, one of the most influential courts in the world ruled in a 5-4 decision that same-sex marriage is legal. The US Supreme Court went on to define the idea of marriage within the folds of love and commitment. “Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority.
This decision ended several decades of debates in US law and policy on marriage, religion, and the freedom of states over central government institutions. But while the US Supreme Court might have had the last word on same sex marriage in the US, here in India the debate is still rife.
Within weeks of the Delhi High Court decision in 2009 legalising gay sex, the Supreme Court of India received more than a dozen appeals filed by fringe religious organisation which, incoherently, but not without conviction argued that their opposition was linked to the fear that this would lead to gays and lesbians getting married.
But in the real world...
However, Indian gays and lesbians ‒ taking a leaf from the inter-faith and inter-caste runaway weddings ‒ have been marrying already, at least for a while. In 1987, news emerged that two policewomen, Leela and Urmila, in Bhopal, had been suspended because they had married each other. It was, of course, not a legal wedding: at best, a Bollywoodesque run-away temple satpadi wedding with a favourable pundit and an exchange of varmalas.
The indomitable spirit of this couple in love did not necessarily catalyse the modern day gay rights movement in India. But it has ‒ at least for some of us ‒ served as a continuous reminder of both the aspirations and possibilities that lie at the heart of the struggle for gay rights.
It is this wider appeal of the idea of marriage that led to Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper publishing an ad from the mother of an Indian gay activist Harish Iyer last month titled “Seeking a groom from Mr Iyer”.
People opposing same-sex marriage view it as the last frontier for gay and lesbian equality. It is the final normalising act, which is why they oppose it so fervently. It is the same sentiment that has driven opposition to the Special Marriages Act in India, and all the inter-faith, inter-caste marriages that have taken place under it. As Perveez Mody notes in her book, The Intimate State, these people believe that “marriages based on ‘lust’” will lead to “profligacy and immorality” ‒ a sentiment that is shared by opponents of same-sex marriage in the US.
Despite the fierce opposition, lovers in India – Dalit and upper-caste, Hindu, Muslim and every other religion, and gay and lesbian as well – keep defying the norms every day. Sometimes they do it with support from the state authorities but more often they do it entirely on their own, just equipped with the simple convictions of love and commitment.
Doing so often comes at the cost of fearful violence, mental, emotional and, horrifyingly often, physical as well, but they do not stop. And it is marriage that they aim for, with all its risks, and not just the intimacy, which society can usually turn a blind eye to. Unlike the claims made by their opponents, these lovers are not driven just by sex, but a craving for the normality that marriage embodies. For all its flaws, marriage has a quality that compels couples to be accepted as being no different from anyone else.
This sentiment is captured by the US Supreme Court in words that resonate for all those transgressive marriages in India quite as much as same-sex ones in the US:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
While I like the eloquence of the quote above, I do not think that my love for my partner of 17 years is any less without the certificate of marriage. It is in fact all of the above and more ‒ but maybe because in my heart I have married him, and for some us that will have to do for now.