Around 3.15 on Tuesday, I felt a sense of relief that blended with a smile. Minutes before, the Supreme Court of India had agreed to reconsider its decision in January 2014 that gay sex was a criminal act. The court admitted a curative petition against that ruling and referred it to a five-judge bench.
The reason to celebrate is still some time away but I am positive that something good is happening here.
There’ve been a lot of ups and downs. Back in 2009, the Delhi High Court invoked the Constitution as it read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised the LGBT community. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned that verdict and the next year smashed our hopes as it threw out our appeals. Many of us were left with the feeling that there was no hope and India was not a country for us to live in. Tuesday’s decision gives us a sense that, from a constitutional stand-point, things are back on track.
The battle in the courts has been going on for at least 15 years. But the struggle for LGBT rights has been going on for much longer – although more silently and invisibly. My participation in this battle began in the 1990s. Many of us in our own anonymous way met once a week at Delhi’s Naaz Foundation office on Saturday evenings to get to know more people from our community, listen to stories and experiences and often express our horror at how the police had violated our privacy and our bodies.
A furtive search
There were few places then for us to find others who were gay. Nehru Park was one such place, as also Central Park, which now houses the hub of the Delhi Metro. We met strangers. We made friends. We knew what we connected on and for and sadly struggled to be proud of our existence and lived in fear of being found out by family or hounded by the police. These acts often meant succumbing to their own sexual desires that amounted to rape and unprotected sex.
I was spared such an incident thankfully but I also experienced what it is to be questioned by the police.
It was 2004. My young boyfriend had expressed a wish to see me in a suit – something I rarely wore. I had an official function that night and so I thought I should meet him on my way to the event. We met in my car and chatted briefly – for around ten minutes – before we kissed each other as we said goodbye. Yes we were brave in the kisses we exchanged that moment after all we were infringing on the rights of the heterosexual world.
The ten minutes of conversations with the few seconds of kisses got two policemen knocking at the window of my car. My boyfriend was pulled out to one side and I, to another. The police knew we were homosexuals as one of them pointed his stick to my crotch and ask what was happening. Not only was the stick pushed against me, its use was elaborated through words and gestures as my boyfriend went through a round of questions separately. The police then threatened to call my office. They had already picked up my business card from the car.
They were ready to out me and given where I was in my life at that point, I feared being outted amongst my co-workers. My boyfriend then was far more private than I was. But even if both of us were in a position to have no such fear, we would probably have literally got the wrong end of the stick resulting in sexual assault and rape that would not have been recorded as a crime given the way the law is framed.
A key decision
This is why Tuesday’s decision is important. Since the January 2014 order, stories about crimes against homosexuals have increased. But the voice of a supportive media has also grown. Some universities have created forums and associations. Celebrities have spoken up and some have come out of the closet. Gay pride marches have grown in number and are far more vibrant with many more people participating.
This mood of support entered the packed court room on Tuesday. Expressed through murmurs and loud voices, it was clear that mindsets were changing.
Of course, there has been the predictable opposition from religious groups. But why should any of us worry about a view of a religious group that aims to divide humanity, rather than bind it and blind it. For myself, my faith lies in the Constitution. My hope is alive that it will be upheld.
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