Earlier this week, the Supreme Court instructed a five-judge Constitution Bench to take a call on Section 377 which criminalises homosexuality. Increasingly, LGBT Indians are coming out in the open about their sexuality and ironically a huge number get married to the opposite sex as well. VIKRAM PHUKAN explores this dichotomy.
At the Supreme Court, when news filtered in of the Naz Foundation’s curative petition being referred to a five-judge constitutional bench, the dichotomy that queer people in India face almost every day was evident in the ensuing mêlée. Indeed, Indians in large numbers grapple with a sense of ‘The Two Indias’ — one that is forward-thinking and progressive, and the other that is conservative and closed-minded.
Even as queer activists spoke with guarded optimism of the implications of this legal turn of events, they were looked upon with nonplussed eyes by many, as if they were a curious breed of outsiders. Clearly, this motley crew of LGBT ‘types’ now represent a movement that had managed to rankle a nation’s conscience through sheer grit and perseverance. The Section 377 petition has taken many dips and dives in its journey through India’s labyrinthine legal system.
The Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality in 2009 in a historic ruling, the text of which was hailed as a human document of tolerance and empathy. Then, in December, 2013, Justices GS Singhvi and SJ Mukhopadhaya back-pedalled and upheld the antiquated Victorian-era law once again. The title of a Facebook page sums up the disaffection the verdict spawned, ‘The Legacy of ‘Injustice’ G S Singhvi is Bigotry & Hate.’ Now, yet another momentary beacon of hope has appeared.
Flying under the radar initially, the legal campaign has largely taken place in the public eye over the last few years. Amplified by both the fourth estate and its shrill cohorts in the social media, it has driven the conversation about gay rights in the country. This is an open debate that resounds in news studios and internet chat rooms alike. The mainstream’s imagination has certainly been captured, where in the past, only indifference had been forthcoming.
Of course, in many ways, the struggle in the court-room is largely symbolic, and there is still uncertainty about the queer community’s place in society. Queer culture is still considered un-Indian or even a liberal conspiracy.
Acceptance is not something we can take for granted, because societal attitudes will not change merely by the word of law, when even the machinery of government is stacked against us. We need look no further than the boorish reactions in Parliament to Shashi Tharoor’s tabling of a private member’s Bill that sought to strike down Section 377 as unconstitutional and unconscionable.
Underlying homophobia continues to be part of our institutions, especially the police force, which seems to be in cahoots with the entrapment of gay men that still continues in urban centres, even if higher-ups in the establishment have started making politically correct noises on the airwaves evoking a faux inclusivity that isn’t always visible on the ground.
There is a ring of truth to Karan Johar’s recent assertion that India is a ‘tough country’ in which to speak about one’s personal life. However, when we step down from his podium of privilege, we encounter ordinary queer Indians who are voicing their concerns openly and volubly, and getting on with their lives resiliently, winning those little victories that contribute to change in a country that is always in transition. These are people who are walking the talk. They are all around us. The current generation is much less touched by the conditioning that bogged down those who came before them, and much more ready to embrace their many identities with pride.
In turn, this esprit de corps rubs off on those who have lived whole lives deep in the closet. Queer Azaadi Mumbai’s month-long calendar of events before the Feb 6 mardi gras style parade, celebrates this sense of pride. On Republic Day, the audience at IIT Mumbai, who thronged the male revue show, Tu Khwab Saja, complete with shirtless dancers and all-male melodrama, was a case in point. In the show, the frisson of innate desire overcomes the tears of their lives, as men lift other broken men, and hold them in consoling embraces.
For queer women, pride is expressed in far subtler ways, yet it is no less potent. The Gaysi Family’s popular annual
zine examines a new feminine forthrightness through graphic art and clever writing, delicately suffused with notions of empowering self-acceptance. All of this reflects the entropy of freedom, and the direction in which all free societies move. Democracies elsewhere have all come upon their moment of truth, when it comes to the rights of their citizens, at different points in time.
However, what continues to ail the gay community is that it is still ensnared in the norms of patriarchy. Gay men are part and parcel of the same structures that suppress them. Most gay men continue to get married to women — a widely cited figure is a staggering 78%. Some bid adieu to their private desires, others continue to thrive as part of the all-embracing closet. As much as the closet can stifle gay men, sometimes it provides them with the license to lead carefree double-lives. In many parts of India this arrangement has a kind of implicit social sanction, such that it is women who continue to bear the burden even of the suppression of gay men.
Some women have started fighting back — consider the litany of Section 377 cases in which a lawful marriage occupies centre stage. In the case of a doctor in AIIMS married to a gay husband, suicide was the only escape. When gay men can shake off the bugbear of their own forced marriages, then we can think of the charming prospect of same-sex weddings. In the Indian Diaspora, they have really taken off — little tales of whimsy replete with blue tuxedoes, henna, Hindu rituals and loads of confetti. For queer people in India itself, it remains a faraway signpost. The impact of freedoms won elsewhere in the world has little meaning in an India that is still insulated from such winds of change.
The writer is a playwright and stage critic.