The Road Beyond Section 377

[Guest Author : Nitin Karani]

As LGBT people, we are trying to cope with several issues (read discrimination at different levels) in India, even as the decade-old fight to keep private consensual sex out of the law books continues in the Supreme Court. And even as our friends are still becoming infected with HIV. The reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code last year by the Delhi High Court has led to the question both within LGBT communities and among homophobes: what next? While some issues will have to take priority over others (for example, HIV prevention and care of positive people is a need that will not disappear soon), is recognition of same-sex marriages, as some are suggesting, ‘the next item on the agenda’?

The voices that are heard the loudest in the media these days tend to be those of couples getting ‘married’ in some sort of a religious ceremony, whether they are from a small town in Manipur, a village in Gujarat or right here in Mumbai where I live. The city has, of course, seen very private ceremonies even before the coming out of Ashok Row Kavi, who himself had one here. These instances of ‘gay weddings’ are nothing new; it’s just that the media has played them up (as it tends to sensationalise recent crimes where gay men have been victims).

LGBT people are too diverse, too dispersed and importantly, too closeted, to be able to speak in one voice yet. And, not all ‘activists’ are one on all LGBT issues. For example, even organising something that should be as simple as a Pride march can be subject to much hair-splitting and complication. Yet it is also true that the opinions of some vocal individuals and organizations (which might make no claims to represent all of India’s LGBT people) do carry some weight and inevitably give direction to the gay movement in the country. Right now, besides HIV, most of these activists are focused on winning the battle in the Supreme Court on the Section 377 front. Any discussion on where the next battle will be fought in the long war for equal rights would be too theoretical and unfruitful at this stage, and might even strengthen the hands of the fringe groups that are for retaining Section 377 in its original, unconstitutional form.

Ultimately, a lot of us do want recognition of our relationships, whether it’s a romantic one (marriage) or a paternal/maternal one (with the right to adopt/raise kids). What’s that they say about man being a social animal?  Notwithstanding differences on what should take precedence among the issues, LGBT activists should be willing to extend help to any two adults who announce their intent to marry. The Bombay Dost-Humsafar parivaar (the close-knit group of friends which runs the magazine and the trust thinks of itself as a gay family, as opposed to a biological family) to which I belong has itself witnessed quite a few weddings of gay friends. One of our family members even gotten married and another has been in a same-sex, live-in relationship for about 15 years. If a couple and their priest want the ‘marriage’ to happen, it’s no one’s business to try to stop it. It is irrelevant that there is no legal recognition of such a marriage, or some us have little faith in the institution, find it regressive, hetero-normative and so on. So if there is any opposition, help is on call for the couple. When a couple has a ‘public’ wedding, besides their specific reasons for doing it (a public affirmation of their love and/or commitment for each other, for example) it is yet another step out of the closet for them, and for this should be applauded.

However, homophobia in society still needs to be countered by legal measures for non-discrimination. Being forced into heterosexual marriage and violence are realities of our LGBT lives. Cases of gay men being tortured in police custody and kothis being murdered are not rare. LGBT people are regularly denied jobs and promotions because of their appearance, sexual orientation or gender identity. Transgenders may have got the right to vote but face ineligibility to contest elections or disqualification even if elected on technicalities of gender identity. A wide array of protections for LGBT people and punishments for crimes against them need to be provided by law. These measures would also hopefully enable more LGBT people to come out of the closet. Aligarh Muslim University’s blatantly unfair treatment of Dr Siras (and its possible involvement in outing him and secretly filming him) highlights the urgent need for such legislation. We are no legal experts but the Delhi High Court verdict, implies equality is a fundamental right of LGBT individuals as well and this could be the basis for bringing in anti-discrimination laws.

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