Still struggling for freedom – LGBT equality in India

By Pallav Patankar

 Many LGBT people in India grow up without understanding their sexuality and feeling dirty about it because they’re surrounded by homophobia.  Most delay addressing their sexuality which causes problems later.  Once you’re in your mid-twenties you have to get married.  In Indian society your social status is determined by your marital status.  You have to be married with children in order to be accepted.

If you’re coming out to your parents, sometimes those issues aren’t very well understood.  Sometimes you’re thrown out of the house.  I was accepted by my family but there was a lot of questioning about whether I was sure.  There were apprehensions about what would happen to me in my old age and suggestions that I should still get married to a woman.  Today my family feels I made the right decision by not doing something dishonest but we didn’t reach that decision overnight.  We only reached it because I chose to be brutally honest.

The challenge to section 377 of the Indian Penal Code – which criminalises same sex relations – began in early 2000 and went through several rounds.  In 2009, when the Delhi High Court declared that consenting adults were no longer criminals people were ecstatic because, for the first time in the history of the country, LGBT people were acknowledged as citizens with equal rights.  The verdict went beyond the sexual act and recognised our need for intimacy and love and affection.  People started coming out to their families and in their workplaces.  They felt empowered to set up queer businesses and Pride marches.  It seemed as if the sexual minority revolution was coming of age.  That was an amazing feeling.

People said that the Supreme Court would never go against the Delhi High Court judgement, so when the verdict came in December last year it was a shock.  It used terms such as “so-called LGBT rights” and referred to the community as a “miniscule minority”.  The utter disdain in that judgement showed a huge amount of prejudice.  I was being wheeled into a TV studio while the verdict was read out and it was just “Bang! You lost, so what do you think?”  I’m not the kind of person who cries but while I was addressing the press I had tears rolling down my cheeks.  A lot of people broke down because they had set up these huge TV sets, all ready to cut a celebratory cake and when we heard the verdict it was just horrible.  My mother was extremely upset.  She said “I don’t see why you should be a criminal” and she started worrying in case I would be attacked.  That was a common feeling among parents.  Their children had come out and now they worried that perhaps they’d trusted the judiciary too soon.

We know now that we cannot just think in terms of the judiciary.  We need to work on several fronts and we’ve launched a NO TO 377 campaign.  We’re creating champions in different parts of the world but most important is for all of us to start talking with our MPs and members of local assemblies.  That’s a huge task, just getting that foot in the door.  The idea is not to embarrass the government but to engage them in thinking about these issues rather than running away from them.  The argument isn’t anti-religion or anti-faith.  It’s about constitutional rights and the constitutional protections afforded to all Indian citizens.

India is increasingly recognised as a strong and modern nation.  It’s also the country which propagated the concept of non-violence during its struggle for independence.  It’s not a country which practises hate and discrimination.  Yet LGBT people are struggling for freedom and we need to see those values across all the different elements of the human rights discourse, in the true spirit of what India is all about.

Pallav Patankar is director of HIV programmes at the Humsafar Trust and a speaker at the ‘LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth People of the Commonwealth’ taking place in Glasgow on the eve of the Commonwealth Games.  The Humsafar Trust is a partner of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, a global alliance of some 40 organisations dedicated to ending AIDS through community action.


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