[This Saturday, September 27, we’re celebrating LGBT Pride as part of our monthly FLUX theme parties. This isn’t about 'acceptance' or 'awareness.' This is about an outright celebration of freedom to be whoever the hell you want. Show up and dance, you won't regret it.]
377. Unnatural Offences
”Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
On the face of it, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code seems apathetic but neutral. However, there’s no denying that the law has stigmatized one section of society more than others – people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or hijras have been left with the proverbial short end of the stick. Lacking in definitive meaning, this law has been subject to a number of legal understandings. The law made age and consent ambiguous of the person in question by using an umbrella restriction on all penile-non-vaginal sexual acts. Despite that, section 377 is conspicuously applicable to members of the LGBT community, effectively suppressing any and all sexual identity that is outside the realm of heterosexuality or what is deemed to be “natural”.
In July of 2009, the Delhi High Court passed a groundbreaking judgment, declaring section 377 to be a violation of basic constitutional and human rights, essentially decriminalizing sexual acts between two consenting adults within the compass of their own privacy. Subsequently, in December of 2013, a panel comprising two Supreme Court judges conceded on what was considered to be a regressive and deplorable judgment, overturning the Delhi High Court ruling and placing section 377 back in action. This verdict fundamentally endorsed all kinds of discrimination and violence against the LGBT community.
The battle against the law has never been fiercer at any other point in history than it is now, even though the queer movement only really took off in India somewhere around the ‘90s, shadowed and hidden for the most part as expected given the norms of the time. A rapidly growing number of people are actively participating in the discourse on LGBT issues, and a fair amount of support continues to pour through from the straight community as well. Unfortunately, sometimes this conversation can become reductionist to the point where people think the only reason this fight is being fought is so that people that identify as homosexual can engage in intimate acts with members of the same sex. The end game is far more meaningful than a lot of people know or appreciate. The LGBT community wants the same basic rights as the ones straight people are disturbingly accustomed to – the right to cohabit with a partner of their choice, the right to inheritance and the right to adopt, among many others. As such, this is no longer simply a battle for acceptance, this is a war cry for equal rights, regardless of sexual identity.
Almost a year since the regressive law was passed, we wanted to dig deeper to understand whether the fight against 377 is as strong as ever and what issues the LGBT community is still facing among other things. So we spoke to a few individuals, who represent the community at large, as well as a couple of prominent organizations fighting diligently for the cause. Given the legal nature of this issue, we were asked not to reveal any identities, which is telling enough of the situation in itself.
I. “My activism began when I realized that people in my life were seemingly alright with my sexuality but thought my struggle towards achieving equal rights was a propaganda that should be kept isolated. I got questioned as to why I partake in queer pride parades, why I dress up flamboyantly and attract attention to myself. Every other day of the year, I exist to fit in with the world. This is the one day I decide to thrust my sexual identity in your face and I expect you to tolerate it. The same way I patiently listen to you talking about your overly ostentatious weddings and having children – basically thrusting your heterosexuality in my face.”
If you’re dieting, I won’t stop eating fried chicken. This is the principal rationality behind this argument and no, “diluting Indian culture” is not a valid counter argument. India, as we know it today, is 67 years old and we are bound by the Indian constitution, which clearly states that each and every citizen has fundamental human rights and cannot be subject to discrimination based on age, caste, sex and gender. Section 377 is in direct contrast to, and a gross violation of all of these rights.
II. “I face discrimination at my work place based on my sexual identity on the daily. People need to be sensitized to the fact that we expect the same amount of respect as they’d give someone who is straight. The choices we make in our bedroom, the most private of spaces, do not define us. In all honestly, this is my highest point of concern at this point as I spend a lot of time in said environment, which right now is more hostile than a war zone.”
Over 8% of the workforce in India is LGBT, which amounts to an astounding level of work place discrimination. Fighting towards section 377 being repealed is a giant step towards amending work place policies. This brings up the argument of being inclusive – right from HR policies to the menial conversations that go down between coffee breaks.
“I identify as a bisexual woman and I’m married to a man. I often get asked how exactly that works. It works the same as when a woman marries a man – she then classifies as husband-sexual. My bisexuality has no bearing on my ability to make a lifelong commitment to someone – man, woman or neither man nor woman. I came out to myself a little late because I was conditioned to believe that this was just a passing phase that’ll go away when I get a boyfriend. Why does bisexuality have to be vague? My sexual preference (before I got married) is fluid but the definition of bisexuality isn’t.”
The number of misconceptions that come attached with bisexuality is a story for another day and another article but luckily we already covered some of the topics meanderings here. Bisexuality isn’t about poly-amore. Bisexuality is about loving someone irrespective of his or her gender. It isn’t a stepping-stone to coming out as “fully gay” and it definitely isn’t indecisiveness. Sexuality isn’t binary; there is a spectrum and bisexuality falls somewhere in the middle.
The LGBT community has continued to live under the threat of discrimination and worse still, imprisonment, ever since the landmark judgment made by the Supreme Court nearly a year ago. The outpour of emotion following this event should be channeled into productive policy-making and strategic efforts towards overturning this decision. Despite the nature of the law itself, people are more open to LGBT issues now than ever before. Volatile as it may be, it’s an exciting time to get involved in this discussion, so this is a call to action. No matter your sexual preference, do something to change the unacceptable condition of LGBT rights in India. Call out people if they’re actively discriminating against a member of the community. At this point, wildly public acceptance is just about the only route forward as a catalyst of change. Let’s work towards the day the LGBT community seamlessly fits into the larger one.
To sum things up, we caught up with Anuja Parikh, co-founder of Gaysi Family–veritable pioneers in chronicling the struggles, quirks and lives of the queer community through their online magazine, and organisers behind one of the city’s most anticipated LGBT events, Dirty Talk. Having been involved in a forward-thinking movement for years now, she believes the fight is nowhere near losing its steam. “The queer movement is heading from being a cause to a movement about people in flesh and blood. It is moving in the direction of homogeneity, where the line between straight and queer is slowly diminishing. Well, that’s not to say that there is no discrimination, or that there will be no discrimination in the future, as long as human beings exist there will be disrespect of difference. But things are getting better and they will only get better from here with more heightened awareness in social media and by publications like yours making an honest effort. I’m sure that with you around, the only thing queer will be prejudice.”
Words: Rhea Baweja