The revelations of the concentration camps in Chechnya has taken everyone by surprise. The anti-gay campaign is claimed to be responsible for mental and physical torture and killing of gay men. Its hard to imagine such a scenario in today’s world. But the bitter truth is that we are still surrounded by social and legal systems that don’t recognise homosexuality. And out of all of these systems, why is India so silent?
We just saw a period of social uproar. Starting from the women’s march in Washington and its sister marches throughout the world, to the solidarity shown by the people of Tamil Nadu for the Jalikattu festival and then recently the marches against President Trump’s ‘muslim ban’. Strong social statements were made by various groups throughout the world on a variety of issues to show they care, they won’t back down and they want change.
So should the silence or lack of marches and protests around section 377 be an indicator that we don’t want change in India? Or maybe it isn’t a priority as of now? But if it’s not a priority as of now, then when will it be? How do we decide when is the right time to bring up an issue regarding suppression of rights of certain groups?
There is an urgent need to accept that this is a problem we need to address. Not just a legal one, but also a social one which would make any legal provision ineffective. We have seen it in the cases of honour killing, rape, dowry etc. that legal provisions cannot work without development in social mindset.
India’s Legal Rendezvous with Homosexuality
Sex with a person of the same gender is not only a taboo, but also illegal in India thanks to section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 377 has had a history of ping pong in the Indian judicial system.
First enacted in 1861 during the British Raj and by the British Rajas themselves, the law was overturned in a 2009 Delhi High Court judgement in the case of Naz Foundation v Govt. of NCT of Delhi. Fast forward to 11th December 2013, this historic judgment that liberated millions across the nation and gave them a feeling of freedom, was overturned by the Supreme Court of India. In the judgement, that many would describe as a major blow, came a subtle hint and indication for our government. The judges noted that the Parliament should debate and discuss the matter.
Then in December 2013, a review petition was filed by the Central Government and Naz Foundation. Jumping to January 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed all review petitions.
In December 2015 and March 2016, Lok Sabha Member Shashi Tharoor introduced a private member’s bill to replace section 377. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated in early stages on both attempts.
The road ahead for gay rights in India is not a bumpy one. Because it doesn’t exist. Call me cynical, but its difficult not to be one. The legal barriers seem to be difficult to jump and cross, but the social barrier is one that gets less credit than it deserves.
One of the main driving forces behind the lack of care and indifferent attitude towards the legal ping pong is the social setting we live in. This is not an attack on any religion or culture, but an attack on those who feel that one’s personal belief of tradition or culture is justified enough to take away another’s liberty and dignity.
Homosexual characters in Bollywood are a work of imagination. Directors and scriptwriters seems to devote all their creative energy into creating a fantasy world, glitter fed, homosexual. No wonder the storylines and plots of many movies seem neglected.
Karan Johar with his films loves to take a comical, and at times a regressive, stereotypical view on homosexuality and homosexual characters.
In the instance of Kal Ho Na Ho, you had Kanta Ben who would faint with horror every time she saw Aman and Rohit together. She evens acts anxious and disturbed around Aman. Of course, what if she catches the homosexual touch? Skipping to Rohit’s dad asking him if he is ‘normal’, indicating that homosexuality isn’t normal. He also implies that it is the environment of living in America that has led to Rohit not being ‘normal’. There is also an overly colourful, overexcited and overly flow-y homosexual interior decorator.
Maybe I expect too much, but from Karan Johar, who is rumoured to be in the closet for years, you would expect a more sensitive and normal portrayal of homosexuals. Instead, they become the centerstage for comedy and cheap laughs from the audience.
There is also Dostana, which uses stereotyped characteristics in its story. There is one positive side of the movie, which is the fact that people around the country sat in a movie hall and watched the fake romantic comedy of two pretend gay men. There’s also the downside- the gay men were lovable because we made them comical. From the hand movements to the body language, everything was feminine. A specific scene that reflects very well on this homosexual = feminine logic is when Kunal tells Sameer to “think like a woman, act like a man”. But of course all gay men out there in the world think like a woman. Basically being gay takes away any normal thought process usually observed in heterosexual males. Quite scientific.
The song Maa Da Laadla, when loosely translated, talks about a mother who is upset because instead of catching single ladies, caught a disease. That disease being homosexuality of course. Duh!
Filmmaker Shakun Batra is one man who dared to do the extraordinary. He dared to show a ‘normal as real life’ portrayal of a homosexual character in Kapoors & Sons. According to an interview to NDTV, Batra said that he attempted to break the regressive portrayal of homosexual characters in Bollywood.
I have always said and believed that Bollywood, through its movies, has the power to influence masses. It saddens me to think that a platform like Bollywood, which is often used for corny rom-coms to action films overloaded with special effects, has such power. But alas, the truth is always bitter.
Most recently, Sonam Kapoor has been vocal about gay rights. Through her twitter account on 30th January, she launched the trailer of Sisak, India’s first gay love story. But what really needs to be the focus over here, is the fact that this film was made thanks to crowdfunding, since most producers refused to fund a film with such a taboo topic. Understandable though. Bollywood producers, actors and directors don’t have spare money to splurge on controversial movies when instead they could invest in Krrish 25, Dhoom 2002 : Chronicles of the driverless cars and Golmaal returns yet again. Bollywood has its priorities in the right place. Naive are those who believe in the power of multitasking and supporting controversial films whilst having a stronghold on your commercial interests. God.
Beta, mard bano mard. Femininity is for girls (ew) and gays (ew). Following up from the rant about Dostana, it would be wrong to conclude that gay men can’t have feminine traits. It would be even more stupid to believe that heterosexual men can’t have feminine traits. It is ignorant to believe that the society-set norms of what is masculine and feminine is accurate and the universal truth.
There are a lot of stigmas attached with homosexuality. There is the cultural and religious stigma of sin. There’s also a stigma, derived from the social mindset, which makes many believe that being gay makes someone less of a man or woman.
Even sex between consenting heterosexual adults has been controversial as a topic. So its not surprising to see that homosexuality is still difficult to digest. But little is seen done to improve the social understanding and misconceptions around the topic.Om Prakash Singhal, the Vice President of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, praised the decision by the Supreme Court and said:
“This is a right decision, we welcome it. Homosexuality is against Indian culture, against nature and against science. We are regressing, going back to when we were almost like animals. The SC had protected our culture.”
We also have Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who supports section 377, calling homosexuality an unnatural act. We also have a Prime Minister who is silent in the middle of all this. Breaking the social barriers isn’t easy when political and media silence is deafening.
Hinduism has always had a presence of LGBT themes. So the argument of homosexuality being against our culture tends to fall short of any strong base. Our society is busy defending anti-gay ideals that were introduced and imposed by westerners and ironically, supporting gay rights makes you a westerner, outsider and anti-national. We are stuck in a social environment where we don’t understand or refuse to understand our own culture’s history. The liberation of the LGBTQ community lies in a forgotten culture. Its death, is written and implemented in the showcase of misunderstood traditions and ideals.
There is also a lack of importance given to the issue, mostly because we underestimate and downplay the consequence of such a law. A relative of mine once tried to rebut my concern for gay rights by terming it a ‘western issue’ which doesn’t really deserve to be a priority in India as of now. Social development of our citizens and gay rights are not mutually exclusive. The stigma around homosexuality restricts people from living a normal daily life. Prejudices and homophobia at workplaces, educational centres, housing complexes is prevalent everywhere. But we are used to turning a blind eye to it.
For example, various charities like Humsafar Trust notes that reports of abuse have almost trebled since Supreme Court’s monumental judgement, with Giani documenting 500 reports of abuse of LGBT people in the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in 2014. There has also been an increase in number of arrests under section 377, with 1,491 in 2015.
Section 377 also acts as a way for gangs to dupe gay men through online dating sites, meet them and take compromising pictures of them. The choice from there is simple – to either pay the sum as demanded or for the pictures to be sent to the police. Coughing up the money seems a much better option when compared to a possible arrest, up to 10 years in jail and the consequent social stigma. (More on blackmail and abuse faced by LGBT community)
A prime example of how legal frameworks fail to function without a social one comes from taking a look at our transgender community.
In 2014, the transgender community was finally awarded the status of “third gender” by the Supreme Court. During the judgement, it was pointed out that more than anything, the issue of transgenders was a human rights issue. A year later, the Rajya Sabha passed a bill, namely The Rights of Transgenders Persons Bill, 2014. The bill was ambitious, with aims to reduce and hopefully end discrimination, especially in the area of employment. But does equality on paper translate to absolute equality in society? If we look at past cases of rape, dowry and child marriage, which have strong legal wordings on paper to curtail it, has it been successful in implementation? The case of transgender rights is no exception.
The issues are grassroots ones. The lack of access to education and awareness from the start has led to many being unaware of this law and the protection of rights it guarantees for them. In an interesting article by DNA, the founder and director of Naz foundation simplifies for us the social problems. Lack of gender neutral toilets, lack of police sensitisation towards the community and the practice of sending transgender women to male prisons, which leads to trauma, abuse and exploitation. The fear of isolation also leads to failure of getting tested for sexual diseases, making the transgender community emerging as a high risk group, especially for HIV.
Criticism of the unjust social environment does not negate any positive steps taken by the judiciary or government. But its a warning sign that the world’s largest democracy needs to make more effort to integrate and protect its sexual minority. The idea of LGBTQ rights being exclusive to western countries undermines the silent plea of help coming from a community that enjoyed freedom for a few years before it was indefinitely taken away from them.
For many who came out of the closet post the 2009 judgement, life hasn’t been easy.
The perfect scenario for them would have been to move on to legalising LGBT rights after the celebrated decriminalisation of section 377. But the game of ping pong continued and seems to have stopped now with the ball being on the less desired side. In 2012, a year before the reverse judgement, there were about 2.5 million gay people in India. This is based on those who identified themselves voluntarily to the Ministry of Health. It would be natural to wonder about the numbers when we take into consideration those who were fearful to self declare due to family and society pressure. The belief that the question of the rights of 2.5 million (minimum) is not a matter of concern for our country and is a mere western issue, would be an insult to democracy which is suppose to be of the people, for the people, by the people, regardless of who the people love.
When it comes to religion and homosexuality, we need to prioritise sexual liberty and human dignity of an individual above all. If we are tolerant towards traditions, festival, food habits and dressing sense of different religions, then we can very well practice tolerance towards different sexual orientations. Each to its own, live and let live.
The recognition of homosexuality as a natural feeling rather than a ‘choice’ made by a person is extremely vital to the development of social acceptance towards the group. There is no correction to be made and there is no cure, as Mr. Baba Ramdev so proudly claims he has. I always have two questions for those who term homosexuality as a choice:
1) When did you decide to become a heterosexual?
2) Why would someone choose to live a life of constant fear, discrimination, exploitation and rejection from family and friends?
There are a few positive steps here and there, that keeps the feeling of optimism alive in many for a gay friendly India.
An example of such a positive step is a government app released by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, called Saathiya, that made headlines for its surprising acknowledgment of homosexual feelings and attraction.
The material states:
“Yes, adolescents frequently fall in love. They can feel attraction for a friend or any individual of the same or opposite sex. It is normal to have special feelings for someone. It is important for adolescents to understand that such relationships are based on mutual consent, trust, transparency and respect. It is alright to talk about such feelings to the person for whom you have them but always in a respectful manner.”
The wordings came as a breath of fresh air when everyone was choking up due to the silence and whispers around the topic. While this doesn’t change the legal and social scenario on a large scale, the acknowledgement of feelings for the opposite sex without the mention of any prejudice helps keep our hopes high that maybe the current government could be on track to reconsider its stance on section 377.
To conclude it all, legal frameworks in a country like India are bound to be rendered useless and ineffective without social development and improvement. What we face is a community which doesn’t enjoy either legal or social protection. Few politicians like Tharoor seem to be vocal about the issue. What we need is our population and moreover the youth of the country to come together and push for change. To talk to our parents and relatives about the topic and engage them in intelligent discussions equipped with facts to remove any prejudice about LGBTQ community.
India needs to stop treating this as an affair that it keeps revising, without recognising its existence.
Hopefully, one day, we can Make India Gay Again.