LGBT Rights in India

Will Holmes

Will is a campaigner, political obsessive and sometime amateur actor. Having just helped win the election for Barack Obama, he's looking for his next cause to take up his life. Often seen walking the fields and drinking in the pubs of Kent, he's got a lot of opinions (and love) to share.

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From a Western, liberal, wealthy perspective, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was an inexorable progression towards total LGBT equality throughout the world. In just the past couple of years we’ve had equal marriage passed in numerous US states, France, the UK, Brazil, New Zealand, Uruguay and the Australian Capital Territory. More countries seem to be following suit, the leader of the most powerful nation in the world says he believes marriage should be for everyone, and LGBT people and relationships are becoming more obvious in our media, our entertainment, and our leaders.

However, the march of marriage equality in only the world’s most liberal nations allows us to ignore the fact that, for many, simple legal protections are a dream that are far from being realised. We all know what’s been going on in Russia in the past few years, with more draconian measures being brought in nationwide preventing people from espousing ‘homosexual propaganda’ for fear of influencing children. In Uganda there are plans to punish gay sex acts with the death penalty, or at best life imprisonment. And in India yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned a 2009 New Delhi High-Court ruling that Section 377 of the Penal Code is against the constitution of India. This Section declares that sexual acts ‘against the order of nature’ – widely agreed to include homosexual sex acts – are illegal, and punishable by ten years in prison.

In a move condemned across the world by LGBT rights groups, actors, the public and politicians, the Indian Supreme Court has seemingly thrown the country back into history – to a law that was brought in under British rule of South Asia. The former Head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth, and current Chair of the Kaleidoscope Trust, Dr Puma Den, has condemned the move as a ‘setback for India’ that ‘sets a worrying precedent’. Bollywood actors such as Anushka Sharma and Shruti Haasan took to Twitter to state their disappointment at the ruling. At the same time, religious groups in India such as the All India Muslim Personal Board and the yoga guru Swami Ramdev have celebrated the move, calling it a defence of the morality of India.

Now, it would be easy for me to say that this ruling flies in the face of Indian culture. Yes, the law was brought in by the British colonial powers, as part of the code installed on all colonies, against a history and tradition of same-sex relationships. And it is true that there are well documented stories in Hinduism of sex between two men or two women. And clearly, the opening up of India and the rapid modernisation of its giant cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi bring more opportunity for LGBT people to know that they are not alone, and meet others.

However, outside of these cities, and even within them, India is a deeply conservative country. It amazed me that India, a country where marriage and procreation are the drive for a young man or young woman, where caste is often more important than wealth, and where families can shun their daughters or sons for simply being unwed above a certain age, would decriminalise homosexual sex acts without a huge amount of international pressure. Religion plays a huge part in Indian culture, and with the leaders of Islam and Hinduism espousing hatred for LGBT people, it always seemed unlikely that LGBT people would be welcomed post-2009. And they weren’t – yes, sex acts between people of the same sex would no longer land people in jail, but in the majority of cases anyone attempting to live an openly LGBT life would be shunned, or regarded with humour, not respected or welcomed.

I suppose, however, its far more complicated than the black and white we see LGBT rights as in this country. Three years ago I spent time living and teaching in Bangladesh, a country that is obviously different to India, but a country which shares much history and tradition. There was no way I would have been able to live an openly gay life and continue to teach children; I would have been branded a corruptor or paedophile immediately. However, I did have the opportunity to talk to some Bangladeshis and Indians working in the country about homosexuality, with the belief that they would tell me these acts were disgusting, against nature, or immoral. I was surprised.

The wealthy I spoke to certainly knew gay people, and welcomed them into their homes as cooks, butlers or cleaners. Others were clear that sex acts between boys and young men were relatively common, especially as sex outside of marriage is such a sin. British and American people I met that had lived in the country for a few years confirmed this to me. The laws against homosexual sex acts were hardly ever used to put people in jail (of course, they were used to harass gay people, which is just as bad). The caveat throughout these conversations was always that homosexual sex acts were commonplace, and nigh on accepted – especially between men, but perhaps not between women –as long as these same people got married and had children, and supported their parents.

In India and Bangladesh, even sex acts between men and women were a serious taboo, and you’d be far more likely to see two men walking down the street holding hands than a man and a woman, even in some of the most liberal parts of the country. I have even, bizarrely, read stories of men in India coming out to their parents as LGBT, and in a loving relationship, only to be met with calls for them to be married in a private ceremony at home – conversely marriage laws in India do not specifically ban same-sex unions. Hindus even worship gods that are transgender, and gods that engage in sex acts with the same sex.

Clearly, the situation for LGBT Indians is awful, and we should support them in their fight to bring the case to Parliament for repeal of Section 377, and for them to have full recognition, legal equality and protection. However, seeing the LGBT movement globally in the same black and white way we see it in the Western world ignores the traditions, culture and history of a country like India. Culture and tradition should never be used as an excuse to torment minority groups, but in order to support LGBT people in India we need to understand these traditions, and work within them, rather than attempting to install upon people our Western viewpoint and traditions. I am certain that, one day, we will have global equality for LGBT people – but we will only do so through dialogue, and through understanding.