It has been described as ‘India’s Stonewall’, an ’historic ruling’ and ‘a major victory in the long battle for equality on the sub-continent’.
On the 2nd of July, 2009 the New Delhi High Court in India overturned a 148 year old law, which banned ‘homosexual acts’ as ‘unnatural offences’ and imposed 10 year gaol sentences for those participating in these acts. The ruling, celebrated by many and angering others, is an historic moment for queer rights and is evidence of how strong the queer rights movement is becoming in India, but also of how much work needs to be done.
The previous law, called ‘article 377’ was devastating to the queer community in India. Whilst convictions under the legislation were extremely rare (with none for the past twenty years) the ban made being an openly gay person in India extremely difficult. Reports from queer activists have stated that this legislation has been used widely as an excuse for state and community sponsored harassment of queer people and activists. Whether being threatened to be charged by the law from police or family, being harassed whilst participating in activist activities or being unable to seek medical help if one suspects they are infected with HIV/AIDs or other STIs, this law left many in India fearful of coming out as an openly queer person.
The importance of this ruling therefore, is not just one of removing legal discrimination, but is also about the metaphorical ‘coming out’ of the Indian queer community. As a movement that is quite young (with open groups only emerging around 15 years ago) the Indian queer rights movement have gained a large amount of strength and support in the past ten or so years. Sending a message that it is okay to be queer, the movement has provided LGBTIQ people in India with a strong support system in the face of difficulties provided by the homosexuality ban. This has lead to an increased opening up of Indian society, where more people are feeling okay about coming out as well as questioning the continued discrimination in Indian society.
This is clearly evident in the decision by the High Court. Whilst this ruling was based around the constitutionality of this legislation, there was an underlining theme in the decision stating that this was not just about constitutional rights, but also about removing stigma and increasing inclusiveness for India’s queer population. In other words, the panel, who were clearly influenced by the change in attitudes created by the queer movement, recognised that the removal of the homosexuality ban was an essential move to remove discrimination and create more acceptance of the LGBTIQ community in India. In the long run, the question will be whether this ruling can create this effect.
There is no doubt that this ruling will have an impact. Although it does not remove all discrimination in Indian legislation and will not bring an end to stigma within the Indian community, it will provide some extra momentum for the queer rights movement in the country. With no longer being threatened with the possibility of imprisonment and/or state sponsored harassment if one comes out as openly queer, it is likely that this decision will encourage more openness towards homosexuality, whether people are feeling more confident to come out as a queer person themselves or know someone who has. This in turn is likely lead to a growth in acceptance of homosexuality in India, which will only add to equality.
Equality comes after many steps and India certainly took a large one in July.