Coming out in Force: The Rise of the Gay Rights Movement in India

By Lalwani, Sheila B. | Kennedy School Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Coming out in Force: The Rise of the Gay Rights Movement in India


Lalwani, Sheila B., Kennedy School Review


"OPEN THE DOOR! DOWN WITH SECTION 377!"

Moments after the sunset in Delhi in July 2008, several hundred gay men and women rallied for the first time through the streets, shouting for the repeal of a century-old law that criminalizes homosexuality. "Long live the queer movement! Open the door! Down with Section 377!" Demonstrators, many of them hiding behind masks, protested in front of government buildings, calling for justice and social equity. But motorists, no strangers to political rallies and accustomed to honking as a show of support, remained silent.

Similar protests took place in Bangalore and Kolkata, where scores of anxious police officers stood nearby in case violence broke out. Dozens of journalists and cameramen documented the city's first-ever gay rights parade, and the next day, every major Indian newspaper featured a story on the event. Days later, the Delhi High Court postponed making a decision on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a remnant of colonialism that outlaws homosexuality. Gay rights activists expected the delay and vowed to continue pressing for gay rights despite the setback. "Our parents are not supportive, so how can you expect the government to be supportive?" one protester questioned, hiding behind a mask. "We are here because we are strong, and there are many more like us."

The rise of the gay community in India reflects the conflicting terrain of an ancient society rising in world prominence and embracing a Western lifestyle, while also resisting influences that threaten deeply held values. Bolstered by the legalization of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont, Indian activists believe the moment for them to remain closeted in conservative Indian society has passed.

"It will be repealed," said Aditya Bondyopadhyay, a prominent attorney in Delhi who has been part of the gay rights movement for nearly a decade. "I'm not going to give you a time frame, but I'm more than certain it's on its way out. Legally speaking, morally speaking, there is no way the court can justify the law."

HISTORY OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN INDIA

The gay community largely lived in the shadows of Indian society until about a decade ago. The Naz Foundation, a Delhi-based sexual rights organization, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in 2001 to overturn the part of the law that criminalizes homosexuality. Over the years, Section 377 has rarely been used to prosecute homosexuals, but it remains a tool to threaten, blackmail, and extort money from this community. Gay rights organizations also charge that the law has hindered HIV prevention efforts. Since the Naz Foundation filed its 2001 petition, other gay rights groups in India have joined the effort, marking the beginning of a new, confrontational period between gay rights groups and the government.

CONFRONTING CULTURAL VALUES

In India, where marriage and traditional family life are social priorities, children who come out to their parents can be disowned or ostracized from the family. …

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