Don't tell Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown and their fellow Christofascists, but even in India - a country targeted by the National Organization for Marriage for fanning homophobia and attacking Starbucks for its pro-gay positions - gay rights are advancing. Part of the rise of gay rights correlates to the repeal of the British rule era Section 377 of the 1860 Penal Code, but in India education levels are soaring and, of course, access to the Internet make it even more difficult to keep the populace uninformed and ignorant on LGBT issues. An article in Newsweek looks at the in some ways rapid changes in attitudes in India. Here are some excerpts:
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Mumbai’s western suburb of Bandra—home to observant middle-class Roman Catholic and Sunni Muslim families—is packed with people strolling the seaside promenades. The main streets are abuzz with vendors selling cheap shoes and colorful scarves. On the quieter, tree-lined lanes, customers visit specialty boutiques.
Down the 16th Road, a rainbow flag hangs outside one such store: D’kloset. On its exterior, there is a mural of a man pulling another out of a closet. “No, no,” the latter says. “I’m not coming out.” D’kloset owner Inder Vhatwar will tell you that it is time for gay people in India to step out of the closet that has imprisoned them for more than a century.
Businesses targeted at gays, such as D’kloset, are still rare in India, but it is significant that such enterprises are opening at all in this largely conservative country, where until 2009 same-sex relations were considered a crime. “When I opened the store I thought that religious groups would come and break the glass,” said Vhatwar, who trained as a fashion designer in London. “But nothing happened.”
In the 149 years since homosexuality was outlawed by India’s colonial British administration, no government had the courage to repeal the law. That was left to the Delhi High Court: on July 2, 2009, the court decriminalized same-sex intercourse in a landmark case commonly referred to as 377, a reference to a section of the 1860 Penal Code that bans sexual activity “against the order of nature.” The decision was appealed earlier this year in the Supreme Court, which heard objections from 10 social and religious organizations.There are no official estimates of how many of India’s 1.2 billion people are gay or lesbian. . . . . The Humsafar Trust, an NGO promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) rights, puts the number at more than 70 million. Even before the 377 ruling, the most cosmopolitan among them had already started to go public. In 2008, fashion designer Sanjay Malhotra launched Indjapink, an online gay travel agency.
Even if the decision is upheld—as gay-rights groups and legal experts think it will be—India’s gays and lesbians will still not have the same rights as heterosexuals. They will have no protection against discrimination at work or school, or when buying or renting a house. Same-sex marriage will still not be legal, nor will adoption. Such advances will require new laws from India’s parliament—and no one expects that to happen any time soon.
Still, after more than a century of being spurned by their families, reviled in public and harassed by police, India’s gays and their supporters say the 377 ruling is encouraging a gradual emergence from the shadows. “They’re not so open with their families yet, but they feel relatively more free now,” said Anand Grover, lawyer and director of the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS Unit. While the situation remains difficult for many homosexuals, particularly in rural areas, Grover points to the new gay tourism market, the spread of queer parties at nightclubs, and the rising divorce rate among gay men who had previously been pressured to marry women.
There are indeed signs of a transition underway in India. Gay-themed businesses are opening in areas where they once would not have dared to flaunt their sexuality. In 2011, the soap opera Maryada: Lekin Kab Tak? (Honor: But at What Cost?) became the first TV serial to feature an openly gay character. Gay protesters have jettisoned the masks they used to protect their identities during equal-rights marches. Talk shows feature questions about homosexuality and venues host events explicitly marketed for gays and lesbians.
The Internet has been big in helping gay people find each other, gradually replacing cruising for partners in parks and public toilets. Websites like Facebook and guys4men.com have become the best way to find a gay sex partner, join gay social events, and participate in a LGBT community that is clearly tired of hiding.
The greatest push for LGBT openness is happening among India’s cultural elite, in the realms of academic and literature. This year, the government-run Indira Gandhi National Open University—the largest higher-learning institute in India—launched a post-graduate diploma program in Women’s and Gender studies, which includes courses on queer cinema, masculinity, and gender on television.
For many gays in India, the most important challenges begin closer to home—at home, actually. At the Humsafar Trust headquarters in Mumbai, many people arrive asking for advice and support in coming out. “A lot of people who meet up here are not ‘out’ to their families,” says Ankur Srivastava, from the youth group Yaariyan. He adds that it’s even harder for women, who have their own group called Umang. “It’s not that men have it easy, but many women don’t even have a chance,” Srivastava says. “They’re told that their first duty is to watch their husbands.”
Despite the difficulties, India’s gays and lesbians are trying to stay positive. There is evidence that the mainstream media and government would support the gay cause in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court refuses to uphold the 377 ruling. In February, a lawyer for the Home Ministry told the Supreme Court that homosexuality was immoral. Within a few hours, the ministry released a statement calling his word choice a “miscommunication” and declared he had been reading an outmoded statement. Several days later, the attorney general said that the federal government was not opposed to gay rights, and called the 1860 ban a law imposed by British colonialism and unreflective of Indian values. Lawyer Anand Grover agrees: “India never had a problem with homosexuality” before the arrival of Victorian-era Christianity in the 19th century, he says, noting that same-sex practices were tolerated in the culture when the British arrived.
Needless to say, I applaud the advances in India and hope they continue and increase in their pace. As for the hate merchants at NOM, I won't be shedding any tears at seeing their ground for sowing anti-gay hatred in India becoming less and less fertile.