Apart from a staple of not-so-funny homophobic jokes, among the stranger things I have heard in the past few weeks is an objection to why we in the media are talking about homosexuality at all. The complaint usually follows a predictable trajectory. “I’m all for live and let live,” is how the sentence usually starts off; then it lapses into ifs and buts. “But, must we devote so much time and space to it,” or “Must we be so explicit and celebratory?” And then the final one, designed to tap into good middle-class guilt — “Aren’t there more important things to talk about, like the monsoon, the economy or the state of India’s farmers?” (Ironic, that the wall-to-wall coverage of MJ’s death didn’t evoke any such whining and whingeing.)
The truth is that contrary to what the carpers are saying, the gay rights debate is not about sex at all; it’s about principles. It’s about the right to personal liberty and the willingness of a forward-looking government to play the role of constitutional defender. It deserves all the public attention it’s getting because this debate is about diversity and democracy. And whether a secular state can manage to keep the clergy at a safe distance from the judiciary.
To all the holy men who have shown a rare convergence of views on what God may think about same-sex sin, I have the same question they have. Aren’t there more important things that deserve their ire? Did our swamis, priests and maulvis ever show the same frenetic energy when it came to the Babri Masjid dispute or the conversions controversy or the fight over Ram Sethu? Religious orthodoxy will always be at odds with a changing society on everything from how you should dress to whether your daughter is entitled to divorce rights. That simply cannot and should not determine a State’s philosophical centre. In any case, the compromise and surrender, when it happens, is usually at the altar of politics, rather than faith.
Think about the reversal of the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case (on alimony rights for Muslim women) and you know what I mean. I don’t mean to undermine how important it is for believers to have the endorsement of a higher being. Many gay people I know initially struggled with their sexuality precisely because they felt “sinful” or isolated within their faiths. De-criminalising homosexuality won’t end the social marginalisation of gay people, in the same way that anti-dowry laws haven’t stopped girls from being burned on stoves. But, it’s the duty of the law to take the first step and provide refuge to those who seek it. It’s the duty of the State to leave its hunting shoes firmly outside the citizen’s
bedrooms. And it’s the duty of the legislature to help the reform process or at the very least not stop it.
Manmohan Singh’s government initially showed all the right instincts. Several party members went on record to express a personal approval for changing an archaic law. And then all of a sudden, everyone seemed to get terribly nervous. I’m pretty sure most of the relevant ministers are privately in favour of scrapping an antiquated piece of legislation. But they seemed to have been forced into public ambivalence by the pulls and pressures of politics. This is a real pity because it shouldn’t always be left to the courts to set the agenda for change. And the government needn’t see homosexuality through the prism of morality. It would be sufficient for it to debate gay rights in the larger framework of constitutional entitlement. As for public opinion, I’m sure the government needn’t worry too much. It’s my sense that Indians are most comfortable with a don’t ask-don’t-tell- bedroom policy.
The queasiness that may be on display is less to do with any serious opposition to people’s private sexual choices and more to do with the discomfort of having to discuss them. Despite manufactured hyper-sexuality in our films and on our magazine covers, we Indians basically like to look the other way. The gay rights debate may have got under our skin because it can play a challenger to our own moral hypocrisies. Most people I have spoken to would be happy if the law changed, but did so quietly and without the sound and fury. But that can never be in the nature of real change. And it may actually do us all a lot of good to take a hard look in the mirror and reflect on whether we actually live our imagined moral preferences.
One of the objections that comes up again and again is the suggestion that de-criminalising homosexuality would mean the end of The Family. This is perhaps the most ludicrous argument. In an age of singlehood, late marriages, divorce, adulterous affairs and couples who opt not to have children, procreation can hardly be the definitive hallmark of the family unit. And in any case, isn’t our burgeoning population proof enough, were any needed, that there are more people on this planet than is good for it? To treat same-sex relationships, as a sort of doomsday prophecy for the human race is somewhat stupid, isn’t it?
Basically it boils down this. Let’s say you are the sort who feels repulsed at the thought of a man having sex with a man and would rather not know the sordid details. Let’s even say you enjoy a few queer jokes and really don’t relate to the whole gay parade thing. That’s fine; you don’t have to. But do you honestly feel that the people you may want to snigger about every now and then are criminals? Do you really believe that the democracy that gives you your personal freedom shouldn’t give them theirs? Think about it. I’m sure you already know the answer.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal