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India's turn to say 'yes': Lessons from Irish vote on same-sex marriage

columns Updated: May 23, 2015 21:59 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Same Sex Marriage


Matrimonial ads are to India what dating websites are to less conservative societies. The only difference is that the people seeking perfect partners -grooms who don't drink or smoke and "earn in five-figures" and women who are beautiful, educated and "homely" -- are the parents of men and women seeking partners.

In keeping with the great Indian tradition of parents looking for "life-partners" for their children, Padma Iyer this week placed an ad in a Mumbai tabloid "Seeking 25-40, Well Placed, Animal-Loving, Vegetarian Groom for my son (36, 5'11'') who works with an NGO."

The ad made headlines for being India's first matrimonial ad seeking a same-sex partner in India where homosexuality is considered unnatural and remains illegal.

Read: Gay matrimonial ad, placed by activist's mother, attracts 73 proposals

Even if Mrs Iyer's ad lead her to Mr Perfect for her son Harish Iyer, he would not be able to go ahead with a wedding as India doesn't recognise same-sex marriages. In 2009, Delhi High Court ruled in favour of scrapping Article 377, the archaic law that criminalises same sex acts among adults, but India's Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 2013. Though prosecutions under Article 377 are rare, homosexuals in India face stigma and police harassment, which drives them underground and impinges on their rights to life, health and equality.

*Equality for all
In the week that Mrs Iyer struggled to get the controversial ad placed in newspapers, Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage through a popular vote. More than 3 million people cast their vote over 15 hours on Friday, with those voting in favour of equal rights for same-sex couples establishing an early lead when counting began on Saturday.

There was tremendous political support "for love and for equality", said Ireland's prime minister Enda Kenny as he urged people to vote "yes" in his final live televised interview before polling. Ireland's Health Minister Leo Varadkar - whose father is Indian - announced he was gay on public radio on his 36th birthday in January this year, just months before the same-sex marriage referendum.

"I'm calling it. Key boxes opened. It's a yes. And a landslide across Dublin. And I'm so proud to be Irish today," said Minister for Equality Aodhan O Riordain on Twitter, just hours before the Catholic-majority population voted in favour of equality for all.

Around 20 countries worldwide have legalised gay marriage, but Ireland will be the first to do so through a referendum. It's a stunning victory for a country where homosexual acts were illegal as recently as 1993. Same-sex couples have been able to enter civil partnership in Ireland since 2011.

As in India, there was opposition to the same-sex marriage referendum from right-wing conservatives who evoked God and tradition, but popular vote - largely young voters - sought equal rights.

*Natural choice
Though India is one of the few countries that legally recognises the third gender and gay-rights activists are getting increasing popular support, India ranked 81 among 127 countries ranked in the Gay Happiness Index compiled by Planet Romeo, a popular dating app that surveyed 7,100 people in India among one lakh global respondents earlier this year.

Most people can't comprehend that homosexuality is a sexual orientation - not behaviour, which connotes choice -- that you are born with and not a behaviour you learn or something you choose to do. "It's like being born left-handed, it is what you are and there's nothing you can do about it.

Being homosexual is not a choice a person makes. Why should anyone choose a sexual preference that is not accepted by society and be subjected to stigma and discrimination?" is how gay activist and former UNAIDS consultant Ashok Row Kavi succinctly described it to me.

For years, homosexuality was wrongly classified as a mental disorder that could be treated. In 1992, the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from the category of mental illness. The UK government did the same in 1994, followed by the Ministry of Health in the Russian Federation in 1999 and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry in 2001. Nepal became the first country in South Asia to decriminalise homosexuality in 2007.

Over the last two decades, there has been a trend towards increased visibility, recognition, and legal rights for homosexuals, including marriage and civil unions, parenting rights, and equal access to healthcare. Cultural and religious beliefs are the biggest hurdle to gay rights, with many religions institutions and leaders refusing to accept the positions of medical organisations. This week, conservative Ireland's vote for equal rights may be the first step to change that.


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