In the hit Indian film Kal Ho Na Ho, a housekeeper finds her charge and his male buddy horsing around and — assuming that they are in a relationship — faints with shock. Despite several serious gay-themed movies made in India, mainstream cinema tends to treat the LGBT community as a source of ridicule, but sometimes, like in this film, highlights the over-the-top reaction to same-sex relationships.
In a country where Parliament recently refused to even put forward a Bill to address Section 377 of the penal code, which criminalises same-sex relationships, the trope of the fainting housekeeper resonates: Much work needs to be done to change public attitudes and reduce the hysteria over so-called traditional values. The Private Member Bill proposed by Shashi Tharoor had sought to respond to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling when it overturned a Delhi High Court decision to repeal Section 377, saying that altering the law should be the remit of the legislature.
Homophobic hectoring and public humiliation have led to some tragic consequences. In Agra, a 15-year-old boy was apparently seen by a neighbour with his male partner. News spread, teasing and harassment followed. Humiliated, he locked himself in his room for two days. On January 4, he set himself on fire, unable to endure the bullying.
This incident is a tragic reminder of why India needs to address LGBT discrimination. A 2006 study with a group of men who have sex with men in India and Bangladesh conducted by the sexual health NGO, Naz Foundation, found that 50% had endured harassment by fellow students or teachers in school or college because they were perceived to be effeminate. In addition, 45% said that their sexual preference had limited their employment opportunities, while 28% said that they had considered or attempted suicide.
India is now at a crossroads where the rights of LGBT people are openly discussed. The most urgent need is repealing India’s archaic law criminalising same-sex relationships. Even if rarely invoked, Section 377 reinforces the idea that discrimination and other types of mistreatment of LGBT people are acceptable in society.
Senior politicians and judges have spoken out against the law. Soon after he retired from the Supreme Court, Justice Vikramjit Sen said: “The society is mature enough to make its choices and exercise sexual preferences in private. Why a penal law and a court have to regulate what you do in private? Personal choices are to be validated if they do not violate anybody else’s rights.” That view needs to prevail before misguided bullying claims more lives.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
The views expressed are personal.