A predominantly Catholic country, Ireland, voting to legalise same-sex marriage in a first-of-its-kind referendum has been cheered for being a huge victory for human rights. Activists have hailed it and called for similar referendums in other countries, saying only a popular vote will show conservatives how out of tune they are with modern liberal values.
A ballot victory may be heartening for same-sex marriage proponents but human rights cannot be left to the whims of the majority — especially in countries where the majority isn’t in favour of the right being bestowed on the minority.
Poll triumphs are often public relations exercises adjusted to play up to the comforts of the majority community — for example, the wildly successful marriage equality campaign in the US playing up an image of white-suburban-upper middle class gay men, often leaving out women, persons of colour or urban poor. Victories may have little to do with the merit of the issue on the ballot and depend on what demographics it appeals to — Ireland’s abortion ban, for example, disproportionately affects working, unwed women of lower-middle classes, who cannot travel to neighbouring Britain for the procedure. This also sets a dangerous precedent for countries such as India, where a hostile majority is, at best, unconcerned about minority rights, and not just that of the LGBTQ population. To follow the model of the West is to say that one doesn’t deserve the rights accorded to everyone else automatically and must go through some process of validation by the majority, who somehow become the arbitrator for such rights.
Indian activists have wisely followed the twin models of grassroots advocacy and judicial intervention, an approach that ensures that the majority gets sensitised without making them central to the collective bargaining for rights. Unfortunately, the process has been dealt a crushing, but temporary, blow by the Supreme Court. But to think about putting the question of decriminalising homosexuality is to further the SC’s argument — that rights can be taken away from a “minuscule minority”. Why must one prove one isn’t a minority or get a stamp of approval from others for what is rightfully mine? The lure of polling also gives rise to the spectre of dropping unpopular causes, such as the Human Rights Campaign in the US, which has repeatedly been accused of alienating people of colour and trans-people to appeal to a broader cross section of the population. Imagine in India, if the possibility of a narrow referendum win set the LGBTQ movement against the women’s movement or the Dalit rights activists — all of whom today, at least at some level, endorse each other’s claims to a just society.
The right to live with dignity, not as a criminal, to marry one’s loved ones, to be entitled to the same benefits as everyone else are inalienable rights, demands that need not be approved by anyone else. Ireland’s marriage victory is momentous but to put such questions to vote may be diluting the sanctity of the demand.
India needs to accept and acknowledge its queer people. Such acceptance, however, has to come on the terms of those who have been historically oppressed. There are plenty of positive lessons we can take from the European nation, including a surge in young votes for same-sex marriage, but voting on rights isn’t one of them.