When Edith Windsor, an 83-year old New York resident, lost her partner Thea Spyer in 2009, she was slapped with a $363,000 tax bill.
Despite being married in Canada — where same-sex marriage is legal — in 2007 after a 40-year relationship, the US government invoked the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) against Windsor.
Because of the 1996 law, which outlaws same-sex marriage, a hefty tax was levied on her late wife’s estate — a tax Windsor would not have had to pay had she been married to a man. Defiant, she took her case to the Supreme Court, where she argued last week that DOMA violates the US Constitution.
Same-sex couples in India can only dream of fighting for equal rights the way Windsor is doing. Benefits such as tax deductions, inheritance and pensions in case of the spouse’s death — all available to heterosexual couples under the law — are denied to gay unions.
Countries such as Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands grant such rights to all couples, gay or straight.
For Sridhar, 50, a Mumbai-based filmmaker who lives with his partner of 19 years, the lack of legal rights is a serious problem. “So many forces are already trying to pull a gay couple apart; if I can’t even share my income and assets with my partner, what does he do in a moment of crisis? This is one of the reasons why our relationships are so fragile,” he said.
Sridhar's issues find wider resonance in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. A 2012 study by the World Bank, Amaltas (a development consultancy), and the Humsafar Trust, a gay rights organisation, revealed that civil entitlements of “safe spaces, social security, property and inheritance” are the community's top priorities in India.
Senior advocate Anand Grover, who led the 2009 case for the repeal of Article 377, which criminalised homosexuality, feels there is a long way to go before gay couples can achieve legal equality. “In case there is no will, the ‘partner’ has no legal rights of inheritance,” he said. The list goes on: No claims on pension after the partner’s death, no tax deductions in case the partner is not working. “For instance, a working heterosexual partner can pay insurance premium, PPF or NSS on behalf of the spouse and children and get a deduction, but this doesn't apply to homosexual unions,” he added.
Attitudes take even longer to change than laws. Bullied at school for being 'different', Gautam Dhawan said he still faces discrimination. “My partner is not even regarded as a next of kin for health and medical decisions,” said the 36-year old interior designer, who has been in a relationship for a year.
Even the most basic services, such as opening a joint bank account, are almost impossible for same-sex couples. Highlighting the legal quagmires they face in the country, Ashok Row Kavi, writer-founder of Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine, said, “In case of inheritance, if a Muslim gay man dies, his will would not be respected and Muslim law gets primacy unless the partner had an affidavit declaring he is not a practicing Muslim and an apostate. It’s not better for Hindus – different castes have different laws.”
“India still a long way to go to recognise equal rights for women; equalising gay marriage is a far way off,” lamented Dhawan.