In 1991, the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, an independent, non-funded political movement that had begun in the ’80s when the horror of HIV/AIDS had just begun to unfold, filed for the repeal of Section 377.
In 2001, the Naz Foundation, a foreign-funded NGO, filed a PIL watering down the demand for the reading down of Section 377 to exclude private, consensual gay sex.
It sought the help of another NGO, the Lawyer’s Collective, and unofficial help from slick gay lawyers from yet more foreign-funded NGOs.
The differences between these two moments tell us the story of the LGBT movement, which became the “queer movement” in India.
The first was a committed, penniless, bedraggled group who were political, angry, seeing discrimination around HIV/AIDS first-hand and seeking to intervene. The second was a posh South Delhi NGO, which mushroomed into a ‘movement’ of elite lawyers armed with foreign judgments and NGOspeak in lieu of politics.
A progressive bench in the high court gave them their pyrrhic victory (the reading down of Section 377 to allow consensual sex between people in Delhi) which they celebrated as the end of the world as we knew it.
But what had that judgment really changed and what does its striking down change now?
People of the same sex who could afford bedrooms were having and will be having sex in them before and after both judgments. The usual chorus of homophobes (religious groups, psycho babas, conservative groups pretending to be fighting for child and minority rights) will clap and cheer. We were not legal subjects then and we are not legal subjects now.
The world for hijras soliciting sex, for Dalit and adivasi women running away from home to try and survive with each other against all odds, for middle and lower class women who run away and are hounded by their parents and accused of abduction, for male working class and sex workers who are raped and beaten daily, for the gender-bending among us who face taunts, abuse and harassment every day of our lives on the metro and on the streets, in our families and in our beds, will not change. It did not change in 2009 and it will not change now.
When will we realise that true democratic changes do not come from lip-service to fanciful words from the book of nationalist clichés but from confronting and challenging hostility to difference? When will we realise that it comes from emulating the work Ambedkar did, not just citing him? It comes from working with hijras, not just using their pain to gain street cred.
It comes from working with same-sex identified and marginalised women who must be stopped from committing suicide, not urban men who dress up in the evening for sex and become an identity category for NGOs. It comes from standing up for who and what you are everyday and not just one day of marching down the street like a colourful parrot followed by a party.
The battle against Section 377 and homophobia in this country has not yet even begun.
(The author is an academician and gay rights activist)