Let’s talk about 377 | Law says I’m a criminal, that’s unacceptable: Ritu Dalmia
In Part 1 of our series, Let’s Talk About 377, restaurateur Ritu Dalmia asks the Supreme Court to decriminalise the archaic law, arguing that it impinges on dignity and privacy.
When I was young, I didn’t know what a homosexual was. I was shy, even prudish, but always rebellious. I gave up my job at my father’s marble and granite business and started a restaurant when I was 23 years old. I come from a conservative, Marwari family but have always made my choices. I remember walking around the house with my father’s briefcase, and while nobody took me seriously, I was scripting my freedom.
I have never had any self-doubts about my choices, professional or personal. My relations with women have always been very strong. Even as a child, I remember I always wanted to impress women. I realised I was a lesbian when I met another woman and felt deep love. I was 23 and even back then I never thought, ‘Will I be in trouble?’ I have never been scared, not even of the realisation that I was different.
Unlike me, my partner grappled with her sexual orientation for a long time; not because there was lack of love. A lot of people struggle because of social pressure, because internally you feel you are doing something different and, of course, there’s the law.
In the eyes of the law, I am a criminal and that is unacceptable.
According to the Indian Penal Code, people like me are guilty of “unnatural offences”. The law book, left behind by the British, tries to govern our lives through Section 377 and can imprison us for a term of life for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”.
I am many things but I am not a criminal, and a coward I am not. I am a celebrated chef with seven restaurants around the world. I want to be known as a chef; not as a lesbian chef.
I have never been in the closet but I don’t feel the need to wear a T-shirt announcing my sexuality. My family and friends, who matter, know me for what I am. After a four-year stint in London, I returned to Delhi and decided to speak to my parents. My mother just went silent. Two days later, she sent a box of mangoes to my partner.
I am not an activist and have no desire to be one but I have now signed a petition seeking a review of a colonial-era law that criminalises consensual same-sex-relations between adults. I now believe none of us has the right to expect a change without doing our bit to bring about that change. A few years ago, I joined the gay pride in Delhi.
I have never been ashamed of my orientation, but now can’t bear the ways in which members from my community are discriminated against. The freedom to love is not just about sexuality, but how do you begin to explain that? We become vulnerable to blackmail and extortion by the police and even by domestic helps or drivers. The horrific section called 377 is used as a tool to scare and intimidate. What I do within my home should be my business. I am a worthy, tax-paying citizen like the rest of you.
I was disturbed when two young girls who fell in love were arrested and one was raped by villagers who thought the extreme act of sexual assault would “cure” her. How can love between two human beings be a criminal act?
Frankly, I don’t even care about acceptance but how dare you label me a criminal? The truth is that I live in New Delhi, am financially independent and fairly well-known. All these help protect me but one only has to visit smaller cities, or go to villages to find out more about discrimination. I’ll also say that it’s not only about class and money; it is also about the environment. Imagine a mindset in which girls are raped in the belief that they’ll become straight.
I was cautioned about signing the petition. I was told that it would have repercussions on my daily life, but I have to do my bit. We are not asking to be treated as a minority; we’re not asking for quotas and reservations; only dignity and privacy to be who we are.
I realised I’m also putting my family and friends in the limelight. One of my relatives actually asked my mother if my partner and I were sleeping in the same bed. I was prepared to be beaten by a conservative woman like my mother, for her to be crying, but she stands by me like a rock. When I broke up with my partner, she was worried that her daughter would be lonely.
I have had several messages since I signed the petition, calling me a pervert, asking me to go to an ashram etc but I have had more than double the number of texts appreciating the stand that I have taken.
Homosexuality is not a crime. It has been part of our texts and our temples. Our mythology is full of it. The Victorians came and changed it and the law criminalising it needs to change too.
I am mighty proud of myself. I am a businesswoman, not an activist. Yes, let’s talk about 377.
(Ritu Dalmia is a chef and restaurateur. )
This is the first part of Let’s Talk About 377, a five-part series on the challenges faced by India’s LGBT community. Join the conversation with #LetsTalkAbout377 on social media or send us your stories and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.