Section 377, 3 years on: Want the pace of change to accelerate
Mainstream society needs to step up. It is not the onus of LGBTQ persons alone to struggle and fight for change
Three years after the Section 377 verdict, which read down the criminalization of adult consensual same sex desire, while we have made progress in addressing the inequality that faces the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex (LGBTQI+) community, there’s a lot that still needs to be done to translate that verdict, as well as some of the others that came before it into reality. With the 2014 Nalsa judgment, which recognized the gender identity of transpersons, the 2017 nine-judge bench decision on privacy, which read it as a fundamental right of all citizens and the Navtej Johar verdict of 2018 which read down Section 377, a momentum was gathering: it was one of equal rights to LGBTQI+ citizens. Now, three years on, what we have is, at best, non-criminality.
What will it take for us to move towards more equality? In a post-Covid world, I would want the pace of change to accelerate in two areas.
The first is the law, where I would like to see progress on a meaningful anti-discrimination law that protects the rights of LGBTQ+ people and other minorities. This would be useful to enhance the thrust of Navtej verdict and the others that preceded it. Many community organizations and individuals are also moving court to rectify some provisions of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, because many feel that it doesn’t serve transpersons meaningfully in its current form. Thirdly, there is the issue of marriage equality. There is a long road ahead for this but given our strong socio-cultural imperative towards marriage, the right to choose to enter into this institution in the same way that heterosexual Indian citizens can choose to do so, is a big step towards equality of queer citizens of India.
But the law is only part of the equation. Social realities are the other. I would want the family, the workplace, educational institutions, and even media, to become more inclusive. There are already small pockets of change, as I’ve detailed in Queeristan. There are so many instances of birth families of LGBTQ+ persons accepting them and their partners. There are educational institutions that have created incredible environments for queer students. There have been so many workplaces, both in the private and public sectors that are conducting inclusive hiring. A World Bank report published in 2014 calculated that homophobia had cost India up to $30.8 billion in 2012 alone.
It’s this sort of regularization of queer people that I want to see more of. This is how society shifts: when we are present everywhere, when our presence is imagined and included as normal and not as tokenism or comic relief, that’s how the spirit of the Navtej verdict will translate into lived reality.
For this to happen, mainstream society needs to step up. It is not the onus of LGBTQ persons alone to struggle and fight for these changes; we are only 6 to 10% of the population. It’s time for mainstream society to be an ally and join the inclusion revolution. For years, queer people have been doing the labour of arguing, doing advocacy, and asking for inclusion. It’s time for mainstream societies to understand that by creating these spaces for all of us to flourish in, is ultimately to their advantage. Take for instance what Dalit and trans rights activist Grace Banu has done in Tamil Nadu: a trans-led milk cooperative has come up in Thoothukudi with the help of public and private enterprise and this benefits everyone. This is a template for a queer inclusive future.
What also excites me is how many intersectional queer organizations are being formed to platform and bring forward queer voices or experiences that were hitherto marginalized, such as the Ya-All community organization in Manipur or the Queer Muslim Project or the Dalit Queer Project, among others. This articulation of various kinds of diverse queer experiences is important because it reminds us that the struggle for queer rights is linked to other struggles of different communities. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: a better, more equal and inclusive world.
Work by scholars like the recently deceased historian Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita, a professor at the University of Montana reveal that queer identity is very much situated in Indianness. Inclusiveness is a very Indian thing to do. This argument has to be made not just in courts, but also in families and workplaces and educational spaces. What is alien is discrimination.
(Parmesh Shahani is the author of Queeristan: LGBT Inclusion at the Indian Workplace, a TED Senior Fellow and a Yale World Fellow. He is the founder of the Godrej Culture Lab and has advised many leading companies on LGBT inclusion programmes)