Will Supreme Court ruling on Section 377 change India’s social attitude?
Urvi was in Class 6 when she realised she didn’t identify with the gender assigned to her at birth. But confusion and fear of abuse and humiliation stopped her from telling her mother. She had lost her father early and the only other person she could turn to was her sister. “She was not alright with my gender identity,” says the 21-year-old engineering student, who was a part of the petitions against Section 377 in the Supreme Court.
Thursday brought her cheer. “I called my sister, and she had seen the news, and read articles, and said, ‘I am so happy for you people’; I think she was convinced by my academic achievements,” adds Urvi, who has received two prestigious national science fellowships and used a different name in the petition.
“Section 377 doesn’t let people accept themselves. This judgment I hope will remove stigma from society and help people embrace themselves,” says Urvi. Her parents still don’t know she is a petitioner.
Urvi’s hopes are shared by millions of people belonging to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. Central to the Supreme Court’s reading down of Section 377 is the connection between legal decision and social attitudes. But how much does the law drive society? And, what are its limitations?
First, a look at the current social acceptance of same-sex relationships. A study spanning 19 states by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2016 found strong views against homosexuality, but revealed some interesting trends: 61% of the respondents thought love between two men or two women was wrong. Only a fourth of the respondents approved of a relationship between two men or two women.
The youngest respondents (15 to 17 years of age) were more approving of same-sex relationships than people in an older demographic; 31% of people between 15 and 17 said they were alright with two men in love, while only 21% of people between 30 and 34 years of age said they approved of the same.
Many studies worldwide have argued that faith plays a pivotal role in shaping attitudes towards homosexuality. The CSDS study quotes a Pew Research Center survey in 2013 across 39 countries that found a strong relationship between religiosity and opinion about homosexuality. But the CSDS study found those who said they were more religious in practice approved more of homosexuality than those who said they were not religious at all.
This suggested religion doesn’t play as big a role as is popularly assumed.
The study also found those from big cities were in far less approval of same-sex relationships than those in smaller cities or even villages, shattering the notion that same-sex relationships are limited to big urban centres and villages are a morass of homophobia.
But how does a change in law help in shifting social attitudes? A 2017 study by Charles Kenny and Dev Patel at the Centre for Global Development found that in the last three decades, the proportion of the world that report they do not want to live next to a gay or lesbian individual has dropped by about 10 percentage points. Over the same period, more than 50 countries have legalised same sex relationships. This suggests both that attitudes inform legal change but also that policymakers can shift public opinion about beliefs through legal reform.
“Our research suggests the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India would improve social attitudes, with more citizens believing their communities are an inclusive and supportive environment for same-sex couples,” said Patel in an email.
He also added that the study found a find strong positive correlation that former British colonies were more likely to outlaw homosexuality.
Activists agreed, saying that activism, in offices, educational institutions, on the streets and in popular culture, has shifted the needle with the courts, and normalised same-sex relationships.
But to reap real social change from the law, that activism will have to continue.