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Gays prepare for bigger battle

For gay, lesbian and bisexual Indians, it was the first breath of air after years of struggle. For many others, it was a “rude slap” to “Indian culture” and “morality”.
Hindustan Times | By Aarefa Johari, Mumbai
UPDATED ON JUL 01, 2010 12:36 AM IST

For gay, lesbian and bisexual Indians, it was the first breath of air after years of struggle. For many others, it was a “rude slap” to “Indian culture” and “morality”. But what happened in the Delhi High Court on July 2 last year — a reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to decriminalise consensual homosexual sex among adults — was groundbreaking any way you look at it.

Much has happened since then — Mumbai hosted two gay film festivals, an online gay bookstore was recently launched and gay parties mushroomed.

In contrast, religious leaders joined forces to challenge the judgement in the Supreme Court, and a gay professor in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was suspended. He later committed suicide.

So while the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community prepares for euphoric anniversary celebrations, its members are divided on how much the ground reality has changed for it.

“Perhaps the biggest outcome of the judgement was the media attention and debate it generated. People were forced to think and learn more, and maybe take a stand,” said Nitin Karani, a trustee of the Humsafar Trust that works for HIV prevention and gay rights advocacy.

“In the case of Dr S. Siras [the AMU professor], the community was more vocal about its displeasure,” said Karani, who attests to a clear boost in the LGBT community’s confidence levels.

Though Pallav Patankar, director of Humsafar’s HIV programme, said it is mainly the well-read, English-educated people who were empowered by the ruling, he agreed with Karani. “I have seen a lot of young people, particularly 16- and 17-year-olds, bursting to come out of the closet this year. The ruling also made it easier for health workers like us to reach certain pockets where the police was more hostile.”

Few were willing to go on record about their experiences of coming out, but some did feel the winds of change.

“Though I came out three years ago, I was able to have long discussions with my parents only after the ruling. Now my mother is open to meeting any partner I’d choose,” said a 27-year-old professional in a multinational corporation. He added that the legal assurance that they would not be arrested has made a lot of homosexuals more relaxed.

However, he is not so optimistic about the workplace. “My organisation has a no-discrimination policy, but people at work still tease me and crack jokes perpetuating stereotypes.”

This echoes the feeling among many activists that the judgement may be right legally, but has had only a superficial impact socially. For instance, Mumbai’s gay party scene has grown more vibrant this year, but continues to attract a social stigma.

“Our parties are often ridiculed and questioned by the straight community. Policemen, unaware of the new judgement, pass lewd remarks and try to stop us,” said Rovan, who launched Club Whitenights Fiesta last year to provide a platform for homosexuals to socialise freely. Even within the community, Rovan has seen limited change. “It’s the same crowd that frequents the parties. Most of them don’t wish to come out in public.”

According to Harish Sadani, honorary secretary of gender-sensitisation group Men Against Violence and Abuse, the middle-class is still in denial. “The ruling increased confidence within the LGBT community, but failed to generate sufficient dialogue with those outside it,” he said.

Jasmir Thakur, founder of the gender, sexuality and child protection NGO Samabhavana Society, is more vocal: “A year since the ruling, there is no organised, collective movement for serious advocacy of gay rights. It was a small step and an important precedent, but we could have taken a larger step.”

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