In a corner of the main thoroughfare at Jantar Mantar, the main site of political protests in New Delhi, the recent modest but spirited gathering of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists and their allies to celebrate the second anniversary of the Delhi High Court’s repeal of Section 377 – dubbed Jashn-e-Azadi – passed with little public attention. The media did turn out – at one point, a swarm of photographers overwhelmed the stage and had to be brusquely shooed away so that the organisers could carry on with a roster of heartfelt stories, poetry and the recitation of a list of demands. The list itself, though, which pushed for proactive adoption of measures to protect against discrimination and the replication of ‘Transgendered Boards on the lines of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka government’s initiative set up across the country’, barely registered in the subsequent reportage.
After significant gains in recent years, the state of LGBT rights in Southasia might have reached an impasse. The still-pending Nepali Constitution will, by all accounts, have extensive provisions in favour of the LGBT community – if the political parties first muster the political will to resolve more divisive issues in the long-delayed document. In India, activists won an important victory when the Delhi High Court declared Indian Penal Code Section 377, relating to same-sex behaviour, to be in violation of the Constitution’s spirit of equality and inclusion. The recognition of same-sex marriage in New York, on the heels of the recent passage of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolution on discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, had raised hopes among some activists that the natural course of political activism would deliver similar rights in India.
It might seem counterintuitive, then, that Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad in early July called homosexuality a ‘disease’ and ‘unnatural’. This was during a speech at a conference of municipal leaders to discuss efforts to address HIV infection that might end up helping the cause of LGBT rights by destigmatising them. Azad, of course, has built up a portfolio of highly quotable gaffes – his last gem was the recommendation that if the poor could be provided with electricity and televisions, late-night television viewing would reduce the rate of growth of India’s population. (One could point out that if the poor were encouraged to engage in more homosexual activity – with the appropriate protection, of course – we might achieve the same end.)
Still, dismissing Azad’s comments as irrelevant would be a mistake. They undermine the policy changes that India’s Health Ministry has succeeded in bringing about with the backing of national and international NGOs. It was the ministry’s own affidavit, and the report on its work submitted to the High Court, that proved crucial to the court’s decision to repeal Section 377. Yet just as no incumbent legislators were in attendance at the Jashn-e-Azadi, or communicated their support, neither have Azad’s colleagues and superiors publicly expressed displeasure over the minister’s remarks. In fact, while the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has remained mum on the issue, Azad safely survived the Union cabinet reshuffle in July.
At the same time, Azad’s comments jumpstarted a discussion of India’s uneasy and ambivalent relationship to LGBT rights, a discussion that the public, or at least the politicians, generally seem content to avoid. While the Indian government remained silent, the Indian press, to its credit, went out of its way to maintain that Azad’s comments were his personal views. Observers of Southasia’s political culture might note that the protest against the comments has acquired a badge of legitimacy when it warrants both a tongue-in-cheek Facebook campaign and a threat of a hunger strike. More strikingly, the many protests calling for Minister Azad’s resignation demonstrate the vibrancy of India’s LGBT community organisations.
When Section 377 was repealed, a poll by the news channel CNN-IBN found overwhelming disapproval of the court’s decision (and an even larger figure who thought that homosexuality was not ‘against Indian culture’). Public opinion now appears to be more receptive, with message boards and comment sections of news sites carrying sustained defence of LGBT rights. Today it looks possible that same-sex marriage, and more explicit recognition of marriage rights for transgendered people, might indeed become an increasingly articulated demand and subsequently a political reality in India.
Still, one issue that the public discussion has thus far not touched upon is the shaky nature of the region’s reconciliation with the notion of individual freedom when it comes to all manner of romantic relationships, let alone homosexual or carnal ones. Simply observe the parade of stories of hysterical communities protesting eloping couples, or police conducting raids on couples in public spaces. The conflagrations over ‘queer’ issues, such as the supposed indigenous or foreign nature of homosexuality, are rooted in panic over sexual expression outside social conventions, including those of caste, religion and class. Indeed, the fear is fundamentally a rejection of individual choice and agency, what the Indian Constitution frames as one’s right to life and personal liberty.
It is well-accepted that the success of the LGBT movement depends on allies from outside the category of sexual minorities, but the movement has common cause with heterosexual unions that struggle to find a secure space in society. Fighting together to secure LGBT rights will result in a more tolerant and sane society for all.