Gay Indians seek sexual equality
By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi
Published: June 30 2009 03:00 | Last updated: June 30 2009 03:00
Siddharth Dube, a gay Indian who writes on poverty and public health, sees "an enormous world of difference" in the confidence of India's young gay community compared with when he came of age in the 1980s. Then, Mr Dube says, he "felt terrified every day".
With rapid economic growth creating middle-class opportunities beyond the civil service, "gay men and women can afford to strike out on their own", he says. "When it was much more difficult to earn an income, people were much more cautious about rocking the boat. Now, they can be who they want to be."
Gay pride marches in cities including New Delhi on Sunday drew thousands of people in a raucous show of defiance against discrimination. For all the progress, however, gay sex remains illegal under an 1860 British colonial-era ban on "carnal intercourse against the order of nature".
Gay activists hope that the Delhi High Court could be poised to change this as it prepares to rule in a landmark civil rights case challenging the ban - article 377 of the Indian Penal Code - on the grounds that it violates India's liberal, democratic post-independence constitution.
"These laws are what really instil terror in me and other gay people," says Mr Dube. "It you have a law that criminalises someone, that is really the foundation stone for prejudice. It's where all the seeds of intolerance come from."
In its court challenge, the Naz Foundation, which works to reduce HIV/Aids risks among homosexual men, has argued that the ban on gay sex between consenting adults violates fundamental rights to privacy, dignity and equality. Naz has asked the court to decriminalise gay sex, a ruling that would technically apply only in Delhi but would set a precedent with national repercussions. Gay activists elsewhere in Asia and Africa, especially former British colonies, are watching closely.
"This is a fight for the dignity of 10 per cent of India's population," said Saleem Kidwai, co-editor of Same Sex Love in India , an anthology of writings dating back 2,000 years. "Now people are driven into the closet and so many women are affected by the fact that people have to hide their sexuality and go into dysfunctional marriages."
Although prosecutions under article 377 are rare, they are not unheard of. In 2006, four men who met through a gay website were arrested, paraded before the media and accused of membership of a gay club and engaging in gay sex. The court case is still pending.
More often, police cite the law to harass gays, extract bribes or ignore crimes against them. Police raided the Lucknow offices of Naz in 2002,, arrested the local director and three others and accused them of "promoting homosexuality". The four were held without bail for 47 days.
Yet Delhi has been bitterly divided on whether the colonial-era law banning sex between males, repealed decades ago in the UK, should go in India too.
The National Aids Control Organisation, which has backed the Naz challenge, says criminalisation of gay sex has hampered efforts to fight HIV/Aids among a high-risk group. Naco estimates that 8 per cent of sexually active gay men are infected with HIV compared with less than 1 per cent in the general population, making gay outreach a priority.
Yet Naco told the court that gay men "are mostly reluctant to reveal same-sex behaviour, because of the fear of law enforcement agencies, keeping a large section invisible and unreachable and pushing the infection underground".
The home ministry, however, has warned the court that decriminalising what it terms "unnatural sex" could "open floodgates of delinquent behaviour and be misconstrued as providing unbridled licence for the same".
Conservative Hindu ideologues have echoed such fears. "In the name of thrill, enjoyment and fun, the young shall walk into the trap of homosexual addiction," B.P. Singhal, a prominent member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, said in a court submission.
Mr Singhal said gay sex was "inherently immoral, grossly unnatural and . . . the very antithesis of the lofty ideals, lofty values and lofty objectives" that sustain Indian civilisation.
However, social activists, gay groups and some liberal officials say such intolerance is a colonial import at odds with the older Indian acceptance of sexual diversity.
Hindu mythology even has stories of deities temporarily changing their gender for amorous encounters.
"The Hindu view was very, very tolerant," Mr Kidwai said. "If you look at punishments, making love to another man got far less punishment than a caste infraction. Certain people who were known to have lovers of the same sex were even venerated."
Intrusion a legacy of empire
Criminal bans on sex between men remain in force not just in India, but across wide swathes of the former British Empire.
Colonial-era legislators prohibited "unnatural carnal knowledge" in the 19th century. While Britain decriminalised consensual gay sex in 1967, most of its Asian and African colonies won independence with bans still on their books.
Many have not repealed them. Of the roughly 80 countries that criminalise homosexual intercourse, more than half are former British colonies, according to Human Rights Watch.
Uganda's laws - which mandate life in prison for violation - are used to justify excluding gays from national HIV/Aids programmes.
The Indian court challenge is being closely monitored by Asian and African gay activists contemplating their own civil liberties struggles.
"It's a very shrunk world for gay-rights activists in post-colonial societies - they tend to talk a lot to each other," says Meenakshi Ganguly, of Human Rights Watch. "We are hoping that if this law is struck down by the court, it will set a precedent for other activists."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009
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