Saturday, July 25, 2009

How the media helped 'out' LGBT issues

How the media helped ‘out’ LGBT issues
Siddharth Narrain

The media’s positive reaction to the overturning of Section 377, and
the debates it initiated across the public spectrum, gave the LGBT
issue a much needed airing and buttressed the enlightened ruling of
the Delhi High Court, says Siddharth Narrain

The explosion of stories and images that followed the Delhi High Court
judgment striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which
criminalised sex between same sex adults, was nothing short of the
‘outing’ of the issue in the Indian media. Almost every national and
regional newspaper in the country carried the story prominently, most
of them on their front pages. It was the first time that LGBT
(lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues have been debated,
discussed and freely talked about in the Indian media from all angles:
decriminalisation of gay sex, same sex marriage, adoption, religious
and ethical responses. For a society that brushes uncomfortable
issues under the carpet, the bombardment of images, interviews, talk
shows and news clips was a welcome change. While the English-language
media has been carrying stories on LGBT issues prominently even before
the judgment, it was heartening to see regional channels and
publications now doing the same.
Kannada, Telugu and Tamil papers and TV channels gave the 377 story a
lot of play. The case brought by the Naz Foundation, and the court’s
judgment on it, is a historic moment in recent Indian legal history.
Seldom has there been such a public outpouring of emotion, energy and
celebration after a court’s decision. When was the last time that a
legal judgment has been so widely read, discussed and debated, the
judges’ words quoted and the impact of the decision discussed across
millions of homes?
The Delhi High Court’s decision only fanned the embers of a debate
whose fire had already been lit. The judges delivered the decision in
the Naz case a few days after colourful Pride marches in Bangalore,
Bhubhaneswar, Chennai and Delhi. The home minister had raised a hue
and cry from conservative voices when he announced that the government
was planning to review Section 377. Forced on the back foot by
religious leaders he had backtracked on his statement. The media had
already picked up this sequence of events and the court was packed
with journalists on July 2, 2009, the day of the judgment.
The first images relayed through television were of LGBT activists and
supporters sobbing and hugging each other. After this, it was just an
explosion of images and words. Phone calls to activists, photographs,
live discussions, phone-ins, reactions from religious leaders,
reactions from prominent people from all walks of life. The media had
signalled a shift in the terms of the debate, and played no small role
in bringing about this shift. The reasons for this could vary -- from
TRP ratings, to sensationalism -- but what this downpour of coverage
had done was wash away the doors of the closet that had been creaking
open very slowly until now.
Some commentators have questioned the amount of time and publicity
spent on this issue. “Why is the media giving this issue so much space
when there are so many other important problems our country faces?”
they ask. My response is twofold. For a community that has been
living in the closet for years, invisible and afraid, caricatured and
written about only when a gay man is murdered or when hijras are
accused of extortion, or when lesbians commit suicide or cops bust a
gay party, the overwhelmingly positive debates and celebratory images
were long awaited. Forced to confront television cameras, politicians
from parties across the spectrum gave their views on the subject.
Actors and religious leaders, authors and parents, teachers and
directors, they were all there, giving their varied opinions on the
subject. The amazing thing was, of course, that most of these voices
were in support of decriminalising homosexuality.
Secondly, the judges’ amazing interpretation of constitutional
provisions relating to privacy, equality and their invocation of the
right to dignity have meant that this judgment is a victory for all
minorities. Post-Naz, it will be much more difficult to discriminate
against vulnerable minorities like dalits and disabled persons. As
Tarunabh Khaitan, a legal commentator, writes in The Telegraph: ‘It
may seem that this judgment does not obviously benefit Hemanshu, who
is Hindu, English-educated, male, able-bodied, north Indian, straight,
Hindi-speaking and upper-caste. But should Hemanshu lose his legs in
an accident, or get posted in a non-Hindi speaking or
non-Hindu-majority area, he too will be protected. The court has
recognised that pluralist societies rarely have permanent majorities
or minorities. The Constitution stands for the principle of minority
protection, whoever they might happen to be. This should be noted by
the ulema and the archbishops who seem to have failed to envision a
fellowship of the disenfranchised in their response to the court’s
Lawrence Liang, a legal researcher, termed the Naz decision as a Roe v
Wade moment, referring to the immense potential and symbolic power of
the judgment and the manner in which it has caught the imagination of
a nation. ‘The real success of Wade, Brown (Brown v Board of
Education) and Naz Foundation can then be measured not only by their
contribution to democratic ethos or the jurisprudence that they
inaugurate but by the tears that they provoke,’ he writes, comparing
the Naz case to two of the most significant moments in US
constitutional history. A charge made by opponents of the judgment
is that it will only benefit an elite class of LGBT persons. However,
for anyone who was watching, it was obvious that this was a moment to
savour for LGBT persons across the spectrum. Whether it was parents,
friends or colleagues, they could talk about homosexuality openly
without the invisible barrier that has existed for all these years.
The judges’ observation in the Naz case about how the British imported
homophobia into India is in stark contrast to the perception of
homosexuality being a Western concept, alien to India culture and only
present in elite circles.
The reach of the media into middle class drawing rooms across the
country has meant that it is no longer possible to dismiss the issue
as unimportant or alien to us. Images of Indians across the country
celebrating the judgment, of parents speaking openly about their
experiences with their LGBT children, of religious heads saying, at
the very least, that they do not have a problem with
decriminalisation, has done for LGBT rights what years of activism and
campaigns have struggled to do.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the sustained
effort of LGBT and other progressive human rights activists over many
years. But even the most hardened activists admitted that the judgment
had a tremendously positive impact. It’s not surprising, then, that
millions of LGBT persons across the country celebrated this moment, a
moment that many of them will hope they can narrate to their adopted

(Siddharth Narrain is a lawyer and LGBT rights activist)



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