Who’s afraid of homosexuality?
RAM JETHMALANI Posted online: Wednesday, Jul 22, 2009 at 0430 hrs
The legal philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham produced The Theory of Legislation in the first half of the 19th century. It propounded the great principle of utility, a veritable working manual for lawmakers all over the world: “The PUBLIC GOOD ought to be the object of the Legislator, GENERAL UTILITY ought to be the foundation of his reasonings. To know the true good of the community is what constitutes the science of legislation; the art consists in finding the means to realize that good”.
The lesson was simple yet profound. He propounded that nature has placed man under the realm of pleasure and pain. To these man owes his ideas, judgments and determination of his life. Evil is pain or the cause of pain. Good is pleasure or productive of pleasure. Criminal law prescribes a series of punishments for different acts and omissions. Every punishment produces pain at least to him on whom it is inflicted. Punishment, therefore, is an evil. Its only justification is that it prevents a greater evil or produces in some other or others or the general public much more pleasure. From these two principles he had no difficulty in formulating the principles on which a rational penal code should be constructed.
The Delhi high court recently produced a memorable judgment declaring Section 377 of the Indian penal code constitutionally invalid. Lord Macaulay and his fellow commissioners who framed that code had presumably not taken Bentham’s teachings seriously, at least when they introduced their notion of Victorian morality into this section.
Voluntarily having intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal is declared a serious crime for which the punishment may well extend to 10 years and fine or both. As judicially interpreted and noticed by the Delhi high court, sexual activities hit are the following:
1. Intercourse by a man with a woman other than vaginal; such as involving the anus, mouth or any other orifice in the human body;
2. Intercourse with any male involving the anus or any other orifice;
3. Act commonly known as practice of bestiality.
Section 377 by its marginal note classifies all three as ‘unnatural offences. Macaulay did not know that the fish, iguana lizards, roosters, dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, lions and many other species mount others of the same sex. Homosexual behaviour is so rampant in non-human species that it is difficult to justify the epithet unnatural for this behaviour.
Neither Bentham nor any other rational person would see in these actions any element of producing the evil of pain. Of course my assumption is that intercourse is by free consent and does not involve minors who are incapable of consenting to remain untouched by the section.
The Delhi high court judgment is full of learning and references to literature on psychiatry, genetics, religion and judgments delivered in other jurisdictions, particularly the US and Canada. It refers to the report of the British Wolfenden Committee and the Sexual Offences Act, 1967, by which English law de-criminalised homosexuality. It fortifies its conclusions by the 172nd report of the Law Commission which also took the same view: ‘Section 377 in its present form has to go’.
The Delhi high court judgment is substantially based upon the citizen’s right to privacy and a life of dignity. The court correctly concluded that these rights can only be subordinated to some overriding public interest. Counsel for the Union of India could not point out any and the court rightly rejected his feeble argument that the law in some remote way promotes public health. The submission was in the teeth of the view of the American Psychiatric Association presented to the United States Supreme Court in 2002 in the case of Lawrence v. Texas :
“According to current scientific and professional understanding, however, the core feelings and attractions that form the basis for adult sexual orientation typically emerge between middle childhood and early adolescence. Moreover, these patterns of sexual attraction generally arise without any prior sexual experience.
Thus, homosexuality is not a disease or mental illness that needs to be, or can be, ‘cured’ or ‘altered’, it is just another expression of human sexuality”.
Now the view for which the additional solicitor general canvassed was the view of the home ministry with which the health ministry did not agree. To the best of my knowledge it has never happened that two government departments made conflicting and irreconcilable submissions in a public hearing before a high court. I hope that the government puts its house in order before the Supreme Court.
What further surprises me, is that the most effective 8th respondent, namely the National Aid Control Organisation (NACO) did not use Bentham’s powerful argument which any court should normally consider almost conclusive.
The Delhi Judgment does not recommend homosexuality or even approve of it. But it is obnoxious arrogance to claim that my conduct is natural while others violate nature. The constitution of India does not tolerate such tyranny.
No legislator or ruler can tell those who obey his laws “I am one of the elect, and God takes care to enlighten the elect as to what is good and what is evil. He reveals himself to me and speaks by my mouth. All you who are in doubt, come and receive the Oracle of God;” thus wrote Bentham.
A short reference to the history of homosexuality is called for. During the Greco Roman period, there is ample evidence to show that homosexual behavior between men as well as between women was common — and within clear conventional limits — approved. Judeo-Christian literature, however, reflects a general aversion to homosexual behaviour which was seen as an emblem of decadent paganism — godless, debauched, and heretical. For both Jews and early Christians, the Old Testament story of the destruction of Sodom became the foundation text of homophobia, even though neither Jews nor early Christians, including Christ himself, unanimously interpreted it as a text condemning homosexual behavior.
During the next thousand years between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church condemned any nonprocreative act between persons of either sex. Pope Gregory IX called sodomites ‘abominable persons — despised by the world and dreaded by the council of heaven’. In the late 13th century the first case of a homosexual being burnt at the stake came to be staged. Protestantism was equally rigorous in its condemnation.
In the 19th century, homophobia turned into hysteria. Lord Macaulay imported it into India. Homophobia is thus a western product which was unknown to sexually free India. The Delhi high court can take credit through its judgment that India is going back to its enlightened roots. Oscar Wilde and his lover Alfred Douglas had already shocked Victorian England, initiating the end of homophobia.
Our earth is a crowded planet and can not sustain more humans. Semitic religions condemn pederasty because it does not add to the population. Malthusian wisdom, which I endorse fully, is a credit item in the balance sheet of homosexuality.
The writer is a senior lawyer and former Union law minister
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