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3 min

Feminist legal activist from India speaks about repeal of gay sex law

'Social taboos around transgressions in gender and sexuality remain intact'

They called it the “Naz Judgment,” when in a monumental ruling on July 2, 2009, the Delhi High Court stated that the queer population of India were indeed a part of the nation with the same rights as everyone else — dignity, equality and freedom from discrimination. 

It had been a long fight for human rights activists and HIV/AIDS organizations. And so, it was a euphoric moment when the two judges announced that gay relationships and gay sex was decriminalized in India.

Until that moment, same-sex relations in India had been illegal, even considered blasphemous, as per Section 377, the 145-year-old colonial Indian Penal Code, which described same-sex relationships as an “unnatural offence”. 

The long period of criminalization of gay relationships had an unsurprisingly damaging affect on queer individuals in India. Previously, if outed, gay and lesbians in India faced medical treatment, shock therapy or criminal punishments, fines or up to ten years imprisonment. As a result establishing queer relationships or a sense of community was risky and challenging. To be gay meant isolation or covert lives, and sex naturally went underground without social support for safety and negotiation.

It was a Public Interest Litigation filed by the Naz Foundation, an HIV/AIDS outreach and intervention NGO, together with the activist organization, Against 377, which confronted the criminalization of gay relations, debating the constitutional validity based on the fact that it severely hampered HIV/AIDS public health efforts and thus the right to health of the gay community.

Queer feminist Ponni Arasu was a part of the national movement fighting Section 377. The young lawyer was part of the advocacy and media campaigns, later contributing to the legal drafting for the of the Delhi High Court’s ruling. She currently tours on behalf of Voices Against 377, speaking on queer rights, social movements and sexuality and gender politics.

“Much of the social taboos around transgressions in gender and sexuality remain intact,” says Arasu acknowledging that the social climate towards queers in India is a long way from seeing eye-to-eye with the now accepting law. 

“People face homophobia and transphobia within the home, on the streets, in schools and workplaces. Same sex desiring and gender transgressive people are not just that but are also from different classes, religions, regions, castes and so on. This also has an impact on their everyday life. The violence and discrimination faced are dependant on all these factors.”

The presentation, entitled Voices Against 377: Decriminalizing same-sex activity in India, addresses the way in which the colonial law was confronted and dismissed, and the challenges still faced by the queer community and human rights activists in India, namely the incongruence between the law and violent homophobia still far too common on the streets.

With powerful social agents such as the caste system, the movement in India is at a crux were attitudes towards gays cannot be confronted without seeing the larger context of race, gender, class and religion. Having achieved decriminalization by the Delhi High Court, the same organizations have moved quickly to new goals.

“Our challenge,” says Arasu,  “are to address broader socio-economic political concerns facing all queer persons in India; to evolve a queer perspective on the larger context in India regarding concerns over shrinking democratic spaces… and last but not the least to have the Supreme Court agree with the Delhi High Court on decriminalizing adult consensual same sex sexual activity in private.”

Shrinking democratic spaces is not a problem unique to India. It is the dilemma faced by Canadian activists alike – the increased policing of social movements, heavy-handed management of protests and demonstrators, seemingly arbitrary, even illegal arrests and treatment of those opposing the status quo.

“This is the irony vis-à-vis the LGBT movement in India today. There is an overwhelming cracking down upon many social movements and democratic space on the whole in India.  In the midst of all this, the LGBT movement, which till now largely works specifically only on LGBT rights, is not that much of a threat to the present government.”

But with increased violence towards other human rights groups, Arasu addresses the pressing need for solidarity.

“My dreams and goals are for a world where everyone can live equally and not be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, sexuality, caste, class, region, religion and race. This dream of another world has to be seen from multiple perspectives and cannot be restricted to the rights of any one community.”

Having already achieved so much, Arasu hopes to meet with radical queers in Canada with the hope that the movement keeps its momentum, pioneering more social change in India. 

“For gay people, I hope we can be people who not only have our basic civic and political rights, but are a force to reckoned with when it comes to maintaining standards of rights, freedom and democracy locally, regionally and internationally.”

Find out more:
Voices Against 377: Decriminalizing same-sex activity in India

A Presentation by Delhi-based legal rights activist Ponni Arasu. 
Oct 20, 7pm. Alumni Auditorium, University of Ottawa, 85 University. Free. 
For more info: http://www.opirg-gripo.ca/ or 613 230 3076. Event is in English.