A gay University of Toronto exchange student from India says he sees a silver lining in the recent Supreme Court of India decision to recriminalize homosexuality, a "crime" that carries a maximum punishment of life in prison.
The court's December decision to strike down a 2009 lower court decision that decriminalized consensual gay sex caught queer activists off guard, says Aditya Shankar, 20, who is in Toronto until July studying engineering. But while the ruling was a blow for the LGBT community, he says it also has people talking about gay rights in India more than ever before.
Anger and frustration has spilled into the streets, with many demanding legislators abolish penal code Section 377 for good.
Shankar says the ruling has breathed new life into a movement that was already gaining steam in many parts of India.
“I look at the criminalization in a very positive perspective,” he says. “It’s better for the community in the long run. It’s making people talk openly about [gay rights]. People are coming out, and they are louder than ever before.”
In fact, he says, there are already petitions to overturn the decision.
Much has changed in India since 2009, when the Delhi High Court found the 150-year-old British-imposed law criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” between consenting adults to be unconstitutional, he says, noting the population has made great strides toward accepting gay and gender-nonconforming people. But India’s history of homophobia, combined with what many Indians blame on the sway of Western gay culture, has left the country divided on the issue.
India has a large queer community, but it’s still relatively underground. That’s changing, Shankar says, as more and more people come out.
“Once the system starts pushing people back into the closet, the community starts to challenge that oppression,” he says. “That’s something we are seeing at a rapid pace in India right now. Pride marches are happening everywhere. Because of the four years of decriminalization, there was a huge impetus for people to come out.
“Now people have seen and felt what it means to be free, it’s really hard to push them back.”
Even if legislators and religious leaders support criminalization, Shankar says India’s media does not.
“Especially the English media, the journalists have taken an advocacy role,” he says. “They are making their opinions clear. They say, ‘There is no debate or argument on this issue.’ That has also given a huge impetus to the movement. The media is on our side.”
Still, sex — especially gay sex — is not a subject discussed openly in India, Shankar says. India is still a deeply conservative and religious culture. Religious leaders say homosexuality is the root cause of HIV — and they are currently uniting in opposition to decriminalization and pressuring the courts and political leaders to keep the law in place.
“The religious leaders are not all that powerful — not really,” he says. “Islam and Hinduism are the two biggest religions in India. Islam is very clear on how much it hates homosexuals. But Hinduism, on the other hand — there have been religious leaders on both sides. There’s people who support homosexuality and people who don’t. Unfortunately, a lot of coverage goes to the people who don’t. The masses are divided.”
Shankar says India is not as violent to gay people as Western media has portrayed it to be. The more pressing concern for many queer people is family acceptance.
“There are cases with people being disowned by the family, but those are really few cases,” he says. “Generally, families are really accepting. They would rather take their kids to a psychiatrist or a doctor than to disown you. But then again, there are pockets that are very conservative.”
When Shankar came out to his friends and family in 2011, not one person had a problem with his sexuality. At the time, he was 17 and in his first year at the Bombay Institute of Technology. There, he joined the newly formed support group for queer youth.
“I met new people and was having new experiences,” he says. “I fell in love, an unrequited love with a straight guy, which led to heartbreak . . . At the same time, students at the university had just started a gay support group. So I just thought this is the right moment to come out.”
Within a year, Shankar was out to the whole university. Feeling liberated, he made a viral video last year, outing himself to the entire world.
“The video became really famous,” he says. “It was shared widely on Facebook. It was original in that it talks about being brown and gay. So it got a really great response. I got messages from all around the world congratulating me. People messaged me to tell me how much they relate to it and how much they appreciated the video.”
That led to an invitation to speak at the United Nations in New York in October. Shakar joined delegates from Germany and Slovakia on a panel discussing what the UN can do for the more than 80 countries in the world that still criminalize homosexuality.
Now he has his sights set on WorldPride. Shankar is working with Pride Toronto and plans to put the issue front and centre at the international festival.
"With the focus on international human rights, having someone like Aditya working on the event is very important; someone with a firsthand connection to those issues is important to ensure this issue and others are part of what we are doing for WorldPride," says Pride Toronto executive director Kevin Beaulieu.
Still, Shakar says, he wishes he could take part in demonstrations happening right now in India.
“It’s exciting and a totally different Pride from what we celebrate in India,” he says. “But I’m disappointed I won’t be at Bombay Pride in February. This year’s Bombay Pride is really important because it’s the first Pride after the judgment. People are really angry, and you will see that on their faces.”