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What LGBT Indo-Canadians think of India’s move to decriminalize homosexuality

‘India definitely is just starting its journey down that road’

(L-R) Alex Sangha from Vancouver, Praney Anand and Hana Shafi from Toronto. Credit: Courtesy: Alex Sangha, Praney Anand and Hana Shafi; Francesca Roh/ Xtra

India’s Supreme Court struck down a 150-year-old colonial-era law that banned consensual gay sex last week.

Xtra spoke with LGBT people in Canada who are from India or have family ties to the country to find out how they’re feeling about the decision.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Alex Sangha, Vancouver

Credit: Courtesy: Alex Sangha

I feel great. I feel India got its independence on that day. If you look at [the fact that] five to 10 percent of the population is queer, we’re looking at anywhere from 50 to 100 million people. We’re looking at double, triple the population of all of Canada who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in India.

[The law] was used to discriminate, to harass, to throw people in jail, to make their lives miserable. And finally people are free. They are not criminals.

My father still to this day says, “I love you as a son, but I don’t approve of your lifestyle.” A lot of children who are gay and lesbian or teenagers or whatever, they’re trying to come out to their families, but they can’t because there’s a lot of pressure to get married and have children and live a heterosexual life — live more of a traditional lifestyle.

And what happens is the family says, “Well, we can’t accept you. It’s unnatural. It’s even illegal. And it’s a sin in our culture and our tradition.”

With the law of the land being changed, they can’t use those arguments anymore because now it is not illegal.

You can love who you want to love.

Hana Shafi, Toronto

Credit: Courtesy: Hana Shafi

Like a lot of the places that the British colonized, they put in these so-called anti-sodomy laws in a lot of the countries that they were colonizing. So it was good for India to finally be like, “You know what? This isn’t part of our country, and this isn’t okay.”

When you look at South Asia, when you look way back in history, there’s a very long and rich history of queer and trans folks.

It’s always been a part of the society. But unfortunately because of a lot of things like colonialism, the rise of the religious right, you saw these narratives and these histories being washed away.

LGBTQ rights are an intersectional issue, and when certain minorities are being suppressed right now in India because of the current leadership, that also means that the queer members of that community are being suppressed*.

A lot of queer folks in India may feel more of a sense of safety, but we also have to look at, where are they feeling safe? What community? Right now a lot of Muslim folks in India are going through an extremely difficult time . . . So what does that mean for queer and trans Muslims? What does their safety look like?

It’s not just an isolated queer issue. It’s always going to be bigger than that in a country as diverse and as complicated as India.

*Note: Amnesty International India described in 2017 a “growing trend of Islamophobia” in the country, and some Muslims say they feel targeted by what they call discriminatory government policies.

Praney Anand, Toronto

Credit: Courtesy: Praney Anand

It’s a great feeling.

A lot of people have been recently talking more openly about it, which wasn’t the case when I was a teenager and in my early 20s. Those conversations were not as explicit as they are now.

More and more people, especially in Delhi and Mumbai and those bigger cities, are out. Internet is really helping, and there’s more than one way to connect with people.

I wouldn’t say things have completely changed and it’s an open society now. But also, I think there’s change that you can definitely see.

I think it’s a great step, but I don’t know how long will it take for folks to feel comfortable, whatever that means for them.

It’ll have some sort of ripple effect. It’ll trickle down to the diaspora.

It’s significant that a large democracy like India has come out with that decision . . . What really struck me was the language of the verdict. It also talks about things like, folks owe an apology to the queer community.

Those quotations I think are really strong and powerful, and it really spoke to me. And it’s really interesting that it was a unanimous decision of five Supreme Court judges.

Eloise Turner, Toronto

Credit: Corey Misquita/Xtra

It’s a positive step in the right direction. Having said that, a similar judgement was filed by the Supreme Court around four years ago for trans rights and considering transgender as a third gender in India. Since then, there’s little or no change for how trans people are perceived back in India.

People and their perceptions and the mindsets — it will take ages for them to be changed.

What this law is going to help is, there are more people now who have developed confidence. Earlier, there were so many people who were not even coming out back in India.

It’s going to give confidence to LGBTQ people to be able to be themselves.

It’s actually that presence which is going to help people to be able to know that people do exist who have different sexualities and people do exist who have different gender identities. You need to be able to acknowledge that and learn from that.

It’s at least going to create those conversations, at least going to create those different views. But the current truth and current mindset is very negative, unfortunately.

Daniel Pillai, Toronto

Credit: Courtesy Agnes Kiesz/Pure Studios

I’m afforded certain privileges [in Canada] just by walking out my front door that a lot of people in India don’t [have] who are part of the LGBTQ community. I hope that they can walk out their front doors and have the confidence to be who they are as well without having to worry about anything.

A lot of us, like my mom and my parents, for instance, when they migrated over to Canada, they bring those values with them. What they do in the diaspora is try to re-inscribe that notion of home and familiarity. Sometimes that culture and those perspectives get stronger because they’re trying so hard to create a home away from home. That’s exactly what a diaspora is.

But I think that once they see that the home base — so to speak — has changed and it’s growing, that could trickle. I do think that’s a really big process. It’ll take time, but if the decriminalization sticks, that will allow South Asian communities around the world to process, to learn, to adjust, to hopefully become more open to the idea of difference.

When your parents are raising you, they’re the ones who are giving you your values.

India has been the parent of so many different people. And so if they can change, perhaps those values and those moral perspectives can eventually go where they need to as well too.

Rishi Agarwal, Toronto

Credit: Courtesy: Rishi Agarwal

I think it’s great news. I think one of the challenges that the diaspora has here in Canada is that when they’re making the decision to come out to their parents, their parents . . . when they left South Asia or India, they left in the ’70s or the ’80s, and so a lot of the values or ideas they have about sexuality and whatnot are coming from whatever they were exposed to in their upbringing back in India.

[This decision] kind of reminds people that, you know what, India has changed — South Asia has changed.

Certainly Indian media has been very positive and they’ve covered a lot of people who’ve said it’s about time. It’s just been a lot of pro-LGBT messages. From that perspective, things are changing.

It’s kind of like how Canada was 20, 30 years ago: right now you have to change the hearts and minds of the people, to help them understand, what is gay? Why does it happen? And is the world going to end if you accept your son or daughter?

And then, of course, things about how people are treated in the workplace and job interviews and landlord and tenant rights and all those areas of society.

India definitely is just starting its journey down that road.

As told to Riley Sparks

Editor's note, Sep 14, 2018: This story has been updated with a changed headline, sub-headline and a photograph of Rishi Agarwal.

This story is filed under Sex, India, World, Law, Stories, Feature
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