NEW DELHI — Just when India's gay and lesbian community thought it was safe to come out of the closet, new moves by religious leaders and conservative politicians have revealed the deep divide between an increasingly liberal elite of the metropolitan cities and a socially conservative mainstream society.
Last week the Delhi High Court made a ruling that decriminalized homosexual sex, which has been against the law here since India's days as a British colony. Delhi's gay community celebrated the decision with brash displays of camp, a legion of house parties and a bash at Pegs & Pints, a local watering hole that holds an unofficial gay night every Thursday.
The celebrations may prove to have been premature. On Thursday, India's Supreme Court signaled that it would consider an appeal of the Delhi court's decision and sent notice to the national government, the city's government and the Naz Foundation, an NGO that had filed the high court case in favor of gay rights.
In taking up the appeal, the highest court is responding to a petition by two private citizens who claimed they were deeply hurt by the judgment “inasmuch as it seriously affects them and fellow countrymen in all spheres of their lives, personal as well as social.”
The petitioners also maintained that the change in the law was likely to result in a rampant increase in homosexuality, arguing, “We have to look at our own scriptures to seek guidance from them and they are against such behavior in our society. If such abnormality is permitted, then tomorrow people might seek permission for having sex with animals.”
Until last week's judgment by the Delhi High Court, which followed eight years of delays and deferments as various judges passed the buck, homosexuals were liable to prosecution under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits "unnatural offences" or "carnal intercourse against the order of nature."
The penalty for the offense was a prison term of between 10 years and life. And even though consenting adults have almost never faced prosecution, the threat of jail and exposure makes for rampant police abuse, say activists. That not only causes India's estimated 50 million gay men to live in fear, it also hampers the fight against AIDS, as police have been known to intimidate outreach workers.
“A lot of people didn't know about the ruling, and there were a lot of misconceptions about what it meant, so I was calling all of my friends to tell them what had happened,” said 29-year-old Ashu, a middle-class gay man who lives in Delhi. “Then we went out to celebrate!”
“First of all, I thanked the Almighty,” said "Pamela," a Delhi transgender who opted not to give GlobalPost a legally recognized name. “After that, I personally congratulated my community people, and I asked them to be united and stand and be ready to fight for more. It's a very long journey. [Later] I went with some straight friends and some gay friends to a pub, and we partied until morning.”
“There was a huge sigh of relief among the community [after the Delhi ruling],” Pamela said. “Those people who were scared to walk about, now they have the guts also to come out from the closet and have a little bit of free life.”
Seven years ago, when the case against Section 377 first reached the Delhi court, gay and transsexual men attending a glam gay party at a “farm house” — with a sprawling lawn, Grecian statue and swimming pool — on the outskirts of the city lived in fear of raids by the cops. The organizers had shelled out 60,000 rupees ($1,250) to rent the space and buy the food and drink, and they were nervous that the local constables wouldn't be satisfied with the usual bribe because an enemy had leaked the location of the party to the media.
It was a rare gathering of the elite and the lower classes together — with drag queens whirling like dervishes. The young guests were ecstatic with relief at finally being themselves. But even in this safe space, not everybody could relax. On the fringes of the dance floor, older men with the moustaches, paunches and polo shirts that distinguish India's conservative middle class made awkward conversation or arranged (paid) liaisons with working class drag queens. Due to societal pressure — of which Section 377 is only a small part — only a tiny minority of gay Indians come out. Most are compelled by their families to marry and raise children.
Just as in other countries around the world, however, the solidarity and opportunities for dialogue created by the AIDS crisis has gradually made India's gay community stronger, more vocal, and more visible — and the fight against Section 377 has been a vital part of that change. Since 2004, harassment in the major metropolitan cities has come down dramatically, and many Bollywood stars, designers, fashion models and influential socialites have expressed solidarity with the gay community.
Moreover, following the highly publicized marriage of fashion designer Wendell Rodericks to his French partner — a union that was solemnized by the French consulate in Goa — a number of young Indian gay and lesbian couples have dared to take extralegal marital vows.
“We've made a lot of progress,” Ashu said.
"Honey," a 34-year-old gay Delhi resident who also declined to give his real name, said: “Now we have to fight for more social acceptance, and somewhere in that I think legalizing gay marriage will be the next step.”
Until recently, the level of tolerance amounted to a society-wide policy of “don't ask, don't tell.” But as soon as the court gave homosexuality an official stamp of approval — which recognized for the first time that being gay isn't a psychological disorder, but a personal decision that merits protection under the constitution — a backlash was inevitable. As both the English and Hindi media hailed the Delhi court's liberal stance, demonstrating a level of support for gay rights that may surprise readers abroad, clerics, politicians and television personalities slowly began mounting the counterrevolution.
Bihar's Lalu Prasad Yadav, a generally progressive politician who represents India's “Other Backward Classes,” who comprise laborers and herdsmen who are not among the "untouchable" castes but are still economically and socially disadvantaged compared with the elite priestly and warrior groups, was one of the first out of the gate. Days after the high court ruling he told reporters that he would move Parliament to appeal the decision, saying, “We must not follow Western culture. Sex between people of same gender is not at all acceptable.” Few of his fellow politicians showed any more concern for the gay community's rights. Of all the major parties, only the Communist Party of India (Marxist) hailed the Delhi court's decision.
Yoga guru Baba Ramdev — India's first televangelist, who several years ago courted controversy by claiming that breathing, meditation and calisthenics could cure AIDS — said he would file his own petition to appeal the Delhi court ruling. "[Homosexuality] can be treated like any other congenital defect,” he wrote in his petition. “Such tendencies can be treated by yoga, pranayam and other meditation techniques."
Further pressing the Supreme Court, a confluence of Hindu, Catholic, Muslim and Jain clerics held a press conference Thursday where they described gay sex as immoral, unnatural, and alien to Indian society, culture, tradition and religious ethos, while the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of Sikhs, criticized the amendment of Section 377 as “against the law of nature.”
Now, the ball is in the Supreme Court. But India's judicial system moves at a glacial place and its judges have a tendency to choose deferment over decision when the verdict might be troublesome. So the country's gay community may have to wait another eight years before it is truly safe to come out of the closet.
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