Victory in court, home battle ahead
– First big step, say activists
New Delhi, July 2: For a 24-year-old man in a suburb of Calcutta pursuing a long-distance relationship with another man, the Delhi High Court ruling is unlikely to bring to an end the torment he endures from his own family.
The man has told health workers and gay rights activists he is under intense emotional pressure from his family — father, mother and sister — to abandon his relationship and to go straight.
“There have been mornings when his mother screamed and asked herself what she had done to deserve this,” said a health worker with an NGO who has talked with the family. “They’re asking him to seek psychiatric help.”
India’s community of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people today celebrated the decriminalisation of their sexual activities at the end of an eight-year-old legal battle waged by health and gay rights activists.
But the legal victory today is merely the first step in their battle for acceptance and equal rights in society. “This is the first major step. There are many more battles ahead,” said Anjali Gopalan, the chief of Naz Foundation, the NGO that had filed the petition challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that made homosexuality a criminal offence.
The campaign against Section 377 emerged in India nearly 17 years ago as health workers realised that it was a major hurdle to efforts to prevent the spread of HIV among men who have sex with men. Health workers could walk into red-light districts and offer condoms to female commercial sex workers as protection against HIV. But any attempts to promote condoms among gay men could be interpreted as abetting homosexual activity.
In 2001, police arrested health workers in Lucknow for promoting safe-sex practices among the gay community. “That was a turning point — the movement began to grow from a public health issue to an issue of personal dignity and equal rights,” said Leena Menghaney, a civil rights lawyer in New Delhi. The community, which had remained largely underground through the 1980s and 1990s, became more vocal.
Activists are hoping the court order today will also influence attitudes in society.
“We see this as a new beginning,” said Anis Raychaudhuri, director of HIV programmes at a non-government agency called Manas-Bangla.
The activists believe the next step would be to seek equal rights in adoption practices, marriage, as well as inheritance. “People now tend to disown children because of their sexual orientation,” Raychaudhuri said.
Adoption agencies rarely allow same-sex couples to take home a child. Same-sex couples are not allowed to legally marry in India. Natural inheritance in the absence of a specified will between unmarried couples is also not allowed in India. “The fight against discrimination, stigma and even violence will continue,” said Pawan Dhall, director of the Calcutta office of Saathii, a non-government agency working on HIV and gender issues.
“A lot of sensitisation needs to be done in homes, in families, in education and workplaces.”