NEW DELHI — India’s gay community is seeking to build political support for its rights after the Supreme Court reinstated a 153-year-old law that bans gay sex. Despite the huge blow to gay rights, activists say they have managed to bring what had been a taboo subject into the open in a country that remains largely conservative.
Forty-three-year-old gay rights activist Shaleen Rakesh recalls the time when he was growing up in New Delhi. He said homosexuality was a subject no one ever mentioned, and it was certainly not discussed or debated.
“I used to really wonder if there are any other gay people in the country except for me, because I never met one until much later, when I was in college. Really, there was a suffocating silence around us,” he said.
That silence was broken about ten years ago, when activists began a legal battle to overturn a colonial era law that banned gay sex. They succeeded in 2009.
But last month, the Supreme Court reinstated the law criminalizing gay sex, once again putting Rakesh and others of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community at risk of prosecution.
Hopes that the court would take a second look at its decision were dashed this week when it turned down a petition to review that judgment. That leaves one legal route - the top Court agreeing to hear a second review petition by a larger bench.
But even though the legal window is closing, rights activists have vowed not to back off from their fight. They have now started looking at building political support for their cause. That is what the Supreme Court judgment had indicated, saying changing laws was the legislature’s job.
Gender rights activist Anjali Gopalan of the Naz Foundation moved the courts to overturn the law. She admitted that possibly the only option now was for parliament to change the law.
“Long term we have to think political. But at this point with elections coming up, I don’t know who will win the elections, because one of the major political parties has already taken a fairly negative stand on issues of homosexuality. So it is really a very problematic time for us right now. It’s going to be a long battle, no matter what,” she said.
There are many conservative voices in India’s parliament. This includes one of the country’s two mainstream parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which opinion polls say may head India’s next government.
So far, the main political support for gay rights has come from the ruling Congress Party, which filed the review petition in the Supreme Court. But its clout is expected to diminish in the next parliament.
The bias of many lawmakers is not surprising in a country where homosexuality has still to win wide social acceptance.
The challenge to the initial judgment overturning the law which criminalizes gay sex had come from religious groups including Muslim and Christian. But Gopalan says even liberal sections of India will draw the line at a gay couple living together openly.
However there has been a huge change in the past decade. The silence that troubled people like Shaleen Rakesh has been broken. Many more homosexuals have now “come out of the closet.”
Magazines for the gay community such as Bombay Dost, once distributed clandestinely, are available openly. The subject finds space in a supportive, mainstream media. 15 years ago, only a handful of people attended the country’s first gay pride march in the eastern city of Kolkata. Now many university students and young professionals turn up to lend support to the gay community at such events.
Among them is Aditi Sengupta, a 35-year-old Delhi-based journalist. She said the issue is not LGBT rights, but “human rights.”
“We need to take this as a movement for civil liberties. If we call ourselves a democracy we have to include everybody, irrespective of sexual orientation, creed, color, religion everything. It is not just about them, if you look at the larger picture, it is about each one of us,” she said.
Activists said the long-term hope for the gay rights movement lied in gaining a groundswell of support from more people like her in a country which is now predominantly young.
Gender rights activist Gopalan said younger lawmakers were more empathetic to their concerns, even some from the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“Even younger BJP leaders, on one on one basis with us they are so much more accepting of homosexuality than the public stance they can take. So I think it is also a question of ensuring that we continue engaging with them. Look at the experience of countries like Spain, where when the parliament got younger, laws changed," said Gopalan.
Most activists hope that the nascent gay rights movement which took shape as they fought to scrap the original anti-gay sex law will once again gather momentum.
Shaleen Rakesh is confident this will happen.
“It is really going to strengthen in terms of the number of people who are gong to talk about these issues openly, it is also going to increasingly see different kinds of resistance from the LGBT community to the political forces which are trying to suppress the community, it is going to see a larger representation of their lives in popular culture, whether it is in films or books, and this is really, in a sense, a tipping point, a turning point for the movement, it is going to grow at a exponential rate,” said Rakesh.
Activists stress that scrapping the law banning gay sex will remain the focal point of the movement. But they also say they will have to begin a social movement and engage ordinary people to change minds.