By Courtney Suciu
In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 of the country’s penal code which criminalized gay sex. The law, established in 1861 under British colonial rule, made consensual same-sex relations punishable by up to life in prison.
We’ll take a look at how enforcement of Section 377 contributed to the AIDS crisis in India, and how the AIDS crisis galvanized the country’s gay rights movement leading to this historic victory for human rights.
The law has changed, but what does that mean for Indian civil society?
A 1991 cover story by Arvind Kumar in The Advocate described the harrowing scene at an Indian rehabilitation center for patients who had tested positive for HIV: “Here the patients spend their days and nights in chains. Their hands and feet are shackled to prevent escape. There is no treatment, no therapy for them – only prayers and lots of copies of Bibles.”
Meanwhile, according to the article “Wanted for AIDS,” posters bearing photos of HIV-positive individuals were hung on hospital walls and on city streets.
“AIDS in India is being treated like a crime, not as an illness,” Dr. Bindu Desai of India Alert, a Chicago-based human rights organization, told Kumar.
Medical professionals were often the source of misinformation about how the infection was spread and many refused to treat patients who tested positive for the virus. Blood in private clinics, blood banks and private hospitals was not systemically screened for HIV. People viewed AIDS as the disease of the poor, drug addicts, degenerates and prostitutes. In a country where even the mention of heterosexual sex was taboo, the existence of homosexuality was flat-out denied. One doctor interviewed by Kumar claimed there were no gay people in India.
Of course, it certainly seemed that way. No one talked about homosexuality, and certainly no one admitted to being gay. Why would it occur to anyone that beloved members of their families and their communities might have, or desire to have, consensual sexual relationships with members of the same sex? Not only was it a serious crime to do so, it was such a source of societal shame that gay and lesbian individuals were forced to either live in complete denial or absolute secrecy.
But as the rates of sexually transmitted diseases continued to rise, some people started to realize that this culture of silence and denial was only exacerbating the crisis, which was on the brink of becoming an epidemic. So these people started doing something that hadn’t been done before: they started talking. About sex. About straight sex, gay sex and safe sex. They discussed the spread of HIV and AIDS, and how to prevent it. They spoke out about treatment and dignity.
They formed the first LGBT communities and they started standing up for their rights.
“India’s first gay and lesbian group made its debut in Bombay in 1991 with a new magazine called Bombay Dost, while gay and lesbian support groups formed in New Delhi, Calcutta and Madras,” Kumar reported. In 1994, “the first gay conference in India” brought together 75 gay men to discuss issues related to AIDS and imprisonment of homosexuals, according to a brief in Pennsylvania’s Erie Gay Community News2.
The following year, members of India’s AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA) anti-discrimination group fought against criminalization of gay sex after an official refusal to distribute condoms in the nation’s biggest prison on the grounds of Section 377, according to Gay Times3. A survey of the men held at the Tihar prison revealed that as many as 80% of them had been involved in gay sex without access to protection.
Such efforts, even when they failed, inspired others and gave them courage to come forward and join the conversation, as well as the growing movement.
The nation’s first gay pride parade took place in 1999 when a group of 15 gay people staged a “Friendship Walk” in Calcutta seeking to “provide a healing touch to the wider Indian community, by integrating Indians through love,” one participant told a reporter at London’s Gay Times4.
Less than 10 years later, Crown Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil came out as gay – a first not only in India, but in the world. Though he was taunted by the public and disowned by his family, Manvendra told The Economic Times5 in 2013 that he knew what he was doing: "I was being true to myself. I was being honest."
Because of his royal lineage, and his courageous outspokenness, Manvendra brought global attention to such issues as HIV awareness and gay acceptance. He even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. According to the July 2018 issue of The Economic Times6, he has more recently “throw[n} open his palace doors to lesbians, gays, transgender and other Indians shunned for their sexuality. He also said that he will offer rooms, a medical facility and training in English and vocational skills to help people find jobs.”
Fast forward a few months to September 2018. The LGBT movement in India could at last celebrate a historic victory as the criminalization of gay sex under Section 377 was finally struck down.
But what impact will this change have on a country with such a long, deeply rooted tradition of homophobia?
For the business sector, it means dollar signs. Companies have been eager to compete for the “pink rupee” with creative campaigns to tap into this new market. In The Hindu7, Sandip Roy described how a friend “did a double take when she looked at her Uber app.” During her route, it had turned rainbow-colored in celebration of the legal change.
Meanwhile, “Zomato was telling us ‘Let’s get one thing straight. Love is love’ alongside a rainbow burger,” he continued. “Netflix agreed that #LoveIsLove. Starbucks was offering ‘Pride in every cup’ and Indigo, which prides itself on punctuality, cleverly said ‘About Time’ next to a rainbow jet stream.”
But Roy went on to wonder if “all this rainbow confetti translated into HR policy changes in these companies? Non-discrimination based on sexual orientation? Health insurance for partners? On that note,” he observed, “mum’s largely the word or rather, in this case, meme’s the word.”
And Roy isn’t the only one who is wary of how the law will influence civil society. Filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari admitted in an editorial for Indian Express8 “I am not sure how to celebrate this verdict.” Noting “that we still inhabit a society where individuals are killed for belonging to a minority (religious, sexual, caste-based or otherwise) and imprisoned for the slightest dissent,” for many people, “equal rights are far from being reached.”
As a practicing Muslim, and “self-accepting of his same-sex attraction,” Ansari wrote of the struggle to reconcile his sexual identity with his religious beliefs. Even after the decriminalization of gay sex, religious leaders continue to condemn same-sex relations and consider homosexuality a threat to traditional culture and family structure.
Ansari makes the case, however, that the Supreme Court’s decision actually “strengthens the system by letting love prevail over all”:
What may seem so unnatural to you is, in fact, a fundamental part of this beautiful universe we are all a part of. Love and freedom can never ‘prevent the progress of human race.’ It can fortify it and make us a greater nation, a richer civilization.
What the future holds for gay rights in India remains to be seen. But the strength and the courage of those who have fought for their freedom to love should be an inspiration for human rights efforts around the world.
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Saad, T., & Ent, S. (Directors), & Laconte, D. (Producer). (2010). The War on AIDS [Video file]. Prime Entertainment Group.
Veitch, A. (Director), & Wilson, R., & Veitch, A. (Producers). (2009). India [Video file]. SW Pictures.
Gill, H. (Director). (2007). Milind Soman Made Me Gay [Video file]. Frameline.
Dwivedi, O. P., & Rajan, V. G. J. (Eds.). (2016). Human Rights in Postcolonial India.
Shahani, P. (2008). Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India.
Vanita, R. (2001). Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society.
Suggested search terms researching India law on gay sex during British colonial rule:
Examples of related documents in this database:
East Indies and East India Company: Correspondence between the Government of India and the Court of Directors in transmitting or returning the Proposed Codes and Consolidation of the Laws of India, 1852
Statement of Moral and Material Progress and Condition of India, 1861-62 (Part II. Bombay, N.W. Provinces, Central Provinces, Punjab, Oude, Hyderabad, Straits Settlements, Coorg and British Burmah), 1863
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu